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Jacksons reissues chart group's post-Motown transition
Back in 1975, the Jackson 5's career took a turn from "Never Can Say Goodbye" with Motown to "Maybe Tomorrow" with a new home -- and a new name and lineup.
Shockwaves were certainly felt in June of 1975, when the sibling group from Gary, Ind., which blew out of the gate with four straight No. 1 hits for Motown, announced it was leaving the company to sign with CBS' Epic Records division. It would leave behind its name, which Motown owned, as well as brother Jermaine Jackson, who was married to Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.'s daughter Hazel.
After some legal wrangling the newly christened Jacksons debuted with a self-titled album in November of 1976 and never looked back -- a period that's being commemorated with the release Friday, Feb. 12, of expanded editions of the first three albums ("The Jacksons," 1977's "Goin' Places" and 1978's platinum "Destiny"). A vinyl re-release of "The Jacksons Live!" from 1981 follows on March 26.
"Of course it was scary," older brother Jackie Jackson, 69, says by phone, "'cause you never knew how it was gonna turn out. We felt like it was gonna be magic, but you never know. It might not work, you know?"
Younger brother Tito Jackson, the group's guitarist, recalls that, "A lot of the critics or what have you were wondering 'How successful will the Jacksons be without Motown, without the cute little Michael Jackson voice and the cute little brothers backing him up?' A lot of people felt we were finished, we were through, but we refused to take that position, y'know?"
History bears the move out as a good decision. With the Jackson 5's sales and chart performance waning at Motown, going to Epic gave the group a fresh new environment, working with the Philadelphia International team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on "The Jacksons" and "Goin' Places." Epic also allowed the Jacksons to write some of their own material, which had been largely prohibited at Motown.
The first two albums boosted the group on the charts with singles such as "Enjoy Yourself" and "Show You the Way to Go," but it was on the self-produced "Destiny" that the Jacksons found its footing, dancing into the Top 10 with the platinum single "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)."
"We always had written songs, but they weren't songs like 'ABC' and 'I Want You Back,' Tito, 67, recalls. ”They were basically our feeling on the music...But Motown felt that it wasn't broken, so why change things.' Epic gave us that opportunity" -- as well as a better royalty rate than the Jackson 5 was getting at Motown.
Having to change names felt like "cold-blooded," Tito remembers, but easy enough to overcome. Moving on without Jermaine, he says, was "bittersweet," while Jackie recalls having to perform a concert the night he left the group.
"He decided he wasn't going on stage, and we didn't know what to do 'cause he sang a lot of lead (vocals) and played bass, too," Jackie says. "I remember Michael's crying like a baby...but we had to go out there and do our thing without Jermaine. It was devastating, but we did a great show and people loved it. We kept getting standing ovations."
The Jacksons did put two original songs on "The Jacksons" -- including "Style of Life," which Tito co-wrote with Michael -- while working with Gamble & Huff at Sigma Sound Studios, with the Philadelphia International crew of writers and musicians, proved to be a smooth transition.
"We were always familiar with the work of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff," Tito says. "They're fantastic writers. They had written for the O'Jays and Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, older groups -- and we were getting older. So we felt very safe. We thought we were gonna make some kind of magic, and we did."
Jackie, meanwhile, remembers that during the first trip to Philadelphia in June of 1976 the Jacksons stayed in the same hotel as Frank Sinatra -- who turned out to have a home near theirs in Encino, Calif. -- and his "gangster" posse
"They were nice guys," Jackie says with a laugh. "They'd say hello to us, we were taking pictures with the guys. And (Sinatra) told us, 'Keep up the great work, keep doing what you’re doing 'cause you're doing the right thing. And stay out of trouble!'"
While "The Jacksons" and "Goin' Places" allowed the group to stretch, "Destiny" was its creative breakthrough. "(Epic executive) heard some of our music that we were doing and they told us to go ahead, go for it," Jackie says. Driving to the beach in Tito's van for writing sessions, the Jacksons were responsible for all but one of the album's eight tracks ("Blame it on the Boogie"), collaborating on grooves, beats and lyrics and recording in their own home studios (Tito's in Big Bear, Calif. was called Destiny) as well as established sites such as the Record Plant and Cherokee Studios.
"We were just writing music, having a great time, doing our music," Jackie says, while Tito adds, "That's the album that said we can do it and let the people know we can stand on our own." Michael and Randy are credited with writing "Shake Your Body," but Tito says he contributed a plywood "clapper" device that provided one of the sonic trademarks in the chorus.
The Jacksons would have more success with "Triumph" in 1980 and "Victory" in 1984, but the group was eclipsed by the phenomenon that Michael became as a solo artist; He and brother Marlon, in fact, were only on the title track of the Jacksons' last album, "2300 Jackson Street," in 1989. Since Michael's death in 2009, Jackie, Tito, Marlon and Jermaine have continued to perform live as well as pursue their own projects; Tito has a blues album due in May featuring collaborations with George Benson, Samantha Fish, Kenny Neal and others.
They, like every other act, are waiting for touring and performing opportunities to open again, but for now they're happy to celebrate the dramatic transition they made four and a half decades ago.
"What I liked about the records we did after Motown was we got a chance to do songs we had written, that had the meaning of love and peace, trying to unify the world into a more peaceful place," Tito says now. "We felt more in control of our destiny. That was the goal and we got there, so it feels good."
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