Motown at 50: Myth-busting: Who really discovered the Jackson 5?

 By  Peter Lindblad
(Universal Motown)
(Universal Motown)
Diana Ross is thought by many to have discovered the Jackson 5. But longtime Motown promotions man Weldon McDougal remembers it differently.

Having just been bumped up to director of special projects at the label, McDougal was in Chicago making preparations for a Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers show. They had a record out called “Does Your Mother Know About Me?”

“So I [went] to Chicago [to] make arrangements at the club they were playing to take about four or five of the tables up front for VIP tables … things like that,” remembers McDougal. “Got it all situated so that when the main night came, which was a couple nights later, they would greet our guests.”

There to handle everything on a Wednesday, McDougal found out the club was having a talent show that evening. The winner would open for Taylor two nights later. The Jackson 5 stole the show, and they reminded McDougal of an act called The Twilights that were on the Harthon label in Philadelphia. McDougal was a partner in the label. “They used to do a little skit on James Brown, like Michael was doing,” he explains. “I thought, ‘He’s doing just what The Twilights was doing, and they used to get over.”

The patriarch of the Jackson family, Joe Jackson, was there. Eager to get his sons on Motown, Joe found out McDougal worked for the Detroit institution. “He came to me and said, ‘Listen, we would like to be on Motown. Who do we get in touch with?’ And I said, ‘Man, I’m just the promotion man.’ But let me tell you, Bobby Taylor, who was a friend … he just got an agreement with Motown that he could produce whoever he wanted and present it to the company,” says McDougal. “So he said, ‘Could you introduce me?’ And I said, ‘Well, Bobby will be here Friday.’ He said, ‘OK,” and he, on that Friday, and the guy who did Steeltown Records — he was there with Joe — and I introduced them to Bobby Taylor, and they told me at that time that they had a contract already signed by Atlantic Records. But Joe wanted to be on Motown. He felt like it was a bigger company. And that’s when I first met them.”

McDougal ran into the Jackson 5 again in New York City. Taylor was playing the Apollo Theater, and he wanted McDougal to come to the show. He did, and he found out the Jackson 5 — though they weren’t on Motown yet — was opening for Taylor. “I said, ‘Hey man, how did you do that?’ He said, ‘Oh man, don’t worry about it.’ I never knew how they did it,” says McDougal.

Again, the Jackson 5 electrified the crowd. McDougal called up radio broadcasting legend Georgie Woods to tell him about the show at the Apollo, and “ … he said, ‘OK, put the father on the phone. No, put the manager on the phone,’ which was Joe. And the next thing I knew they were playing at Philadelphia’s famed doo-wop and soul venue, the Uptown Theater.

Eventually, Taylor got the Jackson 5 to Motown. But the next time McDougal saw them, they were down in the dumps. “They were sitting on the bench at Motown and they were looking kind of glum,” says McDougal. “And I said, ‘What’s wrong with you guys?’ They said, ‘Oh, man, nothing. We’re waiting for Bobby to come out.’ You know, Bobby was trying to get them some recording time. They couldn’t get in the studio because Motown had all these acts making hits. They don’t know nothing about these little guys. And Bobby, I would say, he went all out for them. He broke a lot of the rules and regulations to try to get them to record, and finally he got them to record. And then he wanted everybody to hear the product, which took a while for that to happen.”

But it did happen. Berry Gordy heard the group and the rest is history. As for Ross, she was with Gordy when he was first introduced to them. “And she said, ‘They are some cute little guys. I like [Michael Jackson]. He’s a cute little guy. And he was like, ‘Oh, Ms. Ross, you’re so nice.’ And they just made friends,” says McDougal.

But the story doesn’t end there, of course. McDougal was charged with promoting the Jackson 5’s initial nationally released single, “I Want You Back.” As McDougal recalls, “Nobody wanted to play it. I mean, it was hard getting it on [radio].”

Not only were they a new group, but the Jackson 5 were just kids, going up against established Motown hitmakers. A meeting was held to figure out how to get past this stumbling block. “I don’t know if I said it or not, but we came to a point where they said, ‘Let’s make the Jackson 5 Diana Ross’ protégés,’” says McDougal. Ross was then photographed sitting on a stool with the Jackson 5 around here. It was made into a postcard McDougal took to radio stations while conducting a second round of promotional stops for the record.

“I would give this postcard out saying, ‘They’re Diana Ross’ protégés,” says McDougal. “For some reason, it got screwed around where the press said Diana Ross discovered them. And when that word got around, more guys started playing the record. So I wasn’t going to say that she didn’t discover them.”

Why let the truth get in the way of a good story, and a good investment?

One thought on “Motown at 50: Myth-busting: Who really discovered the Jackson 5?

  1. Weldon McDougal is a Motown legend and promoter. He does not get the credit he deserves. He is a personal friend of mine and I would like for music lovers to know that he just got out of the hospital so say a prayer for him that he gets well. Thanks to all of the Motown fans out there who remember Weldon and the Jackson Five.

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