The taxi driver kept the cab moving in straight lines, despite 50-mph winds. Street lamps and signs, strung across intersections, danced like diapers on a stormy clothesline. Welcome to Columbus, Ohio. The cabbie was in an obliging good mood, even stopping the meter at $2.80–the usual fare for a ride from Port Columbus airport to the Sheraton–to do a little sightseeing, driving through the rich part of town, the high-rise senior citizens’ apartment towers, and a block away, the “colored section.”
“Here’s where you can get a piece of tail for ten bucks,” he explained, “anything you want.” He slowed down dramatically as we passed the bars and grills–clean, actually, with the grime either covered by snow or blown away. “Here’s where they had that riot a few years back,” he said grimly. “I just thought you’d like to see this, since you’re a writer and all.” Silence.
I brought up football, to get the talk going again, and his mind must’ve registered Kent State, or its aftermath, the disruptions at nearby Ohio State. He grunted and dismissed Ohio’s high football ranking last season. We’d arrived at the hotel already anyway. He looked over his seat and explained how Ohio is regulated by the State Liquor Control. Stores are closed after 9, and it was past midnight. “If there’s anything you want, I can get it for you. Or just ask any of the cab drivers. We’ll be right here.” Thanks, I said.
“Oh,” and he took out a billfold and flashed a color photo of a “colored” woman. “I can get this for you, too. She’s a nice one.”
* * *
Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher takes his place before a lectern in the Council chambers of Gary, Indiana. The mayor is waiting for the film crew to get their lights placed, and for the buzz to die down a little. It is Jackson 5 Day this January 31st in Elbert Gary’s little old city; in Music Man town, soul music rules. They were going to helicopter the Jackson 5 in and parade them to their old house at 23rd and Jackson Streets, and the mayor was going to re-name the street “Jackson 5 Street” for the week, and even lay a cornerstone in front of the house where Joe and Kathy Jackson raised their family of nine.
And then there’d be the ceremonies at City Hall. But snow, 40-mph winds, and zero-degree weather made it so that, all of a sudden, we’re at City Hall. It had taken about ten minutes to fill the room, some 200 Christmas-dressed kids towing parents and guardians up from the library-ish lobby into this high-ceilinged chamber. And now a dozen teenagers enter through a special door, to the tables the councilmen usually use for meetings. They sit in a neat row behind the mayor, in front of the Gary banner: City On The Move. City of steel–US Steel–and waterway transportation, and trucking, and rail; of a past of graft and corruption, and of plentiful black labor. And, now, a black mayor. The city emblem, on the flag and on the podium, is a bucket of hot metal being poured onto the globe, like gravy onto a mashed potato.
Hatcher is running for re-election in this 55 percent black city; he is generally popular, but running hard, anyway, and the J-5 are here to help, with two benefit shows today and tonight. They were in Columbus for two shows the day before. They and the mayor are all old buddies, according to all the stories in Soul Magazine. The Jackson kids all played youth-league baseball, and Hatcher, as a city official who loved kids, supported various ball teams.
It was at a campaign benefit concert for candidate Hatcher–where the Jackson 5 performed–where Hatcher introduced the boys to Diana Ross; Diana rushed the word to Berry Gordy, and that’s how Motown landed them and moved them into an immense home in the Hollywood hills–and into the top hierarchy of soul, pop, and–if you must–bubblegum music.
* * *
Dear Michael: I have a problem. I’ve been in LOVE with you ever since I set my eyes on you. I would like to see you in person. My birthday is March 3rd and I will be 11. I hope I am not too old for you.
Carla Hall, Los Angeles
* * *
There’re these letters to Soul, the primary music publication for young blacks. The letters section is the most popular part of the paper, Soul discovered by survey. Here is where people voice their choices; this is where Aretha was defended and where Motown is so often denounced–Where is David Ruffin? Why is Flo Ballard, one of the original Supremes, slaving away as a domestic maid? Why doesn’t Motown take care of her? Why no publicity for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas?
Now, there is a full page each issue for a “Jackson 5 Mailbag.” Now, while the grown-ups–the teenagers and young adults–debate and carry on about Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis and interracial marriages, the J-5 fans have their own big korner.
* * *
Dear Soul: I want to say how proud all us kids are to have a group like the J-5 today. It wasn’t too long ago when kids got on the stage and were laughed at.
The J-5 can communicate with young and old, Black and white. It takes a great recording company like Motown to have guys like these.
C. E., New York
* * *
Mayor Hatcher takes just a minute to say why we’re all here today, and the kids, straining away from mothers, brothers, and sisters, are cheering with each mention of the J-5. A three-second, high-pitched, fast-dipping YAAAyyy, just like at the concerts.
“Behind me here are the winners of the Jackson 5 poster contest and essay contest,” the Mayor says. “Each winning student will receive a prize that I am sure millions of young Americans would love to have. They will be able to have their pictures taken with the Jackson 5.”
Mayor Hatcher’s even sounding like a Boss Soul DJ. A heartfelt OOOooohhh swells up and wafts up to the Mayor. There’s real envy in these 200 little faces.
Just before the Jackson 5 walked in, the kids were angling for the best view from their pew-seats in the spectator section of the council room, sitting on patient parents’ laps, standing, leaning against the back of the row in front, some of them with Instamatics poised. A couple of girls in the second row figure out I’m press, languorously taking up a couple of front-row spaces in the press pew, and there is a deluge of hellos to deliver to the J-5: Rebecca for Jermaine, Rochelle Williams and Sheryl for Michael, Sheryl also for Tito, and Margo for Marlon.
The ones they love enter, dressed in suits and sports jackets, mod but moderately so, looking pretty much straight ahead to the Mayor. “Lookit them in their suits…Oooh…” First, as promised, they take pictures of the brothers with the contest winners, and, just like in a high school assembly, the winners take turns introducing themselves and their schools. Partisan cheers go up as each one passes by. “…And I’m from Roosevelt High.” “Right on!” They shake hands with each of the J-5. Tito and Michael exchange power shakes with some of the winners–the ones who offer their hands for that grip. They’re at home. Their father, Joe Jackson, misty-eyed at the heroes’ reception, says a short thank-you. Another cheer; the kids consider him a hero, too. “Lay it on, Jackson, lay it on!”
The Jackson 5 goes through it all with consummate grace. They accept a flag that has flown atop the state capitol, a gift from a Congressman. They get a plaque from Indiana University, for inspiring “hope for the young.” Mayor Hatcher himself presents plaque keys to his city, so proud, today, “that the Jackson 5 has carried the name of Gary throughout the country and the world, and made it a name to be proud of.”
Each of the Jackson 5 steps up for a few words. Tito sums it up: “We’re glad to be home. There’s no place like home.”
* * *
Backstage at Veteran Memorial Auditorium in Columbus, Ohio, maybe 15 seconds before the call to go on stage, and Michael Jackson is making a request to Tito, who’s diddling away on his electric guitar, still plugged into the portable amp. “Play Brenda and the Tabulations’ song,” he pleads. Tito, his serious face defiant beyond its 17 years, continue on the ‘blues riff he’s found, ‘way down at the bottom of the neck. Jermaine, on bass, is playing along, singing in his new falsetto:
It’s a sha-a-ame…the way you hurt me, Sha-a-ame…ooh-ooh-ooh…
Michael seems restless. He’s posed with his brothers for the local black paper–that’s become a dressing room ritual now–and he’s done his vocal exercise, hitting the high notes in little burps while Jermaine is matching him on base guitar. Now he’s hungry again as 9:30 p.m. approaches, and he asks Jack Nance, the road manager, for some food–especially a hot dog. Too late by a second; a man steps into the room and calls, “Let’s go.”
Out in the corridor, you can hear cousins Ronnie Rancifer and Johnny Jackson on electric piano and drums driving into the first of a dozen repeating bars to introduce “Stand.”
Time to face 4,000 shrieks, and there is this remarkable lack of tension. The Jackson 5 could be paperboys going off to do their routes.
Before the first show, Michael poked around the dull, well-lit room in his stage outfit–part Afro sharp, part nursery school, orange top with little green turtles the design, and a toga-style shoulder cape. He drummed sticks onto a copy of Rolling Stone on the table facing the mirror, pouring a steady rain of wood onto James Taylor’s glaring face, until Marlon grabbed the magazine. He poked around some more; reminded cousin Ronnie to remember his cue list of songs; watched people come and go. He is not a center of attention. “Let’s go,” and by the time the cousins hit the “Stand” riff for the twelfth time, the Jackson 5 are up the ramp, past the columns of curtains and the first wave of screams, and lined up–tall Jackie in the center, Tito and Jermaine, behind their guitars, alongside, and Marlon and Michael on the wingtips. On a count, each puts one hand on the left hip, the other hand lightly cupping the right ear, and gets the right leg stomping, highstep style–all, of course, in unison, until Michael breaks away to take the mike and put his own voice above the screams.
One talk with Joe Jackson and you’re sprung back two musical generations, back past the beginnings of rhythm and blues, to Chicago in 1951, when bebop and blues were the music staples of the black man. In the Forties, white musicians had turned jazz into a tepid “swing”; the answer, in the black urban areas, was “hard” bebop, mixing the hard-edged city blues style, reflecting the migration of Negroes to the north and Midwest, with the big band sound popular in the Southwest–in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Oklahoma.
Joe Jackson was one of the migrant blacks, settling into steel town to work and raise a family. He worked as a crane operator, “but I always wanted to be in entertainment.” On weekends, he sang and played guitar with one of the many groups that called themselves the Falcons. “It was a local group out of Chicago, around 1951,” he said. “We played mostly colleges and things–bars. It was a blues thing, which is what everybody was getting into.”
But he had to keep working to support his fast-growing family. “The boys would listen to the things we were trying to do, at rehearsals, and there were always instruments laying around. If you’re around something a lot, you’re gonna take part in it.” Soon, Mr. Jackson faded away from the Falcons scene and turned the house over to his sons’ music. “We went overboard. My wife and I would fight, because I invested in new instruments that cost so much. When a woman’s a good mother and finds all the money going into instruments, she doesn’t like it.”
Things worked out, obviously. As Bob Jones, a publicist at Motown, explained, “The average black family living off a menial job can be as well off as a middle class white family. You eat collard greens and chitlins, and you can take a penny and stretch it out.”
Papa Joe went out and scouted other groups, bringing back ideas on how to choreograph his sons. “It always looked good; the little ones on the side and the tall one in the center. And their voices blend well because of the family thing. There’s a basic tone quality that’s common to all of them.”
First, it was the three oldest sons, with Jermaine singing lead. Two sisters, Maureen (the oldest of the Jackson children) and Latoya, played violin and clarinet (the instrument Mrs. Jackson played) outside the group. Shortly after Marlon and Michael joined, the group won a talent show at Roosevelt High and, the next two years, won regional talent competitions. And the rest is in Soul magazine.
(Oh, yes. There’s Randy, 8, who plays congas and is just about ready to make it the Jackson 6. And Janet, 4, in the wings, still learning words.)
What happens at Motown, in the studios? Motown acts usually won’t talk about record production, as if some conspiracy transpires in secret rooms in Detroit and Hollywood. Few people know who actually decides what songs, what producers, what musicians make up “The Sound of Young America.”
I mean, when I heard the first several Jackson 5 singles on the radio–”I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “One More Chance”–I had thought, crazy; Diana Ross and the Family Stone. All the albums are gems. On the first, Michael turns Smokey’s “Who’s Loving You” into a noodly little blues number; on the second, he leaves his band and orchestra behind on the Stevie Wonder tune, “Don’t Know Why I Love You.” Michael is causing heartbreaks while the Osmonds are still learning the ABC’s of white-skinned soul. And all the albums are planned, Motown’s publicist says, with the black market in mind. “We try and have at least two hits on every album.” The third album includes “I’ll Be There” and “Mama’s Pearl,” which was re-mixed for its release as a single. Now, Michael’s in the studios with his producer, working on his tracks for the next album.
From what Joe Jackson says, the deal with the Jackson 5 apparently works like this: He has raised, trained, and furnished them; Motown will now do the rest. For example: “What is your role in the studio?” “My role is getting the boys out to the studios. I’m the legal guardian. They listen to me 100 percent.” There is, however, a road manager from Dick Clark Productions and a young Motown employee, Suzanne DePasse, handling choreography and selection of stage numbers.
“Who writes the songs?”
“I’ve written some songs, the boys have written some.” But none of them have yet been recorded, and many of the tunes on the three albums (not counting the Christmas record) are by “The Corporation,” who is credited as arrangers and producers, along with Hal Davis.
Who’re they? “The Corporation,” Jackson says, “is the company itself–people, producers within Motown. They’re called ‘the clan’ back in Detroit.”
Here in the suite the Jackson 5 are using for a parlor at their hotel in Columbus, the most noise is being made by several men, white men; the Jackson 5 are scattered among a couple of suites on the floor (where, by the elevator, two security guards keep watch for persistent fans). A couple of them are playing cards; nearby sit partially-drunk glasses of milk and a bucket of the remains of fried chicken. There is hard liquor, but it’s being guzzled by the various promoters hanging around. Joe Jackson, watching the card game, remains quiet, except to help herd his sons over to talk. They do interviews like most boys get their hair cut, worried if they move their mouth the wrong way they’ll get nicked.
But they are as uniformly amiable as they are bashful.
Jackie, 19, talks about going into business school with an eye to “maybe take care of the financial part of the group someday.” For now, “all I do is enjoy what I do on stage. It’s something like a hobby.” Tito, 17, is more into music (Jackie dropped out of a high school music course and is learning to read charts now from Jermaine, Tito, and cousin Ronnie). “In the studios, I sing bass and play some lead guitar, and I’m going into music theory.” In school, he learned to play the violin, bass fiddle, and saxophone. And–pointing to himself, to credit himself as teacher–he can play some piano, too.
Tito is perhaps the most serious musician of the Jackson 5. He listens to Hendrix and BB King records. “Ever since I started playing guitar, about three years ago. And I have one BB King record about as old as me. It’s my father’s.” What about studio work? “Sometimes we like to go, sometimes not… Repeating songs over and over–that’s a drag, man. It’s hard.”
Tito shook his head slowly, like an old bluesman reminiscing, when I asked about the old days, seven years ago, when Michael first joined: “It was hard. Money was short. It was a drag.”
Jermaine Jackson, 16, laughs easily, with an open face and smile. Right after the initial introductions, while everybody else was watching TV or playing the card game Tonk, he walked over, looked at my cassette recorder, and asked, “Wanna talk right now?” And he sat against the headboard of a bed and told about school–how he and his brothers go to a private school in Encino, five classrooms and 29 students; how a tutor, assigned by the state board of education, follows them on their short tours to keep them doing schoolwork.
Jermaine played bass on a guitar before getting a bass guitar. “I started guitar at 11, before we became professional. That’s when I was 14.” Next, Jermaine wants to learn piano. And he’s writing songs–”all kinds; a lot of short songs. I’ve got some saved up… for when we go bankrupt.” I asked Jermaine to name me some of his favorite artists, people I wouldn’t guess (like the Motown acts). He smiled. “Barbra Streisand…and Bread. Three Dog Night. I met them at the Forum when we were there.”
Marlon, 13, is considered the quietest of the Jackson 5. On stage, Michael has the spotlight, but Marlon is as visible as any corner of a polished diamond. Those smooth moves he and his brothers execute while Michael works the front lines–left hand up, right arm and hand joining left, both arms slashed diagonally past the hip; a spin and a grab of the mike stand with one hand, taking it down to knee level and singing into it–Marlon looks the best at it. Vocally, his singing goes into the harmonic mix–he sings no leads–but once in a while, you hear him.
After a rousing “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” while the electric piano and drums and Michael swirl to a finish, Marlon stays at his mike and lets out three happy whoops. At home, Marlon shares a room with Michael and Randy, and they play basketball and pool and swim. Marlon likes to watch cartoons Saturday mornings with Michael, and, like Mike, he’s thinking of an acting career.
At home they take turns cleaning rooms and washing dishes; backstage and in hotel rooms they sing and play cards and fight and generally ignore the adults; in public they are clean-cut, cordial and unassuming. There really are no secrets. Tito looks the toughest, so, over a sandwich at the coffee shop in Chicago’s airport, I asked him about what the Jackson 5 were saying to kids–especially to black kids. Peace and freedom and unity, right? Or are you singing these songs just to entertain? Tito thought it over, worked an overload of lettuce into his mouth, and swallowed. “Just to entertain,” he said.
(“Just two things you gotta promise me,” Bob Jones had said when we first approached Motown about a J-5 piece. “No questions about drugs or politics. They aren’t into that and we’d just rather lay off it.”)
Michael Jackson is 11 years old, 75 pounds. And he’s sung lead on almost all the Jackson 5’s songs–six hit singles in 1970 (counting black and white surveys); three gold albums (plus a Christmas LP that is sure to play forever, like Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” or Harry Simeone’s “Little Drummer Boy”). And two hit singles so far this three-month-old year. It is not all that amazing.
The Five Stairsteps, who had “Ooh Child” last year, are a family act who were about the same age as the Jackson 5 when they began some five years ago; the Osmonds, even if now they’re only duplicating the J-5 sound, were around and on TV back in 1963 on the Andy Williams Show, when Donny first pitched his pipes into the Brothers’ barbershop sound. And, from Oakland, little Dion is a drummer, singer, and dancer who’s been knocking around at clubs and lounges for several years now. He’s nine years old today.
Still, here you have the chief child, the new model, the successor to James Brown and the Tempts and Sly, the cherubic incarnation of their sum; of all the spirit that is meant when Brown does his all-out dance-sweat-and-relate act, when the Miracles or the Tops line up, all dressed alike, and do their black-is-beautiful drill team maneuvers, tall, proud, and smiling, sounding like rivulets of soul. Or when Sly and the Family Stone, five blacks and two whites, all outfitted different but funkadelic, come on stomping, raising you up, by flashes, to a feeling of exhilaration and to some synergistic sense, all of you there in your $5.50 seat section, of potential power and present glory.
Color, flash, and a Mayfield of messengers, drumming, pounding, screeching, blowing out the word. The Jackson 5 is this and more: They are peers. Stars, untouchable in their sleek black Fleetwood Cadillacs that roar off behind police escorts after all their shows. Yet peers, backstage in Gary, Indiana, looking for old friends to drop by.
One of them sheepishly walks in, and Marlon and Michael brighten. The friend is dressed OK, but he’s not in pink top and Indian rainbow-print slacks with puffballs down to the bottom of the bell, like Marlon. He’s checking Marlon out, stands back a little, you know, but Marlon just wants to find out about all the old friends from grammar school, and they talk a little, hands reach out, slap, slap, and the friend leaves with a power salute.
Eight, 10-year-old kids in Columbus, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana, where we visited; in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where I work–they love and emulate the Jackson 5. There’s a bit of fantasy–the kind of gush white teenies direct at Bobby Sherman or David Cassidy (of the TV Partridge Family). But there isn’t that real distance. It is a style of clothing, for one thing.
Pre-teen blacks are blossoming out in Afros and fringed bells and Apple hats. And it is different from that Hollywood notion of fashion for fad’s sake; hot pants for a hot minute.
This is an approach to brothers and to others; in a way, a statement. It is a feeling of camaraderie, of the kind of spirit that bought Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young so close to so many last year; it is a feeling that, in white circles, might best be counter parted by Grand Funk and its “brotherhood” kind of magnetism. It is in the posters that the kids in Gary drew and cut out and painted for the J-5 contest. “You can make it if you try.” “On Top with our Jackson 5.” And it is in the songs–in the first album. “Stand” (There’s a midget standing tall, and the giant beside him about to fall Stand/ stand/ stand); in the second, “Make Way for the Young Folks.” In the third, “I’m on your side, when things get rough and friends just can’t be found, like a bridge over troubled water.” On the Christmas album, along with the rousing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and the most soulful “Little Drummer Boy” ever, Michael sang an anti-war song. “Someday at Christmas” came on sounding like it might be another “White Christmas,” until the high, earnest voice sang out:
Someday at Christmas there won’t be boys
Playing with bombs like kids play with toys
Like one December, our hearts will see
A world where men are free
Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars
When we have learned what
Christmas is for
When we have found what life’s really worth
There’ll be peace on earth
James Brown says the same thing–sitting on a stool looking very gentlemanly on a TV talk show; Little Richard says the same thing, his upstretched arms and fingers forming three V-signs all together. So does Diana Ross. But it is different when Michael Jackson says it. He’s not even a grownup yet, and he knows.
Michael Jackson, round eyes, round dimples on a round face, under a round Afro, has placed himself on a couch in the hotel suite and looks up, to indicate he’s ready to be interviewed. He’s done his two shows, and he’s been relaxing–playing cards, doing card tricks, and waiting for the inevitable pillow fight. So his brown eyes dart around now and then, watching for the first move.
Backstage in Columbus that day–and he must’ve heard this line a dozen times–when a columnist for the local black paper patted him paternally and tried: “I heard you were really a midget, man, that you’re actually 30 years old”–Mike gave him this side-swipe smile, like ha-ha, very original. Michael began singing with his brothers when he turned four.
The first show “was a hospital we did. They had a big Santa Claus.” Another early show was at the Big Top; it was a shopping center. “We were doing it free so the people could hear the music.”
Now, seven years later, Michael is playing drums and learning the piano. And, in the Motown studios in Hollywood, backed vocally by his brothers and instrumentally by the usual full crew of Motown session men, he sings lead. “It takes me about two hours to do one whole song,” he says. “I do my part first, then they do theirs.” The first songs Michael remembers singing were the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” and the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” both from 1961.
Today, on stage, Michael does a talk bit about how he feels the blues. It is not convincing; the Jackson 5 are not great actors just yet. But, with their median age still 15, they have paid dues.
“Before Motown,” Mike recalled, “we used to do five shows a night for theaters” and clubs around Chicago and Gary where their youth was no barrier, doing the circuit with groups like the Emotions and the Chi-Lites.
The Jacksons also worked in Missouri and Wisconsin, and even in Arizona once. They got there by bus. Michael joined his brothers when he turned four; soon he perfected a James Brown imitation and made it his routine. “It was amazing,” says Suzanne DePasse, who plans and coordinates the J-5’s stage show. “He had it down to a T”–every twist, turn, jerk, and thrust.
“And I had to work to get him away from a lot of it.”
Mike is a skilled mimic. He watches TV cartoons and can sketch profiles; now he wants to take art in college. “Also I’d like to be an actor, like the kinds of things Sidney Poitier does.” And when I told Michael he was a good blues singer, he laughed. “I learned by ear.”
By the time Diana Ross introduced the Jackson 5 to her world–at the Daisy discotheque in Beverly Hills in September 1969–the group was reported to have “a repertoire that ranges from Ray Charles to Liberace.” Soul magazine didn’t elaborate, but Michael, talking about his favorite kind of music, made it sound almost plausible. “I like classical music,” he said, “and soft listening music. Sometimes I sit and listen to soft stuff like Johnny Mathis. I like Ray Charles. And most of the time, I listen to Three Dog Night.”
And what about the screaming audiences? Jackson 5 did their first major tour last fall, hitting the big arenas–the Gardens in Boston, Cincinnati, and New York. They set an attendance record by drawing 12,275 to a show in Greensboro, North Carolina. They had a majestic triumph in home territory–at the Chicago Amphitheatre before 19,570. Kids fainted in Cincinnati and Boston, rushing through fences and human barriers to reach the stage. Michael Jackson, the understanding diplomat: “If it weren’t for the screaming, it wouldn’t be exciting. The kids help us by being the way they are.”
* * *
The black audience. At the Greek Theatre, summer 1970, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles are in mid-show, and they whip off their gold-sequined toreador jackets, all in one sweeping motion, and the kids are screaming, and Smokey moves from the monkey into a medley of the hits – “Mirage,” and “Tracks of My Tears,” and “Emotion”–and when it all ends, and they’ve gone through all those movements–fluttering hands pointing to those tear-tracks, synchronized spins ending with arms stretched out in a “safe” sign, all that shit – the crowd goes: YAAAAyyy. Three seconds, and it dies.
I couldn’t figure it out. Now, here are the Commodores, opening act on the J-5 show. They’re a run-of-the-mill seven-man soul ensemble from Tuskegee, Alabama, where they all go to a, ahem, Negro college. Still, they can get down to it, working hard, doing all that Sly stuff. The drummer stretches out “I’m gonna add a little organ” with rhetoric & blues questions:
“Would you like to hear my organ?”
He jumps up and down on his wooden altar.
“You like that?”
And at the end of it, when they’ve sung the Edwin Starr song. “War” (Temptations style, of course), and gone through their Hollywood-transplant nightclub things like “Wichita Lineman,” and sung Sly’s “Higher,” and flashed the perfunctory peace signs, when the MC from the soul station has loped onto the stage to yell their names over and over again: YAAAyyy. Three seconds.
“Well,” a black promoter explains after two Jackson 5 shows, “the black audience participates so much more during the song. They’re screaming and dancing and answering – it’s like in church – so when the song ends, there ain’t no more.”
Church. Here comes the next warm-up, Yvonne Fair, charging out like a raging bull, short, stout, with large breasts snug against each other under a thin white outfit that goes down to her belly, where long white fringes take over and skitter all over her hot panties.
Women’s libido. She earns 10, maybe 12 seconds of yays with “25 Miles” by Edwin Starr (Motown tunes get a lot of mileage out here on the road), “Band of Gold,” and, to give her a real chance to dance, “Deeper and Deeper.”
Then, “Now, we get to the part of the show about the low-down, no-good me-en.” A grandmother, teeny-sitting for the day, smiles. Younger sisters laugh and cheer, and, suddenly, it’s Women’s Lib, young/black/Columbus Ohio style, and you see the participation. Yvonne: “This song is for like young ladies with men who have a habit of taking everything–we mean from clothes to money to… whatever.”
She goes into “Piece of My Heart.” Then a break. She moves back and points to her stage-prop man, the Commodores’ lean young bass player. This is her property, she tells her audience. “He’s mine.”
Teenage girl: You can have it!
Yvonne: He ain’t much, but he’s mine. [To bass man, heatedly:] You don’t got to go show off!
Girl: He ain’t got much to show!
Yvonne: Pose more, honey, pose more.
Girl: He’s gonna have to pose a whole lot!
Yvonne: What you see is what you get!
Girl (and friends): Right on!
And Yvonne builds the song back up. Take another little piece of my heart, baby…. Take another piece of this good thing, baby…
You can tell she’d be a good match for James Brown in any battle of the lungs. By way of introduction, Yvonne Fair used to be a featured singer with James Brown’s show, after her first days with the Chantels in the early Fifties, a break-up, a reunion, and a hit, “Look in My Eyes,” in 1961. She was with Brown from 1962 to 1965, when “It got kind of wearing on my nerves.” James Brown, she said–and she kept it short–is not the man he has made a lot of people think he is. She went off to join Chuck Jackson’s revue, and, two years ago, signed with Motown.
Now she’s going through the ropes again, traveling with Motown stars like the J-5, waiting patiently for some of that Motown Attention. She’s just moved out to Hollywood, and she’s hopeful. “There are so many artists in Detroit that it was kinda hard to concentrate on me. What it is is the producers and writers over there; they automatically go to the big acts. They’re the guaranteed sales. The smaller acts have to wait around for their turn.” So what is this with the multiple entendres and the whirlpool-ass act? Isn’t it…beyond the 6-, 8-, 10-year-olds who make up such a large part of the Jackson 5 audiences?
“Not the kids of today. Their minds are more developed. You don’t have to tell them garbage and be filthy about it…. I just suggest certain things; their minds are open to whatever. Kids know what it’s all about, and they should be able to get pleasure out of their own imagination. If they didn’t dig it, I could feel it. I’m not advertising sex; the dances of today are sex.”
As for the Jackson 5: “They captivate you because Michael works the stage like an old professional. His riffs take an average singer a lifetime to learn. It’s a group that lacks nothing.”
* * *
“I’d like to talk to you all tonight about the blues. Yeah, the blues.”
Mike’s brothers are standing around pretending like this is the first time they’ve heard this, and do a mocking-the-kid-brother routine. “Don’t nobody have the blues like I do,” says Michael. “I may be young, but I know what it’s all about.”
He tells about this girl he met at school–in the sandbox. “We toasted our love during milk break.” (The brothers snicker; Marlon walks off from the group disbelieving, shaking his head)…”And then I said to her…” A slam of the drums, and Michael oomphs up a crotch-thrust, the head goes down, and when it comes up again, he’s crooning: “When I …” broken up into about 10 syllables altogether, the first words of Smokey Robinson’s Fifties song, “Who’s Loving You.”
And the brothers are an A-framed unit behind him, hands behind their buttocks like the Miracles, doing steps in place and weaving a perfect vocal backing. Marlon, two years older and two inches taller, is a superb dancer–confident and workmanlike in his younger brother’s shadow. He’ll flash a smile once in a while to say he’s thoroughly enjoying being a part of this precision–a look you see on the face of an Ikette.
Marlon will grow to be handsome, where Mike will forever be, as almost all the girls say, “so cute.” Jackie has grown to a bit over 5’10”, and looks not unlike Sly on stage, an Indian-costumed stone among pebbles. Sometimes he looks out of place, his high cheekbones drawing his soft features into a just-about-adult face. Sometimes his role appears to be that of puppeteer, letting Marlon and Michael go only so far.
Tito is sturdy, serious, an Ali in demeanor, with a developing bass voice and a developing skill at lead guitar. He’ll keep one leg out and planted while his fingers pick out simple lines.
With tinted shades and brown suede apple hat on, Toriano (the given name means “bull”) rarely looks up and out to the audience to acknowledge all the Tito fans.
Jermaine is the innocent, lamb-y figure. He plays strong bass on his Fender jazz model, often playing a harmony line to support Tito’s vocal effort. Jermaine has sung lead on several tunes, including the single, “I Found That Girl,” but now he’s worried a little ’cause his voice is changing. At 16, he’s the perfect idol-figure for those who can’t seriously get into 11-year-old Mike.
Now Michael’s to the end of his woes, and he stretches it out, microphone tippled over his mouth: “Who-o-o-o-o …’s loving you,” the “you” broken down and up into six parts.
Then a James Brown spin and another pump of the still-forming pelvis while Marlon, Jermaine, and Jackie are just completing their spins, and they’re ready to sing “Darling Dear.” The show moves fast, from “Stand” right into the hits–”One More Chance” and “ABC,” then a Traffic song they credit to Three Dog Night–”Feelin’ All Right,” which gives Tito a chance to move out on lead guitar; then the blues; then, usually, another nine or 10 numbers.
If the J-5 show lacks anything, it’s surprises. Whatever happens, you can tell it’s been worked out in long rehearsal sessions at home in the Hollywood hills or at Motown: Cousin Ronnie Rancifer stepping out to show off his funky chicken; Jermaine being directed by Jackie to sing a song to a particular girl in the audience: “That one there, in the red dress,” and Jermaine does a job on her, serenading, “Won’t you take me with you,” his head shaking with the words, looking for a “yes.” Or the singularly excellent dance routine for “Walk On By.”
And the song salute to Gary, “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” met by power salutes by the pre-teens in Gary, at the West Side High gym. Fans stand up, here and there, to their full four or five foot heights and scream; girls soul-slap with each other to celebrate eye-contact with one of the Five; everywhere, kids are holding hands tightly in their excitement. But there is no mass movement, no jumping atop chairs and flooding of aisles, articulations of defiance, like at Sly concerts. The kids are like the Jackson 5; there is a lot of unself-conscious fun, but, also, a remarkable lack of tension.
* * *
Bob Jones is talking about the cancellation of several Jackson 5 dates in Texas last year after protests over Dick Clark Productions, promoters of the tour. “It was mainly because Clark went into areas and didn’t do anything with the local [read “Black”] promoters. And they screamed about it.
“He’s eventually gonna give it up, I’m sure, because he’s lost Chicago, he’s lost New York, and he’s lost L.A.” Jones is talking about disc jockeys who control markets–heavily.
“You don’t go into Chicago if you’re a black act unless you’re an E. Rodney Jones [WVON] promotion. Otherwise, forget it. And there’s a key DJ in Atlanta…There are cities we cannot give him anymore, and all the major cities will be taken by some force–DJ, Operation Breadbasket, or whatever. And Clark will have only the Daytons and the Columbuses…”
We are almost out of Columbus. At the airport, TWA gives the J-5 entourage a special waiting room, and that saves them from a couple dozen autographs each–which is not to say they mind giving them. It’s become part of the routine. A thank-you here, a power-shake there, an autograph or two on these glossies, and hold it for just one picture, if you will. TWA brings in a tray-full of hamburgers and Cokes, and the J-5 get down to chomping and arguing–mostly about the water and pillow fight the night before. “Suzanne, I saw you tripping someone last night,” Michael says. “It was everybody against everybody.”
And the ride from Chicago to Lansing, Michigan–where we’ll stay after the day in Gary–is fast. Yvonne Fair talks about getting married to a singer with one of Little Anthony’s Imperials. “The men coming along now are no good. Just shit. I’m just getting married and I’ll wait for him to change…”
We go from Lansing, from our ice boxes at the motel, to City Hall for the ceremonies, to West Side High School for the first concert at 3 p.m., then to the Mayor’s home for a fairly private party–the Jackson 5 watch the Disney hour on TV. They pose with the Mayor, with their father, with their traveling teacher, for the local papers; they have some of the soul food; they play cards; they play ping-pong with Hatcher.
When the second show is finished they run out the back doors, pile into the puffing limousines and motor over to another section of Gary – for a Jackson family reunion at Joe Jackson’s cousin’s. She has worked a day and a half with friends and relatives to turn out two dozen sweet potato pies, mountains of cold cuts and fried chicken, tubs of salad and black-eyed peas, and now she stands at the door, almost crying, so happy that her basement den is stuffed with people, and Joe and the boys are all here, along with some Commodores and just platoons of Jackson relations.
They arrive, as if planned, in shifts, so that the aunts and cousins and sisters, beaming behind the food tables, stay busy serving all night.
The joy of family. Joe’s matronly cousin, damp-eyed, keeps asking if anybody wants more food. She steals a look or two at the various brothers of the Jackson 5, who eat lightly (The Mayor, a few hours before, hadn’t exactly been skimpy with his food) and settle down around folding tables for a few rounds of Tonk. Relatives and friends keep calling them away for a picture; little boys and girls ask for autographs, and the Jackson 5 does it all, graciously, saying “Thank you” afterwards.
They’re glad to be here. There’s no place like home.