For the surviving members of the Jackson 5, coming back to Detroit is easy as A-B-C.
The group from Gary, Ind. — which will be honored at this week’s Detroit Music Weekend — was the vanguard of Motown’s move west, recording in Los Angeles and rolling out with four consecutive No. 1 hits. But the Jacksons — Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael — were no strangers to Motown in the Motor City, either, and even consider it to be “like home for us,” according to Tito.
“When we think of Detroit, we think of home. We actually do,” the guitar-playing Jackson, now 64, recalls by phone. “It’s Motown. Our biggest dream was to be on Motown (Records). Motown was the company that would make you stars, and that’s what we wanted to do.
• Related: Jacksons happy to be feted at Detroit Music Weekend
“We did our first recordings at Hitsville U.S.A. (on West Grand Boulevard). We’re part of the Motown family. We’re very proud of that. That’s why I look at Detroit, and the brothers do, as our home.”
It was 50 years ago — Marlon says “it feels like only three or four years, it moved so rapidly” — that the Jacksons came into the Motown family. Already seasoned as teenagers (the late Michael Jackson was 9 years old) performers on the chitlin’ circuit, the quintet was approached by Gladys Knight after it won a talent contest at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater the summer of 1967. The group was rejected but two years later, after performing with the Jackson 5 in Chicago, Bobby Taylor of the Vancouvers sent the group back to Detroit and urged Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. to consider them again.
Gordy agreed this time, filming an audition with the group at Motown’s studios on Woodward Avenue then having them play his birthday party at his mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison district.
“That was pretty much an audition,” Jackie, 67, remembers. “(Gordy) had a bowling alley downstairs and pinball machines, an indoor swimming pool, everything, and I was very, very nervous ’cause (his brothers) weren’t taking it seriously. They were playing around and stuff, and I was like, ‘We’ve got this big show to do,’ and I knew the Temptations were gonna be there, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross ... and we had to sing their songs in front of their faces, so I was nervous. It was a special moment for us — our lucky break.”
Marlon, 61, adds that, “We’re singing the Temptations songs and the Temptations were watching us. Stevie Wonder was there. Marvin Gaye was there. Gladys Knight was there, the whole Motown sounds was there, and we wanted to be part of the Motown family. It was a big deal.”
Though the formal contract wasn’t signed until March 11, after which Gordy moved the Jackson family to Hollywood, the Jackson 5 did some early work at Hitsville, staying at Bobby Taylor’s apartment. The sessions didn’t produce any released material, but being around the Motown hit factory made an indelible impression on the brothers.
“To come here and see those people at the record studio was a shock to all of us,” Jackie says. “To see those people just hanging around the studio ... ’cause that’s what they did, they hung around the studio. They jumped on each other’s songs. They’d write with each other. For us to come here and see that was amazing, ’cause they were like stars to us.”
Tito remembers being awed by the “great players” in Motown’s Funk Brothers studio band as well. “The whole Motown feel was like a family. We used the same musicians as the Tempts or the Supremes or the Tops used. Everybody welcomes you, makes you feel very much a part of the family. It was very encouraging to us.”
Marlon, meanwhile, was engrossed by the producers and engineers at the sessions. “Back then you only had, like four tracks, so there was a lot of bouncing around and that was how the magic happened,” he says. “It was great in that room, with that little board with the big knobs.”
Welcomed or not, however, the Jacksons knew they had to prove themselves amidst their idols.
“We used to come and do the Fox Theatre all the time and do the Apollo Theater and people really loved us — that was all great, but we had no record deal, so we still had a long way to go,” Marlon says. “We still hadn’t made it because we were not with a record company, until Motown came along.”
The Jackson 5 had a stellar ride with Motown, logging 14 Top 20 hits and between 1969-76, when the brothers, seeing more control and more money, left the company acrimoniously and were rechristened the Jacksons. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 and into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame two years later but was largely dormant after 1984’s mammoth Victory Tour. Michael, whose solo career reached even greater superstar heights than the group’s, died in 2009, and the other brothers began performing together again in 2012.
“There’s a bittersweet story there,” Tito says, “but the show must go on, and this is exactly what (Michael) would want us to do — continue the legacy, continue to perform. We just enjoy being together as brothers on stage and making people happy. That alone gives us all the strength we need and support to continue to perform.”
They’ll do just that as Detroit Music Weekend headliners at 9 p.m. Saturday, June 16, while the group will be celebrated the night before with a tribute concert. A street-naming is also planned, though it’s unclear if it will be for Michael or in some way incorporate the whole group. Either way, the Jacksons say they’re happy to return, reconnecting with the city that provided the launch pad for their enduring career.
“It’s the fans around the world who insist that we keep it going, ’cause they love it and they love to come out and enjoy the shows,” Jackie says. “Still today, when we go around the world and do concerts we see kids who are 7 years old and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute — you weren’t born when these songs came out.’ ‘Yeah, but my mom and my dad made sure we listen to this music,’ and they love it. That’s why we still do it, to keep the music alive and bring everyone together.”
• If You Go: Detroit Music Weekend, is June 14-17 in and around the Music Hall Center, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Visit detroitmusicweekend.org for full schedules and other details.
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