Joe Jackson, the strict patriarch who took Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 out of the Gary, Indiana ghettos and made them internationally famous, died early Wednesday morning at the age of 89. Jackson had been battling terminal cancer in a Los Angeles hospital. Brian Oxman, a close friend of Jackson’s, confirmed Jackson’s death to Rolling Stone.
“We are deeply saddened by Mr. Jackson’s passing and extend our heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Katherine Jackson and the family,” John Branca and John McClain, co-executors of the Estate of Michael Jackson, said in a statement. “Joe was a strong man who acknowledged his own imperfections and heroically delivered his sons and daughters from the steel mills of Gary, Indiana to worldwide pop superstardom. Mr. Jackson’s contributions to the history of music are enormous. We had developed a warm relationship with Joe in recent years and will miss him tremendously.”
“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Joseph Jackson,” Motown Record founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. “I remember back when he brought his talented kids to Motown. I could see that they were well disciplined, and that he and his wife, Katherine, had instilled in them a very strong work ethic. Without Joe ’s early commitment to his family, the world may have never experienced the musical gift of the Jackson 5 and the world’s greatest entertainer, Michael Jackson. The entire Gordy family extends our condolences to all the Jacksons, their friends and fans.”
If not for Jackson, who worked as a craneman in a Gary steel mill, the Jackson 5 almost certainly wouldn’t have signed to Motown Records in the Sixties and made iconic hits such as “I Want You Back” and “ABC.” And if not for Jackson, who was still managing his son when “Off the Wall” came out in 1979, Michael Jackson may have never become the King of Pop. During the Thriller era, Michael would split with his father, eventually accusing him of severe childhood abuse, including beatings with iron cords. Jackson, who demanded that his nine children call him “Joseph,” later clarified in a television interview: “I whipped him with a switch and a belt. I never beat him — you beat somebody with a stick.” Several of his children, including Jermaine, Marlon and Janet, have credited their father’s strictness for keeping them focused and out of trouble.
Born in Dermott, Arkansas, Joseph Walter Jackson suffered his own physical abuse from both parents and teachers. He later moved to Oakland, California to follow his divorced father, but wound up in his mother’s hometown of East Chicago, near Gary. He met Katherine Jackson there and married her in 1949; their first child, Rebbie, was born in 1950. Early on in Northwest Indiana, Joe was in an amateur blues band called the Falcons. As the story goes, his son Tito pulled Joe’s guitar out of the closet and broke a string. After punishing Tito, Joe listened to him play and the family band was born.
Joe Jackson assembled the Jackson 5’s early rehearsals in the living room of their small home at 2300 Jackson Street in Gary, then schmoozed with local promoters, radio DJs, studio owners and record executives to try and get his kids exposure. The group soon signed with a small Gary record label, Steeltown; Jackson hawked their first single, “Big Boy,” out of his car on the streets of Gary. “The more we practiced, the better they got, and I knew that all the trouble I went to would be worth it — my children would be something huge! And I was right,” he wrote in his German-language 2004 memoir Die Jacksons. “Within three years, they were appearing in clubs, and by the end of the Sixties, they were earning so much that I could give up my jobs.”
Joe managed the Jacksons throughout their early years, agreeing to a constrictive Motown deal (later suing the company with his sons), then upgrading to CBS Records in 1975. Many record executives and musicians who worked with him noted that his kids seemed distant or fearful while he was around. In his biography Moonwalk, Michael wrote, “He looked out for both our interests and his. To this day I’m so thankful he didn’t try to take all our money for himself the way so many parents of child stars have. . . . But I still don’t know him, and that’s sad for a son who hungers to understand his own father.”
Michael, according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s biography The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, never forgave his father for allegedly cheating on his wife Katherine with a number of women, including one who gave birth to his daughter Joh’Vonnie in 1974. Father and son had a post-Thriller falling-out in the pages of Billboard: Joe suggested Michael needed “white help” to assist him with CBS execs, and Michael responded by saying he was “color-blind” and “to hear him talk like that turns my stomach.”
In his later years, Joe continued his unique wheeling and dealing to make money for himself and, occasionally, his children. Not long before Michael agreed to what would have been his final arena shows, in London, Joe worked with indie concert promoters to line up a Jackson family concert in Dallas for millions of dollars. He contested Michael’s will, arguing against the legitimacy of estate executors John Branca and John McClain after Michael died in June 2009. (A judge dismissed Jackson’s claim.) Many suggested he was callous by promoting his record label in interviews immediately following Michael’s death. But with Joe Jackson, the bad always came with the good.
“We liked being together and singing together,” Jackson told Soul magazine in 1970, just as “Jacksonmania” was taking off. “It kept the boys interested at home and kept them from running wild in the streets at night. In our neighborhood, lots of children got into trouble — some into bad trouble. I didn’t want that kind of life for my kids.”