Much has changed since the Jacksons last toured more than two and a half decades ago.
Michael Jackson is no longer alive. The group, which began its career with Motown Records in 1969, hasn't released an album in 23 years or had a hit single in nearly 30. That's rendered the other brothers -- particularly, by virtue of his name, Tito -- fertile punch lines for late-night talk show hosts.
But with the just-started Unity Tour, the quartet of Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon hopes to remind the world of the family's potent legacy of hit music and rekindle enough interest to continue into the future.
"We've been trying to put this tour together for the longest time, but it's really the fans who have been crying for us to go out this year," says Jackie Jackson, who at 61 is the eldest brother of the singing clan that came out of Gary, Ind., and light up the world with hits such as "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," "I'll Be There," "Dancing Machine" and "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)."
"The fans just want to go out and sing the songs with us and reminisce for the old days. So we're going out for the fans and our brother Michael -- I'm sure he would want us to go out and do what we're doing now. His spirit will be with us in the house as well."
It may not be the stadium-filling extravaganza of the group's Victory Tour, the 1984 extravaganza that came in the wake of Michael Jackson's mega-selling "Thriller" album, but the Unity Tour certainly brings one of the most popular groups of all time back to the stage. After a blast of four consecutive No. 1 hits, the group -- first as the Jackson 5 and, after leaving Motown in 1976, as the Jacksons -- notched 22 Top 40 hits on the Billboard charts and sold more than 100 million records worldwide. The group had its own TV cartoon show, merchandising to rival the Beatles and any contemporary pop act, and it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame two years later.
And it all began in Detroit. Championed by the Vancouvers' Bobby Taylor, the Jackson 5 taped an audition performance in July of 1968 that so impressed Berry Gordy, Jr., that he signed the group and had it perform at a party on Nov. 25 of that year in his Motor City mansion.
"We pulled up in our van and saw (Gordy) in his back yard, which was like a golf course," Jackie remembers. "He called us over and told us, 'If you get this ball in that hole, I'll give you $100. We literally tore up his green trying to get that ball in that hole. That was a lot of money for us back then."
The party itself, with the Jackson 5 set up near Gordy's indoor swimming pool, amidst the bowling alley and pinball machines, was also a trip. "I was nervous," Jackie says. "I knew the Temptations were going to be there, the Four Tops were probably going to be there, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross...And the songs we learned were the songs that were on the radio -- and it was THEIR songs. We had to sing their songs in front of their faces, and I was nervous."
The Jackson 5 charmed the rest of Motown at that party and started recording at the company's Hitsville headquarters on West Grand Boulevard, but Gordy relocated the group and the entire Jackson family to Los Angeles to work with his team out there and to be the face of Motown's fledgling West Coast enterprise. But, Jackie recalls, the nature of the company hadn't changed with the locale.
"It was like a family. Motown had a family," he says. "We learned so much about writing a song and producing records...but they didn't just record you. They taught you so many things, how to do interviews and stuff like that."
Michael Jackson, of course, became a first among equals, a successful solo artist and, with the one-two punch of 1979's "Off the Wall" and 1982's "Thriller," a bona fide megastar who was ready to separate from his brothers entirely after the Victory Tour set records by playing to an estimated two million fans and grossing $75 million. The Jacksons released just one album after that, 1989's commercially disappointing "2300 Jackson Street," and had largely gone their separate ways; Marlon even "retired" from show business in 1989.
But the group did regroup to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Michael's solo career in September of 2001 at New York's Madison Square Garden. And the Unity Tour quartet reunited for the 2010 A&E TV reality series "The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty," which tracked the nascent days of the brothers' reunion and early planning for what became the Unity Tour.
"The funny thing about that show is a lot of people want dirt and acting and everybody yelling and cursing each other and all of that," says Jackie, who missed most of the Victory Tour after breaking his leg prior to its start. "But when I'm around my brothers, we don't act like that. We really don't. What you saw, that was us. They tried to make it something that wasn't us, and we don't do that."
So, according to Jackie, peace reigns for the Unity Tour, even despite middling ticket sales that caused the cancellation of 11 of the planned 27 dates. He still predicts a good time for those who come, with the four Jackson brothers trading off lead vocals and also paying tribute to Michael. "The hard part is we have so many songs, and we don't want to leave anything out," Jackie says. "There's stuff we've never played live and things like 'Looking Through the Windows' and 'Man of War' that we never did on stage. There's just so much we want to do..."
What the Jacksons also want to do, he says, is make a new album, which the brothers are planning to start recording after the Unity Tour wraps in late July. "We can't wait to do that," says Jackie, who says several songs are "all ready to go" and that the group will be working with "some of the top producers out there today" -- likely including the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am, who's publicly expressed interest in working with the Jacksons. The Jacksons then hope to take the Unity Tour back on the road in November and December, mostly likely to Europe and Japan.
"It's been a long time since we've done this, so we're really excited," Jackie says. "And we're really looking forward to coming to Detroit. That's where it all started for us...and we never got a chance to do the Fox Theatre like so many of the (Motown) people did, so I'm really looking forward to doing that."
The Jacksons perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 23, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $35-$115. Call 313-471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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