Michael Jackson’s iconic fame in the 1980s came under the watch of Epic Records, an arm of the CBS conglomerate.
But his route there began in less glittery circumstances, in a bare room with a radiator off a Detroit freeway.
Television viewers in the days since Jackson’s death have probably glimpsed the old video clip: the Jackson 5 auditioning for Motown Records in Detroit, a July 1968 showcase that led to the Indiana group’s signing.
The tape is brief and grainy, but young Jackson’s charisma practically pops through the screen as the 9-year-old twirls and glides through his best James Brown impersonation.
Berry Gordy Jr. wasn’t present — the Motown founder was in Los Angeles, where he was gradually moving his company.
But other Motown executives were, including late producer Hank Cosby.
“I can recall the look in his eyes when he came home and told me about the audition. He was absolutely blown out the water, just amazed,” recalls his wife, Pat Cosby. “I’ve always remembered his exact words: ‘I have no doubt that these kids are going to cover the world.’”
Jackson and his brothers went on to cut two dozen Top 40 hits for the label, with “I Want You Back” leading four No. 1 hits out of the gate.
The Jackson 5 chapter has always occupied its own niche in the Motown saga. Too late to be considered part of the label’s classic Detroit era, the young group was a bridge between Motown’s hometown roots and its glossy West Coast future. But they were virtually unknown when they were spotted in Chicago by Motown’s Bobby Taylor, whose group the Vancouvers was paired with the Jackson 5 on a theater bill.
Various anecdotes have circulated, says ex-Motowner Ralph Seltzer, an attorney who helmed Motown’s creative division. “But these are the facts. I arranged for the group to come to Detroit on a Saturday to meet (Motown exec) Suzanne de Passe.”
Jackson, his brothers, their father and a cousin who played in the band — the Jackson 6 at the time — headed to Detroit’s Saunders Building, site of Motown’s new headquarters. There they performed James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’,” with Michael smooth and cool up front.
“On Monday she called and said, ‘These kids are terrific. We need to sign them,’” Seltzer says.
Seltzer and Gordy, who soon saw the audition tape, were initially concerned about “adding more kids” to a roster that had included minors such as the Marvelettes and Stevie Wonder. But the Jacksons’ striking talent ultimately ruled.
The group spent several months cutting tracks at Motown’s Detroit studio before heading to L.A. to record with a new cast of musicians.
As the Jackson 5 emerged, the public got its own version of the story: Diana Ross had discovered the Jackson 5.
“That was Mike Roshkind,” says Seltzer, referring to the former Motown publicity chief. “He thought it was very good PR-wise. How exciting is ‘Bobby Taylor told Ralph Seltzer, who set up a Saturday audition’? But ‘Diana Ross saw this group and thought they were fantastic’? That’s exciting.”
Seltzer had little interaction with Michael Jackson and his brothers, dealing most closely with father Joe Jackson. But one trait stood out.
“They were extremely well-mannered,” recalls Seltzer, who spent hours going through legal papers with their dad. “People would come in and say, ‘Ralph, who are those kids out in the hall? They don’t run up and down, or bother anybody, or wrestle with each other. They’re just sitting there being good.’
“I’d tell them, ‘Those are the Jackson brothers, and I’m signing them.’”