The Jackson 5 is one of the top singing groups of all time. The five boys from Gary, IN–Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael–made music history when their first four singles at Motown Records (“I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There”) all reached number one on both the pop and soul charts, a feat unmatched by any group in music history.
They sold millions of records and graced the covers of all of the popular magazines, while their concerts set attendance records and caused pandemonium and frenzy wherever they appeared in the U.S. and around the world. The group also appeared on every popular variety and talk show and had their own TV specials. But when The Jackson 5 finally appeared on Soul Train at the September 24th taping of the show, it was an event.
To say The Jackson 5 was large is an understatement. They were basically the first young group that black kids and teens could celebrate and emulate. The group burst forth on the scene during the time of the afro and the black power movement. Indeed, the Jackson 5 was a timely group.
The Jackson 5’s first appearance on Soul Train was a reunion of sorts for the group and Don Cornelius, as Michael Jackson stated in his autobiography Moonwalk. “He had been a DJ during our Chicago days so we all knew one another from that time,” said Michael. Cornelius promoted a show with the group at the West Side Theater in Chicago before they signed with Motown. “Even then they were phenomenal and sort of the talk of the town,” Cornelius stated in Nelson George’s book The Michael Jackson Story.
Up until the time the Jackson 5 appeared on Soul Train, the majority of the artists that came to the show were mainly only popular on the R&B charts, with the exception of big pop stars Ike & Tina Turner who made an appearance in July 1972. But being that Soul Train was a program mostly watched by kids, teens, and young adults, the appearance by superstars the Jackson 5–who were adored by kids, teens and young adults–had many viewers glued to the television set. Soul Train dancers have said excitement was at its highest whenever The Jackson 5 would come to the show.
When the October 7, 1972 episode of Soul Train aired, the moment after the announcer’s voice boomed out that “the fabulous Jackson 5” would be the guests, phones rang across the country as viewers alerted their friends that The Jackson 5 was going to be on Soul Train. This was way before the Internet, cell phones, text messaging and Blackberries. Indeed, Jackson 5 fan Greg Lord said, “Whenever The Jackson 5 appeared on Soul Train, nothing else mattered. As much as me and my friends loved the Soul Train Gang, it was all about The Jackson 5 when they were on the show.”
When the group first appeared on Soul Train, it was primarily a spotlight on Jermaine Jackson–who was then touted as the first black teenage sex symbol–and his first solo album entitled Jermaine (Jermaine’s name was even placed on the backdrop of the stage, replacing the Soul Train sign). His first solo album was very successful, peaking at number six on the soul charts and number 27 on the Pop charts. Aside from the group as a whole, every member of the Jackson family appeared on Soul Train individually over the years. For this edition of the Soul Train History Book, the focus will be mainly on the group.
After Jermaine performed his current single “That’s How Love Goes,” host Don Cornelius briefly interviewed Jermaine and then The Jackson 5 performed their first number one hit, “I Want You Back.” A highly charged Michael was all over the elevated stage, pausing and bopping his head to the side, while the Soul Train Gang grooved to the frenetic rhythm of the tune (many of the Soul Train Gang were still in middle school or high school when “I Want You Back” was first released on October 7, 1969, so the performance evoked a bit of nostalgia for them). The group received thunderous applause after their performance.
Later, the group answered questions from the Soul Train Gang during the show’s Question & Answer session (the group’s J5 logo was placed on the stage’s backdrop for the group’s last two numbers). One dancer named Sherry Newman asked, “When is The Jackson 5 going to be changed to The Jackson 6?” The question came about due to the group’s youngest brother Randy joining the group months earlier (he debuted with the group on a TV special called Hellzapoppin playing congas). This prompted Don Cornelius to have Randy come from behind his set of congas to be among his brothers, prompting the Soul Train Gang to applaud. After the Q&A session was over, The Jackson 5 debuted their new single “Corner Of The Sky,” which was not a single when this episode was taped but would be by the time of its airing. This tune, from the Broadway show Pippin, had a mid-tempo cooking groove with a spiritual type feel backed by a tambourine. The group did not perform the entire song, due to the other segments of the show that had to fill up the show’s running time. Nevertheless, the Soul Train Gang gave the group resounding applause when they finished.
After the weekly dance contest segment, Jermaine was joined by his brothers to perform a track from his Jermaine album titled “Daddy’s Home,” a remake of the Shep & The LimeLites classic. The romantic ballad featured Jermaine’s laid back, soulful vocals as the brothers performed harmony behind him. Jermaine’s remake would later be released as a single in November 1972 and went on to become one of the biggest hits of Jermaine’s solo career, reaching number three on the soul charts and number nine on the pop charts in February 1973.
The group closed the show with their most recent hit “Looking Through The Windows,” which was a huge hit with J5 fans, as evidenced by the screams of the Soul Train Gang when the song’s “Theme from Shaft” inspired introduction blasted out. This song was a huge hit during the summer of 1972, reaching number five on the soul charts and sixteen on the pop charts. During the performance, Michael walked down on the staircase that extended from the elevated stage, being more intimate with the Soul Train Gang as he sang the song’s romantic lyrics. The performance elicited loud screams and cheers from the dancers.
Although there were strict rules on the show about interacting with the guest stars, this episode was an exception. After The Jackson 5 wrapped up all of their performances, many members of the Soul Train Gang were allowed to get autographs and take photos with the group, and even had a chance to chat with them. Patricia Davis, one of the program’s most popular regulars of the time, was among the dancers who was personally invited to the group’s dressing room after the taping of the episode,since she was one of their favorite dancers on the show that they wanted to meet. This paved the way for her and other members of the Soul Train Gang to become friends of the Jackson family, with frequent visits to the Jacksons’ home and invitations for parties and get-togethers. Some were even invited to Jermaine Jackson and Hazel Gordy’s lavish wedding reception on December 15, 1973.
Popular Soul Train regular Jimmy “Scoo B Doo” Foster stated, “James Brown and The Jackson 5 were two of the main acts that really wanted to meet and interact with the dancers.”
The Jackson 5 made their second Soul Train appearance on the October 13, 1973 taping of the show. This appearance was primarily a promotion of the group’s new album Get It Together, a funky disco-styled album released a month earlier. The group’s record sales were low in 1973, both as a group and individually, due to overexposure the year before and lack of promotion during that year when Motown’s chairman, Berry Gordy, was mainly focused on the film division of Motown, leaving the promotion of the label’s artists in the hands of Ewart Abner. It was said that some at the label felt that the group had run its course, but their reconnection with Hal Davis, who produced Get It Together, proved otherwise.
During this episode’s opening credits, announcer Sid McCoy introduced the group as “special guest stars the world famous Jackson 5!” This episode, which aired October 27, 1973, was special for another reason: It was the first episode taped on Soul Train’s newly revamped set featuring a flashing neon Soul Train sign against a backdrop of neon train tracks and a newly designed tunnel (this set would be used until the fall of 1976).
This was also the episode which debuted the program’s new theme song “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by the studio group MFSB, featuring vocals by The Three Degrees.
Cornelius was beaming with pride after he was introduced and then applauded by the Soul Train Gang. He stood on his new podium and stated, “We’re gonna jump on off with the world famous and most mighty Jackson 5!”
To capitalize on the Jackson 5’s popularity, many members of the Soul Train Gang wore T-shirts with the J5 logo on the front and the words “We love ya!” on the back.
After an Ultra Sheen commercial, The Jackson 5 opened with “Dancing Machine,” the last track off Get It Together. This percolating tune, with its relentless throbbing beat anchored by Michael’s soulful tenor and the brothers’ “ooo-bop-diddy-bop” background vocals, had the Soul Train Gang dancing up a storm. During the song’s instrumental break, Michael spun around and did the Robot, a dance that was among the popular fad dances done by the Soul Train Gang since Soul Train’s inception. Although this was not Michael’s first time doing the Robot in public (his first time doing it in concert was in March 1973 during the group’s performance of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” and his first time doing it on TV was on a Bob Hope special that aired September 26, 1973). But Michael’s performance of the robot on the most popular show of the time with black kids, teens and young adults caught on and exposed the dance move to people in various parts of the country who may not have been familiar with the mechanical dance steps Michael so perfectly executed. Michael stated in his book Moonwalk that after this episode aired, “It seemed like every kid in the United States was doing the Robot.”
Michael learned the Robot obviously from watching Soul Train and was taught various ways to do the step by Soul Train regulars and new friends Patricia Davis and Gary Keys.
“Dancing Machine” got the Soul Train Gang highly excited, particularly when Michael sang the line “shake it babe,” causing many of the dancers in the studio to scream and causing popular regular Little Joe Chism to repeatedly blow his whistle (a sign of approval of a song being a hit with the Soul Train Gang). Michael even did some slip sliding type of move which looked like an abridged version of a dance that would later become his signature step, the Moonwalk (originally known as the Backslide). The Soul Train Gang’s screams and excitement during this number were at an all time high, and when the group finished performing they received a thunderous ovation.
It would be several months before “Dancing Machine” would be released as a single; however, it was a popular album track and was played on some radio stations before it was finally released in February 1974. It went to number one on the soul charts in May 1974 and number two for two weeks the same month, kept out of the top spot by Ray Stevens’ “The Streak” (which more than likely went number one due to the popularity of the “streaking” craze of that time). “Dancing Machine” eventually became a worldwide platinum seller and would be the Jackson 5’s last popular hit at Motown.
Joseph Jackson, the father of the Jackson 5, was interviewed and reminisced about the humble beginnings of the group and how they struggled before becoming famous. This led to a film shown of the Jackson family’s second annual “Thank You” party, held on September 9, 1973, and showcased members of the Jackson family and various guests, including Junior Walker and Eddie Kendricks (both of whom taped Soul Train appearances the same weekend of this party). Don Cornelius also attended the party, but due to the two tapings of Soul Train that Sunday, he got to the Jacksons home too late to appear in the film. After this interview, the Soul Train Gang danced to “It’s Too Late to Change the Time,” a mid-tempo tune from Get It Together with a sort of reggae beat that had a lot of the dancers doing a conga line.
After a commercial break, Cornelius had Randy introduce the two other musicians in the group, their “cousins” Johnny Jackson and Ronnie Rancifer (they weren’t really the group’s cousins, but friends of the group from back in Gary). Cornelius joked about Ronnie’s hat being cocked to the side looking like something out of the Superfly movie. Cornelius then noted Michael’s new style of dancing, joking that he wanted Michael to thank him for teaching him the dance steps, which caused Michael, his brothers and the Soul Train Gang to laugh. Although this episode was a promotion of the group’s current album, it also spotlighted solo material as Jermaine performed his new single “You’re In Good Hands,” backed by his brothers, a deeply romantic ballad similar to “Daddy’s Home” from his second solo LP Come Into My Life, which reached number 35 on the soul charts but only 79 on the pop charts. Nevertheless, this performance boosted the single’s chart showing on the soul charts, which probably would have gotten higher if it received more radio airplay (news of Jermaine’s recent engagement to Hazel Gordy, who was also in the studio for this taping, probably didn’t help sales, either). The performance also featured recent photos of Jermaine as he sang.
Right before a station break, the Soul Train Gang danced to another track off of Get It Together entitled “Hum Along & Dance.” This highly energetic cut was an eight minute funk jam which had the Soul Train Gang locking, roboting and doing all kinds of dance routines.
During the show’s Q&A session, Soul Train regular Tyrone “The Bone” Proctor gave Tito Jackson a birthday card signed by all of the Soul Train Gang (Tito would turn 20 that Monday, October 15th). When another regular, Karl Grigsby, asked Michael how old he was when he did the first special with Diana Ross, Michael replied “9” (he was actually 12). Grigsby’s reply to Michael was mostly inaudible, but it had the Jackson 5, Don Cornelius and the entire Soul Train Gang breaking out in uproarious laughter (did Grigsby perhaps correct Michael about his age?) When a dancer asked the group if they had ever met the Osmonds and if they wanted to work with them, Jackie responded by saying that they had met the Osmonds in Canada but, rather than work with them, said, “I think it’s better if we stick to our own thing.” Afterwards, the group performed their current single, the ultra-funky “Get It Together,” another tune that caused the Soul Train Gang to lock, robot, scream, shout and blow whistles. This is one of the most underrated cuts by The Jackson 5; it was played heavily on black radio stations, peaking at number two on the soul charts for two weeks in October 1973 (kept out of the top spot by Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia”) and number 28 on the pop charts the same month. It was also featured several times for the Soul Train line and during the show’s national dance contest taped two months earlier.
After a solo interview, Michael performed of one of his most beautiful numbers, “With A Child’s Heart,” an underrated track which reached number 14 and 50 on the soul and pop charts in June 1973. The group closed with a track from Get It Together entitled “Don’t Say Goodbye Again,” a perky, up-tempo tune which featured a standout vocal by Michael and great choreography by the group. The closing credits on this episode included Jackson 5 fan club information.
The second Soul Train appearance by The Jackson 5 propelled Get It Together all the way up to number four on the soul album charts in December 1973. The album didn’t get above 100 on the pop album charts due to poor promotion of the album in the mainstream market. Nevertheless, this album showcased the group’s growth in their music, helping them break away from their so-called “bubblegum soul” sound to a more mature sound adapting the funk and disco styles of music that were making headway at that time.
The Jackson 5 would make their next Soul Train appearance on a December 1975 taping, which was primarily a promotion for Michael’s Forever Michael album. The group announced at a press conference in New York on June 30, 1975 that they were leaving Motown for more creative and artistic freedom. But since their contract with Motown did not expire until March 1976, they still had to keep their names and faces in the public eye so they continued making numerous appearances in concert and on television (at this time, the Sylvers scored a huge hit with “Boogie Fever” and began making numerous appearances on the same shows as The Jackson 5, so the competition was rising). The Jackson 5 performed “Forever Came Today,” their last single with Motown which reached number six on the soul charts in August 1975 and number 60 on the pop charts, and was a huge hit in discos across the country. Because Jermaine had chosen to stay with Motown, his vocals on this track were lip-synched by Marlon and Tito took over Jermaine’s position on stage.
During an interview with Cornelius, a film clip was shown of the Jackson 5 from their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan show in 1969 performing “I Want You Back,” prompting laughter from the brothers. Cornelius also challenged the group to a game of basketball, hearing how they won several charity basketball games. Eventually, The Jackson 5 and the Soul Train All Stars featuring Don Cornelius, The Whispers, Marvin Gaye and others played a basketball game for charity in early 1976. The Soul Train All Stars defeated the Jackson 5. The last track the group did on this episode was the gorgeous ballad “All I Do Is Think of You,” the B-side to “Forever Came Today” which reached number 50 on the soul charts in Nov. 1975.
The very last time the group appeared on Soul Train was on the January 1979 taping of the show, which was part of the group’s celebration of its tenth anniversary in show business. By this time, the group was known as The Jacksons (the group’s name, The Jackson 5, remained with Motown after their contract expired in March 1976; Berry Gordy secretly bought the rights to their name in 1972). The tenth anniversary celebration of The Jacksons’ career included many television appearances and a world tour that commenced on January 22, 1979. This episode was taped shortly before their world tour (the group also taped a tenth anniversary celebration episode on American Bandstand the same weekend and both the Soul Train and American Bandstand tributes coincidentally aired the same day, Febraury 10).
The Jacksons, along with the studio audience, were treated to a clip of the group’s first appearance on Soul Train performing “I Want You Back.” The brothers laughed as they watched their younger selves from seven years earlier. This segued into a current performance of the group performing their latest single, the widely popular disco hit “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” from their LP Destiny, the first album on which the group produced and wrote the majority of the material. The brothers wore matching light blue outfits for this performance, as a giant neon Jacksons sign hovered above the main stage. This was also the first episode that was shot on Soul Train’s revamped stage set which would be used until the beginning of the 1984-1985 season.
“Shake Your Body” was a huge hit, as was the Destiny album (released September 1978, it took awhile to make the charts in December of that year), and propelled the group back into the spotlight. The group’s choreography was tight on this number, as was on the other number they performed, “Things I Do For You.” By the screams and howls of the Soul Train Gang during their numbers, The Jacksons made a big comeback. For the performance of “Shake Your Body,” the group allowed Soul Train dancers to dance on stage with them and even a cop joined in the dancing! Actually, he was a dancer posing as a cop (this routine was utilized in most of the group’s TV performances of this song). This performance, along with heavy radio airplay and airplay in discos across the country, helped “Shake Your Body” go to number three on the soul charts and number seven on the pop charts, and it would go both gold and platinum.
Michael was also spotlighted on a solo number on this episode, doing the beautiful soft ballad, “Push Me Away” from Destiny.
This would be the last time The Jacksons as a group would appear on Soul Train. People who watched Soul Train in the seventies always remembered that whenever The Jacksons appeared on the show, it was a must-see event. In fact, during the Jacksons last appearance on Soul Train, Cornelius said to the group during the interview that their first appearance on the show gave it credibility to stay on the air, and that they were “one of the first major acts that consented to do Soul Train.”
Three years since Michael Jackson’s tragic passing, his brothers have regrouped and are touring major cities in the U.S. as part of their “Unity” tour to carry on the legacy of the group and to honor their brother and original lead singer Michael. Indeed, in the words of Don Cornelius, they are “the mighty, mighty, Jackson 5!”
In addition to being a journalist, Stephen McMillian is also developing creative projects within the entertainment industry.