The Jacksons' return to Motown for Detroit Music Weekend comes full circle
The second Detroit Music Weekend, which takes place June 14-17 over several blocks around the Music Hall, celebrates the legacy of the Jackson 5, the brother group from Gary, Indiana, that gave us Michael Jackson, saved Motown Records from its late ‘60s doldrums, and created a new genre — black teen pop.
Michael died in 2009, but his surviving brothers — Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon — still tour as The Jacksons and will celebrate the city’s musical heritage and their own Detroit history this weekend as they headline the second annual Detroit Music Weekend. For the second year, the DMW will present a variety of events in a several-block radius around Detroit’s Theatre District (see box).
While most of their top hits as the Jackson 5 were recorded in Los Angeles, it was in Detroit that they auditioned for Motown.
It was in Detroit in 1968 that the Jackson 5 were signed by Berry Gordy. In 1969, it was in Detroit where they stayed in producer Bobby Taylor’s apartment while they rehearsed and recorded at the Hitsville studio on West Grand Boulevard.
Motown always pushed the publicity-friendly narrative that Supreme diva Diana Ross “discovered” the Jackson 5. But Marlon and Jackie Jackson always tell the real story. The brothers spoke to The Detroit News backstage at the Music Hall in mid-May, after a Detroit Music Weekend news conference.
“We’ve always made it clear, Motown introduced us to the world, but it was Bobby Taylor — and Gladys (Knight) — who found us and brought us to Motown,” said Marlon Jackson. “From there, it just happened. Matter of fact, we were in the studio with Bobby Taylor first, before anybody.”
Involved in the music business since his teens, singer-songwriter Taylor was in a unique position to know how to market a group of teens and pre-teens. He and the Vancouvers were riding high in 1968 with the single “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” for Motown’s Gordy Records imprint. Taylor produced the Jackson 5’s first album, 1969’s "Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5."
The Jacksons’ recording of “Who’s Lovin’ You,” a song Smokey Robinson wrote and recorded with the Miracles, was a highlight of one of those early Hitsville sessions, with the Funk Brothers backing them up. (The Jackson 5 version outperformed the Miracles’ original).
“The Motown sound was so huge around the world and on the radio, in terms of coming here and seeing how that music was made at Hitsville, and meeting the musicians who played on those records — it was amazing,” Jackie said. “It was a dream come true for all of us that we would be part of this musical family at Motown.”
The early sessions
It was at the Hotel Pontchartrain (today the Hotel Crowne Plaza Pontchartrain) that Gordy gathered a group of his top songwriters and producers, including Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and Alphonzo Mizell, to write the songs that would put the brothers on the map, starting with “I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save” and “ABC.”
The Jacksons’ early visits to Detroit were tense, especially before they signed their contract. On one visit, the Jacksons had to perform at Berry Gordy’s Boston Boulevard mansion for a gathering of Motown luminaries, including Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Temptations.
As the oldest, Jackie knew how important it was that they do well. They were talented but raw, fresh out of Indiana, singing Temptations hits in front of the Temptations.
“And this was predicated on us getting the deal,” Jackie said. “It was a nervous time for me because I was the oldest one and they were really small, running around in Berry Gordy’s bowling alley, playing. I was going, ‘Come on guys, we need to rehearse, this is important!' I wanted us to get that deal.”
They got the deal. And the boss, Gordy, had fun showing off some of the features of Gordy Manor to the brothers, such as his “golf course.”
“Berry had a couple of holes in his backyard,” Jackie recalled, “and you know, we’d never played golf before."
The boss saw them coming.
“He tells us, if you make this putt, I’ll give you $100. Back in those days, $100! So he set everything up for us and gave us a nine iron to putt. Not a putter, a nine iron.”
“We didn’t know the difference, we didn’t know the game,” Marlon added, laughing.
Producer Deke Richards, who as part of Gordy’s team “The Corporation” co-wrote “I Want You Back” and “ABC,” had been particularly close to the Jackson brothers over the years, serving as a vocal coach as well as songwriter/producer. He told The Detroit News in 2009, upon Michael’s death, that he’d been as much a teacher, helping the brothers with pronunciations, as a producer. He also said he’d lost touch with them and hoped he could talk to the surviving brothers soon.
Richards died in 2013, but not before hearing from his charges.
“I spoke to him in the last two weeks before he died,” Marlon said softly. “All he said was that he wasn’t feeling well ... he was talking to me, I could tell he had a tear in his eye, he said it was a joy to work with us.”
The Jacksons’ show Saturday will include a video presentation that allows brother Michael to be a part of their show.
Marlon and Jackie are heartened that the Jackson 5’s flurry of hits has continued to find an audience.
Of the many cover versions of their songs, Marlon likes Mariah Carey’s version of “I’ll Be There,” while Jackie mentions Isaac Hayes’ take on “Never Can Say Goodbye.” The British artist Sigala sampled “ABC” in his song “Easy Love” in 2015.
“I have two 4-year-olds, and they are always singing our songs around the house,” Jackie said. “Forty-nine, 50 years since ‘I Want You Back’ came out, it’s nice to know that your music is still affecting people.”
Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to the Detroit News. She can be reached at susanwhitall.com.