With each day, the musical genius of Michael Jackson recedes from public consciousness, to the extent that the idea that Jackson was ever a relevant—let alone groundbreaking—artist will shortly become the thing of myth. Even when Jackson was on top of his game as an artist and performer with recordings like Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) his early years as the lead singer of the Jackson Five and later the Jacksons were largely obscured. Though Soulsation (1995), the four-disc retrospective of the Jackson Five’s years on the Motown label, remains the definitive documentation of Michael Jackson’s artistry (as well as that of his brothers), The Jacksons Story is the first collection that brings together the music of those early days, some of MJ’s great moments as a solo artist (both on Motown and Epic), and the very underrated recordings that the Jacksons made between 1976 and 1981 after their departure from the Motown fold.
Sensing the changing tide of the music industry and Motown’s impending irrelevance within that industry, Berry Gordy signed a group of brothers from Gary, Indiana—a group that he initially viewed as little more than a gimmick.When that “gimmick” dropped four straight chart-toppers—“I Want You Back” (1969), “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and “I’ll Be There” (all from 1970)—in less than a year, Gordy and the rest of America took notice (by the way, the fifth single “Mama’s Pearl” peaked at #2 on the Pop and R&B charts). A great deal of the group’s success had to do with the genius child (and for real, “whatever happened to the genius child?”) who sang lead and captivated a nation of little girls and boys. Just a year into the group’s mainstream breakthrough, it was obvious that Michael Jackson was being primed for a career as a soloist. That such a possibility existed was made emphatically clear on a track like the J5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye”—one of MJ’s best vocal performances—which showcased Jackson’s still maturing vocals and essentially isolated him, musically at least, from his brothers.
By the summer of 1971 and after six of the Jackson Five’s singles either topped the chart or peaked at #2, MJ was already in the studio recording his solo debut Got to Be There. The lead single and title track, “Got to Be There”—a willowy piece of pop-candy—was a logical extension of the vocal style that MJ exhibited on the Clifton Davis (he of Amen and That’s My Mama fame) penned “Never Can Say Goodbye” (later recorded by Isaac Hayes and Gloria Gaynor). Gordy and company followed “Got to Be There” with the throwback “Rockin’ Robin” (they mined the same strategy on brother Jermaine’s solo recording with the track “Daddy’s Home”). Michael continued his solo success with “Ben”, the lead single of his second album and the main theme of the film Ben (the good-natured sequel to the rodent infested Willard). The recordings were major hits—“Ben” topped the pop charts—suggesting that perhaps Michael’s other brothers, with the exception of Jermaine, might have been expendable.
It’s to patriarch Joe Jackson’s credit (the only credit I’m willing to give him) that his sons were truly invested in the idea of family even as Michael’s solo career and Jermaine’s marriage to Gordy’s daughter Hazel in 1973 threatened to, and eventually did, pull the family act apart. The price that the group paid for their initial devotion, particularly after Gordy became fixated with Diana Ross’s Hollywood career, was a regular diet of middling material (see 1973’s Skywriter for example, though “Corner of the Sky” still shines). Five years after their initial success and clearly out of vogue among the teen throngs that first supported them, the J5 made a comeback with the dance hit “Dancing Machine” (1974), which was released during the height of “The Robot” urban dance craze. Though the song was the group’s last major hit for the Motown label, it anticipated the group’s direction once they signed with Epic Records (sans Jermaine) in late 1975.
No longer the novelty they were when “I Want You Back” hit the charts, the Jacksons (Jermaine replaced by brother Randy) were just a bunch young African-American men making music, which meant they were competing with every other Funk and Soul band of the mid-1970s for regular play on black radio. The group wisely chose to record their first Epic disc The Jacksons under the watch of super-producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. The collaboration produced the bouncy “Enjoy Yourself” and “Show You the Way to Go”, a song which gave the strongest indication that the Jackson boys were all grown up (easily the most sophisticated song in their collective catalogues).
The Jacksons followed up their Epic debut with Goin’ Places (1977), which failed to produce any major hits, though the project did contain Michael at his sweetest on “Find Me A Girl” (surprisingly left off this collection). After the misstep, the Jacksons began to produce themselves exclusively. The initial product of their new control was Destiny (1978). Given their early success, the Jacksons logically craved a slick pop sound as opposed to a traditional R&B sound and Destiny gave ample evidence of these sensibilities on tracks like “Bless His Soul” and the title track. Released just after Disco peaked, the group also wanted to sell records and tracks like “Blame It on the Boogie”—“sunshine… moonlight… good times… BOOGIE!”—“Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” brought the group back to pop heights.
It was during this renewed period of creativity that Michael Jackson began to make the moves that would finally make him an entity distinct from his brothers. Jackson began a productive relationship with producer Quincy Jones on the set of The Wiz (an all-black musical version of The Wizard of Oz that was first produced on Broadway and made a star of Stephanie Mills). Desiring to revisit his solo career, Jackson tapped Jones as the project’s producer. Off the Wall (1979) is simply one of the most important black-pop recordings of the last 25 years, and it established Michael Jackson as a commercial force to be reckoned with (it moved 10 million copies during an industry slump). The lead single, “Don’t Stop ‘Till you Get Enough” (in my mind the best single in MJ’s oeuvre) captured Michael’s newfound independence and the essence of all those nights he spent on the dance floor at Studio 54. Though MJ’s follow-up Thriller (1982) overshadowed Off the Wall upon its release, 25 years later Off the Wall is the one that stands the test of time.
In between the Off the Wall and the off-the-chart Thriller, MJ joined his brothers for another studio recording. Triumph (1980) found the group at it’s peak—a record that I would suggest surpasses Thriller in terms of sheer aesthetic quality. The songwriting triumvirate of Michael, Jackie and Randy delivered gems like “Lovely One” and “Can You Feel It” (the most political Jackson song), but the centerpiece of Triumph was the MJ penned “This Place Hotel” (originally titled “Heartbreak Hotel” before the litigators stepped in and an inkling that Jackson was after more than we think when he married “The King’s” daughter Lisa Marie). The paranoia of “This Place Hotel”—“someone’s evil to hurt my soul”—would forecast the deep paranoia that grew within Jackson on par with his growing global fame in the mid-1980s. Ironically it was in the context of this paranoia that Jackson recorded his most affecting music with songs like “Wanna Be Starting Something”, “Billie Jean” (the only song from Thriller included on this collection), and “Leave Me Alone”.
For most fans of Michael Jackson, yhe Jackson Five, and Jermaine Jackson (whose sole contribution to this collection is the Stevie Wonder-cized “Let’s Get Serious”), The Jacksons Story may not hold much value. But the collection offers a great chance to revisit those forgotten years between the group’s departure from Motown and the release of Thriller when five brother from Gary, Indiana were content to make some of the best black pop of their generation.