Fifty years since their first record contract, The Jacksons are on a UK tour. Duncan Seaman spoke to eldest brother Jackie.
It’s a golden year for America’s most famous family music group The Jacksons. 2017 marks 50 years since they emerged from the chitlin’ circuit to sign their first record contract – an initial step on a journey which would eventually transform the brothers from Gary, Indiana into major stars.
For Jackie Jackson, the eldest of the clan, their forthcoming British concerts – which include Scarborough’s Open Air Theatre – offer a chance reconnect with an audience who’ve stayed with them from early Motown hits such as I Want You Back and ABC through the R&B, funk and disco years of Show You The Way To Go and Can You Feel It to the present day.
“Every time we come there it’s an exciting moment for us because there are some fond memories that we have over there in Britain,” says the 66-year-old singer. “We have a lot of fans there so I look forward to it every time we come.”
As far as the group – now a four-piece comprising Jackie, Jermaine, Tito and Marlon – are concerned the best way to celebrate their 50th anniversary is to “do what we’ve always done, put on a high energy show and then people will have fun”.
Back in the 1960s, before their father Joe spotted the brothers’ musical potential, Jackie Jackson was an aspiring sportsman. “I was very close to being a professional baseball player but I think I did the right thing by sticking with my brothers because baseball careers only last for so long but you can sing forever,” he reflects today.
When the five-piece, then fronted by child prodigy Michael Jackson, signed to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records there were regular sporting challenges with their new label boss. “We had all kind of games going on because Berry Gordy and his crew were so competitive and we were too,” Jackie recalls. “Whether it was backgammon, football or baseball games, ping pong, you name it. Berry was a very competitive guy and so were we, so we had games together all the time.”
Jackie remembers his first meeting with Berry Gordy well. “We flew out to Detroit, that’s where he was stationed at the time; the following year he moved to Los Angeles. We met him at Hitsville. Great sounds came out of that little studio and when you went there you’d see everybody hanging out at the studio all the time – Smokey Robinson, The Temptations – if they were in town everybody had a history of just hanging out. We saw a lot of big stars who we really worshipped at the time, just to see them in person for the first time like that and meet Berry Gordy it was something that you never forget.”
The ultra-competitive Jackson Five’s first six singles for Motown were all million sellers in the US and four of them were Number Ones. For Jackie it was a magical era. “When you hear your first single on the radio, and they are playing it constantly every half-hour, that’s a lot, you pretty much have a riot. I remember those days when I heard I Want You Back on the radio – as a matter of fact I pulled off the road to hear it. You hear it all the time in the recording studio but when you hear it on the radio it sounded even better. I don’t know what it is, just that radio vibe that you get is so exciting, so I pulled off to the side of the road. Then I turned to another channel on the radio and there it was playing there. It was playing all over the radio everywhere.”
Having enjoyed huge success at Motown, Jackie admits it was “a hard decision” to leave for Epic Records in 1976. “That’s where we started, they taught us pretty much everything we knew about recording and also producing music,” he says. “But when our contract expired we wanted to write some of our own material and to express to our fans songs that were coming from us so we moved over to Epic. It was a hard decision but I thought we made a great decision. I don’t take nothing away from Motown – that’s where we were born and I will always have love for the company.”
When we perform concerts we always feel Michael’s presence on stage with us because we know at any given time he would be on stage. Sometimes it brings tears to your eyes and sometimes we laugh as well, and sometimes the audience cry with us too.Jackie Jackson
Around the time of The Jacksons’ 1978 album Destiny Michael’s career as a songwriter began to blossom. Jackie sounds audibly moved when talking about his younger brother, who went on to colossal success as a solo artist with the albums Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad.
“He’s pretty much the Number One artist in the world, he sold more records than anyone, and to see him do what he was doing I was so proud of him because his last name’s Jackson, that was my brother. I knew he had that in him, we all knew that, he was such a hard worker and to see him flourish like that in the music industry, he set certain standards when it came to videos and the music that he did, I was so proud of him.”
Jackie agrees that Michael’s death in 2009 at the age of 50 made him and his brothers want to celebrate the family’s musical legacy. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t feel that for the sake of my brother,” he says. “When anyone loses someone like that you feel like that, but he just happened to be a great performer. When we perform concerts we always feel his presence on stage with us because we know at any given time he would be on stage and we just feel that moment. Sometimes it brings tears to your eyes and sometimes we laugh as well, and sometimes the audience cry with us too at the same time. Sometimes I can’t even get through a song I’m tearing up so much, I can’t even finish it because it tears at me right in the heart all the time. It’s an emotional moment at times.”
On a happier note, Jackie reports The Jacksons are making a new record. “As a matter of fact I’m in my home studio now,” he says. “That’s where we’ve been putting it together. I don’t want to speak too much about it right now but there’s going to be a new single coming out from The Jacksons.”
The Jacksons play at Scarborough Open Air Theatre on Saturday June 17. www.scarboroughopenairtheatre.com