The Jackson 5 remains one of the most popular and well-loved R&B/pop of all time. Formed in 1964, the group consisted of brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael. In the mid- to late-‘60s, the group was making a name for itself performing at nightclubs, talent shows, and R&B venues like the Regal Theater and the Apollo.
In 1968, The Jackson 5 released their first single, the regional hit “I’m a Big Boy” for Steeltown Records. A little later, Motown act Bobby Taylor (Bobby and the Vancouvers) caught their act, suggested them to Motown, and helped the group with their audition in Detroit. Berry Gordy, who was unable to attend, watched the audition on video and later signed the group to Motown. During this time, Motown executive Suzanne dePasse coached the Jackson 5 with their presentation, music and their performances. The group’s first Motown single, “I Want You Back,” was an immediate hit and reached the R&B and pop charts at #1.
Diana Ross Presents the The Jackson 5 introduced the group as the new face of Motown’s LA style and as teen idols, and featured their version of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Who’s Lovin’ You” as well as covers of Motown fare. The album was produced by Bobby Taylor and a collective called the Corporation, which featured Deke Richards, Alphonso Mizell, Berry Gordy, and Freddie Perren. The group’s debut was more than impressive, hitting the R&B charts at #1 and boding well for Motown’s new sound and locale and the Jackson 5’s longevity.
The group was ubiquitous at this time and made appearances on the David Frost Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Hollywood Palace. By 1970, the Jackson 5 had begun to tour and their appearances often bordered on pandemonium. 1970’s ABC hit the R&B charts at #1 and was even more of a realized work. The single “ABC” was continued in the playful, kinetic style. The other big hit was “The Love You Save.” Although the Jackson 5 was thought of as the quintessential singles act, ABC featured strong songs like “2-4-6-8,” the much-loved Jermaine- led song “I Found That Girl,” and a sharp cover of the Delfonics’ “La-La Means (I Love You).”
The single “I’ll Be There” was released in the summer of 1970 and hit the pop chart at #1. Third Album was released a little later and featured the cutesy “Mama’s Pearl,” which became the group’s straight #1 pop single. Third Album further displayed Michael Jackson’s emerging skills as a singer and his mature handling of ballads like “I’ll Be There,” “Can I See You in the Morning,” and especially Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ poignant classic, “The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage.” Third Album also hit the R&B charts at #1.
At the end of 1970, the group released the high-selling The Christmas Album and it soon became a perennial favorite. Maybe Tomorrow was released in mid-1971, and the first single was the sweeping title track. The sophisticated “Never Can Say Goodbye” presented Jackson’s voice subtly maturing. Although ballads typified most of Maybe Tomorrow, the effort also featured two more uptempo gems from the Corporation, “It’s Great To Be Here” and “My Little Baby.” Maybe Tomorrow was the group’s fourth straight #1 R&B album.
By 1971, the Jackson 5 had reached highs that eluded a lot of other acts. Television appearances of the time included Diana!, The Flip Wilson Show, and their own ABC special Goin’ Back To Indiana, which also became a popular soundtrack album. Later that year, the Jackson 5 scored their own Saturday morning cartoon on ABC entitled The Jackson 5ive. In Greatest Hits hit the record stores in December 1971 and featured a new track, the kinetic and contagious “Sugar Daddy.”
Michael Jackson launched his solo career around this time and, although he was making hits like “Got to Be There” and “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” the Jackson 5 was still a viable entity. 1972’s Lookin’ Through the Windows included the powerful title track/single as well as strong album tracks like the plaintive “To Know,” and a fun cover of “Little Bitty Pretty One.” The Jackson 5 appeared on an episode of Soul Train, performing “I Want You Back” and “Corner of the Sky,” while Jermaine delivered three solo songs including “Daddy’s Home.”
Although Michael Jackson’s vocal and physical transformation was striking to see (especially from ’73-’74), his brothers’ voices had also evolved and matured and they turned into even more of a strong R&B vocal outfit. Oddly enough though, by 1973 there seemed to be a reversal of commercial fortunes; the Corporation had splintered and Hal Davis became the group’s primary producer.
In 1973, the Jackson 5 released Skywriter, a pastiche of the early ’70s Motown sound.
The title track and single “Skywriter” was quirky, latter day psychedelic pop, but the public begged off. The other singles, “Corner of the Sky,” “The Boogie Man,” and “Hallelujah Day,” didn’t seem to strike the public’s fancy either. Despite the disappointing sales, the album did have a few bright spots. The gossamer “Touch” was one of their best mature ballads, and the exciting “You Made Me What I Am” was a last blast of sunny, bubblegum R&B from the Corporation.
In the same year, Motown released Get it Together. The album presented the group as more mature with hard-edged funk like “Mama I Got a Brand New Thing,” the popular single “Get it Together,” and the poignant, mid-tempo track “Don’t Say Goodbye Again.” By 1974, Michael Jackson’s voice had matured into a high tenor range and his height had shot up to nearly 6 feet tall. While Dancing Machine couldn’t recapture the group’s prior stratospheric success, it did suitably and convincingly update their sound. The single “Dancing Machine” (which previously appeared on Get it Together) received a different edit and mix, and put the Jackson 5 in the middle of the changing sounds. “Dancing Machine” was a phenomena, displayed Michael Jackson’s new, updated stage presentation, hit the R&B charts at #1 and went on to sell 2 million copies. The rest of Dancing Machine was a nearly as potent and innovative. Songs like “I Am Love,” “She’s a Rhythm Child,” and “Life of the Party” perfectly captured an ephemeral production style that was very ’73-’74, yet strong and confident enough to not be dated.
Aside from their tours, the Jackson 5 continued to make numerous appearances during this era. The group appeared on The Carol Burnett Show, the Sonny Comedy Revue, Cher, Soul Train, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Tonight Show featuring Johnny Carson.
By 1975 it was clear that Motown and the Jackson 5 were on different pages, and the label didn’t quite know what to do with them once they matured. Motown released Moving Violations, which featured production from the returning Holland Brothers and songs like a disco-fied cover of “Forever Came Today” and the smooth ballad “All I Do Is Think Of You.” The effort didn’t sell all that well and was the Jackson 5’s last studio album with Motown; the group left the label in 1975. Motown retained the “Jackson 5” name and Jermaine Jackson stayed behind and started his solo career shortly after. The Jackson 5 became the Jacksons and signed to Epic Records.
Despite the acrimony, Motown issued a generous 3-LP set, Anthology, that featured not only all of the Jackson 5 hits but also hit singles from Michael Jackson as well as solo tracks from Jackie and Jermaine.
Unlike a host of acts, the Jackson 5’s complete discography was restored in print in the early ’80s and again in 2001. The Jackson 5’s work has been available on any number of compilations, the best being 1995’s Soulsation! which displayed the group’s diversity and all of the innovative production styles. Although Michael Jackson and the Jacksons went on to more success, the Jackson 5 reigns as one of the most influential R&B and pop acts.
Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and a music journalist.