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Jackson Five: The Biggest Thing Since the Stones

Teenage heartthrobs play hooky: rocking New York, Detroit and Chicago on their days off from junior high

Michael Jackson
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
November 26, 1970

At one point during the Jackson 5 concert at Madison Square Garden October 19th, a ten- or eleven-year-old girl standing on the seat in front of us turned to one of her equally young friends and, grasping the other girl's hand in excitement, said, "Feel my heart!" That's what it was all about: Heart Throbs. I hadn't heard such ecstatic, passionate, I-can't-stand-it screaming since the Rolling Stones played New York's Academy of Music in 1965. Police fortified the stage, people clogged the front aisles nearly in heaps, girls climbed frantically, screeching, over seats to get closer, no one downstairs was standing still much less sitting down. It's one of those Phenomenons again, folks, and a fan letter is more appropriate than a critical report.

The Jackson 5 hadn't been in New York for over a year, during which time the group had moved (moved – on a succession of million-selling singles and three albums since the beginning of the year) from the position of a three-minute filler in the Miss Black America pageant (also at the Garden) to an act which could fill that monstrous shell on little more than a week's notice. With the promotional campaign entrusted to New York's major black station, WWRL (whose DJs appeared en masse and very together for black unity raps between acts at the concert), and one or two small newspaper ads, the show effortlessly sold out to an almost exclusively black audience. The average age of the Jackson 5 is almost 15 (Michael, the lead, is 10; Marlon, 13; Jermaine, 15; Tito, 17 and Jackie, 19). The average age of the Garden crowd seemed about the same, giving rise to an identification so total that half the audience seemed dazed – as if finding their own astonishing beauty in the mirror for the first time.

And it was astonishing. First of all, visually: the five brothers are beautiful or perhaps only cute, but they have complete control. There's none of the embarrassment of child stars, but the stunning assurance of young men. When Michael punctuated his rendition of "Who's Loving You" with a graduated series of forward crotch thrusts – a standard R&B crowd-pleasing gesture – one was struck not so much by his precocity as his perfection, his professionalism; the girls dissolved in blissful screams.

Throughout, Jackie was in the center, flanked by Marlon and Michael for nonstop dance routines, the three dancers flanked in turn by Tito on guitar and Jermaine on bass (with a drummer behind and an organist off to the right, both cousins of the 5). (An additional visual note – and black performers have always had a strong hold on the importance of the image, the gesture, the routine: the Jackson 5's clothes are about the finest rich hippy outfits I've ever seen, while remaining faithful to the color and texture preferences of black style. For instance, Marlon's brightly-colored overalls of embroidered Indian fabric over a chartreuse chiffon shirt, or Tito's enormous, hot pink shoeshine boy's cap with jumpsuit. At the same time indicative of the turn-about white influence on black music/style, and the persistence of its totally black essence.)

No sooner had they hit the audience with this immediate visual zapping than the group laid into Sly Stone's "Stand." From that point on, there was not a wasted moment.

Reversing the usual formula of keeping the hits to last, "I Want You Back" was the second song, "ABC" the third, the entire place singing shrilly along with Michael. Two of the best singles ever made, and they sounded even better smothered in screams – Michael strutting, belting the song with mike in hand. The surprises of the set, which ran about 50 minutes, were a solid rendition of "Feeling Alright" with some striking high-harmony chorus business of repeated "tweedle de de"; the lead-in rap to "Who's Loving You": "Don't nobody have the blues like I have," Michael boasts, then whips into the Smokey Robinson song with much more authority than he conveys on record; Jermaine's lead on "I Found That Girl" (the answer song to "Shop Around") and his back-up vocal work which provides a deeper counterpoint to Michael's wail; and dynamite finish that borrows the Isaac Hayes intro to "Walk On By" (rumbling guitar and "Walk On" chorus), then breaks into it with a sudden "Stop!" which begins their own hit, "The Love You Save."

On the last note, the stage was emptied, the house lights turned on and the stars reportedly in three limousines (what color?) almost before anyone could react. There was a rather frightening stampede toward the backstage area – all that energy had to go somewhere – only to fade into excited milling about. The Jackson 5 were quickly off to two more shows – holding up mirrors in Detroit and Chicago (their performances are purposely kept to a minimum and none are scheduled in the near future), before returning to their Los Angeles home and schools.

Yes, even Phenomenons go to junior high.

This story is from the November 26th, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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