By Peter Lindblad
Here was a seemingly rag-tag group of siblings — the oldest being Jackie at age 17 — from Gary, Ind., with a strict tyrant of a father and a devout Jehovah’s Witness of a mother, that danced up a storm and sang like angels. And they did it so professionally that they were about to outshine many of Motown’s biggest adult stars.
Everyone who’d seen them was dazzled, and the littlest of them all, in particular, had tongues wagging.
Smokey Robinson’s wife, Claudette, wondered what all the fuss was about. She would find out for herself.
“They had finished their first audition, and, of course, it was the talk of the entire studio about these kids, who were absolutely fantastic, Michael being the most talented of all of them,” recalls Claudette.
The Jackson exceeded all the accolades that had been relayed to her. Claudette was especially taken with young Michael, who, even the tender age of 9, was a star in the making.
“First of all, to see a young man with that much soul and the ability to sing a song as though he had experienced that part of life … because usually you’re coming from a point of reference when you’re singing, not always, but to get the true feelings from that song … for him to be able to sing like that with that much feeling, it was phenomenal,” says Claudette, who was part of The Miracles between 1956 and 1964.
Shelly Berger also needed to see with his own eyes the burgeoning phenomenon. It was Gordy, the head of Motown, who cajoled Berger into driving to label headquarters to get an early glimpse of the new messiah.
“All I know is that I got a call one night from him, and [he] said, ‘Look, we signed this new act, and I’ve got them in the recording studio right now, and I need you to come down here. You’re going to be managing them,’” recalls Berger. “And I said, ‘Why do I have to come down there? If you tell me I’m managing them, that’s fine.’ ‘No, no. You’ve got to come down to the studio and you’ve got to see them.’”
Berger had no idea what he was signing up for.
“So I said, ‘Okay,’” relates Berger. “I went down to the recording studio, and there were these five little kids. And Mr. Gordy said, ‘This is Shelly Berger. He manages Diana Ross and The Supremes. He manages The Temptations. Now he’s going to manage you. Show him what you can do.’ And Michael proceeded to sing — maybe it was ‘Loving You’ — and I almost fell on my behind. I said, ‘Oh my God. Sammy Davis is reborn.’”
No, Michael wasn’t the second coming of the Candyman. He was something else entirely.
Growing up in Motown
That fateful day at Motown led to a fruitful, if somewhat blustery, relationship between the legendary soul and R&B label and the Jacksons.
From 1968 to 1976, the year the Jackson 5 left Motown to ink a deal with Epic Records, the group — featuring brothers Jackie (born Sigmund Jackson, May 4, 1951), Tito (guitar, born Toriano Jackson, Oct. 15, 1953), Jermaine (bass, lead vocals, born Dec. 11, 1954), Marlon (born March 12, 1957), and Michael (lead vocals, born Aug. 29, 1958) — was a hitmaking dynamo.
Their youthful exuberance and infectious pop-infused soul made them an immediate sensation, and Gordy saw their potential right away. Immediately, Motown’s marketing arm swung into action, and though Gordy had lost the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team, he had replaced them with the Corporation — with Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Deke Richards. They were charged with providing the Jackson 5 immediate hits, and Berger would take care of the rest.
“Mr. Gordy came to me and he said, ‘What do you think we should do with them?’ says Berger. “And I said, ‘Look, I’m going to tell you something. Each artist that we have managed, we have built slowly and cautiously to the top of the heap, meaning The Supremes and The Temptations … you know, top money for anybody at that time was $25,000 a night per concert. And I said, ‘Do you think you can get me three #1 records?’ And Mr. Gordy said, ‘I already have them.’ And Berry Gordy is one of the few people in life [where] if he says he’s got three #1 records, he has three #1 records. There’s no hype involved.”
Confident in Gordy’s ability to live up to his promises, Berger set the Jackson 5’s price for a live gig.
“So I said, ‘Okay. Here’s what I’d like to do: We’re keeping the Jackson 5 off the road until we get $25,000 a night for the Jackson 5,’” explains Berger. “And he said, ‘Do you think you can do that?’ I said, ‘We’ll do it.’ And through a very circuitous route, we got there. The first time the Jackson 5 played The Forum and the Cow Palace — the Cow Palace in San Francisco and The Forum in Los Angeles — they got $25,000 a night. We were sold out both places.”
True to his word, Gordy delivered a trio of chart-topping hits, starting with “I Want You Back,” released Oct. 7, 1969. Written by The Corporation, the song, originally penned for Gladys Knight, hit #1 on the pop and R&B charts. In December of that year, Motown rolled out the first Jackson 5 album, Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5.
Working quickly, it took the Jackson 5 less than six months to release their second album, 1970’s ABC, and its first two singles, “ABC” and “The Love You Save,” followed “I Want You Back” straight up to #1. Striking while the iron was hot, two more long-players, Third — which featured the smash ballad “I’ll Be There” — and The Jackson 5 Christmas Album, were also released in 1970. Gordy had gone above and beyond his promises — not only had the Jackson 5’s first three singles reached #1, but a fourth had done likewise. And “I’ll Be There” had the most staying power of them all, sitting on its perch at #1 for five weeks.
Propelled into the national consciousness in the early 1970s, the Jackson 5 were being groomed as teen idols. Merchandising reached a fever pitch with dolls and other toys, and there was even a cartoon on ABC in the summer of 1971. 16 magazine was there for the ride as the band of brothers duked it out with the Osmonds for the hearts of young girls everywhere.
At the time, Randi Reisfeld as a junior editor at the teen magazine. “We did articles monthly on both groups. They shared covers,” she says. The Jackson 5 was the first black group the magazine promoted as teen idols.
“That was the first time we got the chance to subtly let it be OK for caucasian girls to think about going out with or being friends with black boys,” says Reisfeld. “It was all innocent fantasy, just thinking about going for walks on the beach or someone to pour your heart out to.”
Interestingly, in the beginning, it was Jermaine who was being prepped for solo superstardom, not Michael.
“[Jermaine] was the right age,” says Reisfeld. “He was 13, which was more the age of our readers. It would have been odd for them to have a crush on a 10-year-old.”
Still, it was Michael’s golden throat that demanded the ultimate in protection from the Jacksons’ handlers — and there were many. “It was interesting. Mike always wore a scarf around his next, and he always spoke in a whisper,” says Reisfeld.
All the boys were soft-spoken, according to Reisfeld, and she remembers them being very cooperative, with “ … not a lot of personality. They were not there for fun. It was just another obligation to fulfill.”
Michael, specifically, seemed downtrodden. “I always knew him as this poor kid, this puppet, who was being bullied and bossed around by the powers that be,” says Reisfeld. Those powers, which often butted heads about the direction of the Jacksons’ career, included father Joe and Berry Gordy.
Like Reisfeld, Danny Fields, who went on to become the manager of The Ramones in 1975, once worked as editor of 16 magazine. The only time he ever spoke to Michael was a time in the early or mid 1970s when the two found themselves sitting together, and Michael told Fields that he had been making his own clothes.
“He said, ‘Would you like to see what I just made?’” recalls Fields. Michael went and got a big suitcase and picked up a studded leather vest.
“He waved it around and said, ‘Do you like it?’” says Fields. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Do you think it looks too busy?’ That’s a word I hadn’t heard since my mother used it … busy. He was so eager for the approval of an older male. I don’t think he got it from his brothers, and he certainly didn’t get it from his father — I can only surmise.”
As quiet and unassuming as he was offstage, Reisfeld saw the other side of Michael at a Jackson 5 concert.
“You wouldn’t know it was the same kid,” she says. “I’ve been to hundreds of concerts, and I think I’ve got a pretty good gut as far as being able to tell what is magic and what is not. He electrified the crowd. You really knew this was something different, something magical.”