The Early Years

Lisha:  Hey, Willa. Has it really been almost a year since our last blog post?

Willa:  It has! Hard to believe, isn’t it? It’s so nice to talk with you again!

Lisha:  Oh, it’s such a joy to chat with you again, Willa.

Willa:  I’ve really missed it. You know, whenever we dive deep into Michael Jackson’s work and just immerse ourselves in it and discover how profound and revolutionary it is, that feels so nourishing to me. There’s nothing else quite like it. And I strongly believe we need Michael Jackson now more than ever! But at the same time, I think we really needed to take some time off, take a step back, and kind of regroup and reevaluate.

Lisha:  Well, I know I did. To be honest, being an American citizen feels like a full-time job right now, with all the non-stop political chaos. It’s difficult to process it all.

Willa:  I agree. Just listening to the news on the radio is exhausting. But for me, something else has been going on too. This election and some of the terrible things that have happened since have really forced me to go back and question some of my assumptions.

For example, looking back I realize that one of the founding beliefs of this blog was that racism and other types of prejudice have diminished significantly in recent decades, and that Michael Jackson played an important role in bringing about those changes. I still believe that’s true in some respects. For example, younger people seem to be much more accepting of interracial relationships than previous generations. They’re also less homophobic, and less threatened by difference in general. But at the same time, I see deep systemic injustices that are not being addressed, and in fact seem to be getting worse.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, when Obama won the election, I felt so hopeful that we were at last becoming that “more just society” Martin Luther King envisioned so long ago. And I really believed Michael Jackson helped bring us there. But now those hopes seem premature. It was so easy to make rosy declarations about social change when Obama was president! It’s much harder to do that now.

Lisha:  I agree. I keep thinking about how the first woman president would have wrapped such a nice, neat, little bow around the Obama years and all my optimistic ideas about how the culture is moving forward, even if it isn’t as far or fast as I would like. Now I find myself questioning that whole premise, wondering, is the culture really moving forward at all? It’s heartbreaking. Especially today, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.

Here’s a sobering article I read recently about the 1968 Kerner Commission on civil rights in the U.S. A 2018 reexamination of their original report shows that any gains we’ve made since 1968 have either stalled or been completely reversed.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a really painful article. But I have to say, it corresponds with what we’ve been hearing in the news. It’s heartbreaking, as you say.

Racism in particular has been woven into the fabric of America since before we became a country, though with important advances and regressions, and this feels like a time of regression. But maybe that’s not true – maybe it’s not so much a step back as simply making visible what was hidden before. There have been a number of news articles suggesting that one effect of this election has been to embolden people to declare prejudices they felt the need to keep hidden before. That would suggest that racism hadn’t receded in recent decades, but just gone underground. If that’s true, then maybe what we’re going through now is a painful but necessary phase to finally root out and address that latent racism. Maybe.

But it’s also true that if you look back at American history, every step forward – whether it’s racial equality or women’s suffrage or workers’ rights or environmental awareness and protections or any major advance – has been followed by a backlash similar to what we’re seeing now. And this does feel like a backlash to me: a violent reaction to fundamental changes that really have taken place, politically and culturally.

I keep telling myself that – that I need to take the long view and not get caught up in the day-to-day drama of the current White House – but it’s so disturbing to see what’s happened in the past year, and how much ground has been lost on so many fronts. I wonder if that’s one reason Michael Jackson never gave much credence to politics, and instead tried to bring about change through his art instead.

Lisha:  I’ve thought about that a lot recently, especially in relation to the early years, before the Motown signing, when the Jackson 5 were freelancing in the Gary/Chicagoland area. This was one of the most politically charged eras in American history, and it reached a boiling point in Chicago in 1968, about the time the Jackson 5 started really picking up some steam with their regional hit, “Big Boy,” on the Steeltown label.

Willa:  That’s true! I never put that together before, Lisha – that the Jackson 5 would have been traveling around Chicago that summer when everything blew up.

Lisha:  Yes! For those who aren’t familiar with that area, Gary, Indiana, is very much a part of the Chicago metro area, even though it is across the state line. And by 1968, the Jackson 5 were appearing in some of Chicago’s most successful black venues, like the Regal Theater, the Capitol Theater, the Central Park Theater, and the High Chaparral Lounge.

But Chicago was also a pretty tumultuous place to be in 1968. For example, there are reports that the Jackson 5 performed at a South Side night club, the Guys & Gals, on April 6, 1968, as the city erupted in violence in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The rioting was so intense that the National Guard was brought in to respond to all the fires, shootings, and looting that occurred that weekend.

Willa:  Wow. I wonder how aware Michael Jackson would have been about that? He turned 10 that summer, and he doesn’t seem to have been shielded much from harsh realities as a child. I’m sure he would have known about the assassination of Dr. King and some of the unrest that followed all around the nation. I wonder if he realized what was happening right there on the streets of Chicago?

Lisha:  I don’t see how he could have avoided it. Especially since he was working in Chicago, where the response to Dr. King’s death was so intense.

Fortunately, I think the Jacksons probably escaped the worst of the violence that occurred later that summer – the apocalyptic “Battle of Michigan Avenue” leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention – because there’s a gap in their performance schedule at that time.

My guess is that’s when they made their annual trip to Arizona. There was a really good article about this recently in Phoenix Magazine, describing the Jackson family vacations in Arizona. If they did manage to escape Chicago in August of 1968, it would have been great timing, given all the chaos back at home.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Lisha. From that article, it sounds like they definitely went to Arizona in 1966 and 67, and several times after that as well. And you think they may have gone in 1968? It’s certainly possible, though 1968 turned out to be a pivotal year for them. They might have been too busy to go!

Lisha:  You are absolutely right! I’m just guessing because we know that the previous two years they made the trip to Winslow, Arizona, around the same time. 1968 is the year that their grandparents moved from Winslow to Phoenix, so that would account for why people in Winslow didn’t see them that summer.

Willa:  Oh, that’s a good point. I didn’t think about that….

Lisha:  Anyway, as you say, it’s quite possible they went elsewhere – or maybe they were just at home in Gary, enjoying some time off before school started back up.

A lot of my interest in this early period stems from some outstanding journalism the Chicago Reader’s Jake Austen did back in 2009, digging into the Jackson 5’s early history. It’s a riveting story. Contrary to the myth that the Jackson 5 were plucked from obscurity by Motown records in 1969, Austen shows how the Jackson 5 were actually climbing their way to the top of a very vibrant black music scene in Chicago, appearing on local television, radio, and in some of the city’s most popular live venues.

Willa:  Yes, it’s so interesting to read about what they were doing in those early years! I had no idea about any of this, Lisha – about how often they were performing in Chicago and how involved they were in the Chicago scene – until you shared some of your research with me a couple of years ago.

I think some critics think Michael Jackson was exaggerating when he talked about how hard he worked as a child, but the evidence Jake Austen has uncovered supports him. As is often the case with a so-called “overnight success,” it took a lot of hard work and determination to bring about that success.

Lisha:  That’s so true. In fact, there was so much going on in those early years, even Michael Jackson gets some details wrong in his book, Moonwalk. Perfectly understandable given his young age!

Willa:  Really? I didn’t know that. What are some of the things he gets wrong?

Lisha:  Well, Austen shows how Michael Jackson seems to conflate events, like the marathon recording session he did for Steeltown Records at Sunny Sawyer’s studio in Chicago, with post production work he observed in Gary, Indiana, “on Saturday mornings after watching Roadrunner cartoons.” More significantly, Michael Jackson seems to have completely forgotten about the work he did in 1967 at One-derful records on Chicago’s Record Row. That’s a huge story, for many reasons.

Chicago birthed a number of important developments in popular music: Chicago Blues, Chicago Soul, and many key moments in early rock-n-roll. By the late 1950s, legendary artists like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry were recording on a 12-block stretch of S. Michigan Avenue known as Record Row, a beehive of small independent record labels that specialized in R&B. These record companies sprang up mostly in response to the major record labels either undervaluing or neglecting this music altogether.

Many of the amazing artists on Record Row would provide inspiration for generations of musicians to come. For example, the Rolling Stones recognized the importance of the Chicago R&B scene early on and went to Record Row to study with their idols at Chess Records.

Willa:  Yes, they did, and they treated it like a pilgrimage … almost like they were visiting a holy place where American music sprang forth.

Lisha:  So true! They even recorded a song titled “2120 S. Michigan Ave” in homage to the studio.

Willa:  And to give the Rolling Stones their due, blues musicians didn’t receive much recognition in America until the British invasion groups acknowledged them as the incredible artists they are, and pointed to them as the forefathers of much of their own music. It’s the old story of prophets not being accepted in their own hometowns, I guess. It took the outspoken admiration of British groups like the Rolling Stones before white American audiences started to wake up and appreciate some of the early blues artists who had been ignored and overlooked before.

Lisha:  That’s right. British musicians quickly recognized the significance of Chicago R&B and rock-n-roll, when American records started making their way to port cities like Liverpool, England, via American military ships. Both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles cite Chess Record’s Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry as strong influences.

The Beatles also claim Elvis Presley as an early inspiration, but we know Presley got his start by simply covering Arthur Crudup, an earlier Chicago R&B artist whose “That’s All Right” was recorded in Chicago at RCA Victor in 1946. Some have argued that Crudup’s “That’s All Right” is the earliest example of rock-n-roll, although Presley often gets the credit for being an early rock-n-roll pioneer.

Other early rock-n-roll artists like Little Richard and Jackie Wilson recorded on Record Row at Brunswick Records, located at 1449 S. Michigan, in the same building that housed Vee-Jay Records, the company that gave the Beatles their first U.S. distribution deal.

And then we find out Michael Jackson was in development just down the street at 1827 S. Michigan, home of One-derful Records, where the Jackson 5 recorded a forgotten early version of “Big Boy.” That’s a lot of music history happening on a single city street, and we haven’t even scratched the surface!

Willa:  It really is! In the 1950s and 60s, Chicago’s Record Row was pretty much the center of the recording industry universe for “black music,” and therefore white music as well since many of the biggest hits of the time were “white” covers of “black” songs released from Record Row.

Lisha:  That’s a crucially important point. As the major record companies underestimated the appeal this music would have outside the black community, independent labels started generating big hits that crossed over into white markets, so the majors quickly put out cover records to cash in on the trend.

Because the U.S. was (and is) so deeply divided along color lines, racial divisions are clearly visible in the industrial production and consumption of music. A nation segregated by race will produce music that is segregated by race as well. In studying this music, it’s striking how rigidly segregated every aspect of the business is. There are black/white live venues, recording studios, record shops, radio stations, …

Willa:  Yes, but radio waves go everywhere, not just to black houses or white houses.

Lisha:  That was the key! As people heard how compelling this music was over the airwaves, it created huge demand for the records and that included white teenagers, who had disposable income to spend on recorded music.

Willa:  Yes, and that’s another important point, Lisha. This was the beginning of the rise of youth culture in the U.S., with teenagers having access to cars (and car radios) as well as money to spend, and it caused a very real fear in some quarters – especially since a lot of these white kids really seemed to like the music coming from Record Row. So some people, especially in the South, put a lot of energy into deliberate attempts to keep the music segregated – in part because, as Michael Jackson said many times, music is such a powerful force for bringing people together.

Lisha:  I think that because music both reflects and potentially drives the culture, you can see that when musical divisions are destabilized, it threatens social divisions as well.

Willa:  Exactly!

Lisha:  Many white parents were anxious about their children consuming music previously marketed as “race records.” So the knock-offs addressed that anxiety and proved to be wildly successful at market. But that meant the true innovators of this music were never properly recognized or fairly compensated for their work. Cover records outsold the originals many times over, and intellectual property rights were commonly signed over to the record companies in those days.

Willa:  That’s true, and that’s something else Michael Jackson talked about a number of times – for example, in his protests against Sony.

So here’s a really good documentary that talks about Chicago’s Record Row and the crucial role it played in this formative period in American music. About 20 minutes in, it talks about efforts in the 1950s to keep keep white teenagers from listening to these new black artists by having white artists cover their music, sometimes practically note for note.

But the main focus of this documentary is what a happening place Record Row was back then! Here’s the film:

I love this documentary! And for me the big takeaway is simply all the energy and excitement and creativity on Record Row at that time! This really was the center of the music industry, like Hollywood for the film industry, and it’s incredible to think that a very young Michael Jackson was right there too, taking it all in.

Lisha:  It is such a fascinating story, isn’t it? For anyone having trouble with the link, we’re discussing a PBS documentary titled Cradle of Rhythm and Blues: Record Row, narrated by Etta James. (Michael Jackson opened for her at the Apollo Theater in 1968.)

Willa:  Yes, but if you want to find a physical copy you’re going to have a hard time of it, as one YouTube blogger explained:

Record Row – Was produced by WTTW in Chicago (PBS) and aired in February 1997. I happened to tape it. Lost my tape a few months ago and then discovered that Record Row had disappeared from the earth more or less. Found one copy in a small college’s library somewhere in the south but not available for loan. Called WTTW and they disavowed ever having produced Record Row! Obviously no VHS or DVD’s for sale! But this is an important historical document.

I bring that up to emphasize how difficult it is to find information about Record Row, and how precious it is when something does turn up. It really feels like an important part of American music history is being lost.

Lisha:  Musically speaking, it seems like Chicago has been hiding its light under a bushel for decades.

Willa:  Yes, but those with roots in Chicago know the history. Here’s a short but fun clip of President Obama singing “Sweet Home Chicago” in the White House with some of the artists who recorded in Chicago at one time or another, including B.B. King (who frequently performed in Chicago and recorded a number of live albums there), Buddy Guy (who was a house musician at Chess Records early in his career), and Mick Jagger (who recorded an album at Chess, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, and whose picture is on the wall at Chess):

Lisha:  Whoa! That is the coolest clip ever, Willa!

Willa:  Oh, it just does my heart good to watch this! And it’s fascinating if you think about the chronology of voices in this clip. It begins with Buddy Guy singing a song reportedly by Robert Johnson, though no one knows for sure. He recorded the first known version of it, but it’s never been clearly documented whether he wrote it or not. It’s then picked up by a wonderful singer I don’t know – do you, Lisha?

Lisha:  No idea, but she is incredible! Let me see if I can find out …

So looking at the credits of In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues, which was taped in the East Room of the White House, I see that the spectacular female vocalist we are so curious about is Shemekia Copeland, and she is the daughter of Texas Blues guitarist Johnny Copeland. I’m an instant fan!

Willa:  Thank you for tracking that down, Lisha. I love her voice! It’s nice to put a name with it.

So after Shemekia Copeland, Mick Jagger sings a verse, and then Buddy Guy insists Obama take a turn. (“I heard you singing Al Green!”) And Obama does sing! He also holds the microphone out for B.B. King to sing a phrase before coming back in. It ends with many different voices joining together.

I have to say, I just love this clip! And in some way I can’t explain very well, it encapsulates everything I think about the role of music in bringing about social change.

Lisha:  I love it too! There is something about this music that makes me so proud to be American – just obnoxiously so. It’s as if racial divisions fall away in musical moments like this, and we all just become Americans. It’s amazing to me how national identity and music are so closely bound together, and this music so perfectly captures what I think of as American music. Pretty interesting when you consider how this music was devalued and marginalized historically, yet it ends up defining a nation. Maybe that’s why it’s such a thrill to see it celebrated at the White House in such a meaningful way?

Willa:  That makes a lot of sense, Lisha. I feel a sense of pride and belonging also, though I wasn’t able to explain it as well as you just did. There’s just something so uplifting about hearing all these talented musicians come together and celebrate this distinctly American style of music!

But there’s also something very special about the way the song is picked up and carried by one voice after another in this clip – from Buddy Guy to a chorus of voices at the end, with nods along the way to Robert Johnson and B.B. King and even the Rolling Stones – that almost seems to trace the history of American music, and especially Chicago Blues, in compressed form. Looking at it in a more symbolic way, it’s pretty profound what’s happening on that stage.

Lisha:  Wow. Now that you mention it, I can see this performance as being like a map of the human history of this country, representing centuries of struggle in a musical way. I mean, you have the stringed instruments and Western harmony that were imposed on this land by European conquerors, the enslaved peoples who took it and made it their own – only to send it back to Europe where it is admired and copied and returned to us via the British musical invasion.

Willa:  Represented by the hand of Mick Jagger taking the microphone for a verse and then passing it on to Obama.

Lisha:  Oh gosh, you’re right!

Willa:  It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? And then, the sheer fact that Obama joins in and plays a role in carrying the song forward, and that this is all happening at the White House at the invitation of the first black president, really drives home the connection between art and politics, and the role of music – particularly the music of Chicago and Record Row – in changing public opinions about race. This clip is just amazing to me, on so many levels.

Lisha:  I agree with you. I think I’ve already hit replay about 10 times! It’s like a musical snapshot of the whole story.

I think what we’re learning here is that making music in and of itself can be a very powerful political act. Also, I’m starting to think Chicago is a much bigger part of the Michael Jackson story than we previously imagined, both musically and politically.

Willa:  I agree. Thank you so much for sharing your musical knowledge with me, Lisha! As a Chicago musician yourself, you’ve really opened my eyes to the fact that Chicago – in particular, Record Row – was where it was happening, musically, in the 1950s and 60s. And Michael Jackson was right there, talented and prepped and ready to step up to the microphone …

Lisha: … at a pivotal moment in history. 1968 marks the end of the Civil Rights Movement proper with the assassination of Dr. King and the final legislative achievement of the movement, the Fair Housing Act. When Michael Jackson steps onto the world stage the following year, in 1969, it is the beginning of the post-civil rights era. And he remains highly visible for the remainder of his life – until 2009, when President Obama is sworn into office.

Willa:  That’s true. And it seems really significant that Michael Jackson’s career is bookended in that way – by Martin Luther King on one end and President Obama on the other. We need to look at that further – that seems like a really important conversation to have. But it’s also important to look at Gary, and the surprising role it played in the Chicago music scene…. There’s a lot to talk about!

About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on April 4, 2018, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 38 Comments.

  1. Nina Fonoroff

    Oh, there you are, Willa and Lisha! I was starting to wonder if we’d ever see you again, so this is delightful! I look forward to savoring your new post in a few days, I hope… Welcome back!

    • Hi Nina. It’s great to hear your voice again! Thank you for the warm welcome. I’ve really missed this wonderful online community, and your insights are an important part of it.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful history lesson. Looking back now, it is so fascinating to read how Michael and his brothers were part of a larger musical evolution that broke down all sorts of barriers even before they joined Motown. I certainly remember (as a Beatles fanatic in the 60s!) referenced the US R&B artists and covered some of their songs… which was the first I had heard of some of them. I particularly remember being fascinated by what John Lennon kept in his portable jukebox, as described in the doco “John Lennon’s Jukebox”. Great research and discussion! Thank you both!

    • Hi Kerry. That’s so interesting about John Lennon’s jukebox! I’m eager to learn more about that. I know the Beatles (and many other young British bands) were strongly influenced by Skiffle music, which sparked an obsessive interest in the music of American blues singers. Here’s a short NewsHour clip about Skiffle:

      I’m curious to see what Lennon had in his jukebox!

    • Hi Kerry,

      Thanks so much for mentioning this documentary. It’s so relevant to this discussion! Although I couldn’t find it in its entirety on YouTube, I did just watch about 30 minutes of it here:

      Can’t wait to track the rest of it down.

      Partial playlist:
      “Bee Bop A Lula” by Gene Vincent
      “Slippin’ and Slidin'” by Little Richard
      “New Orleans” by Gary “US” Bonds
      “Some Other Guy” by Richie Barrett
      “Twist and Shout” by The Isley Brothers
      “Watch Your Step” by Bobby Parker
      “Hey Baby” by Bruce Channel & Delbert McClinton
      “Bootleg” by Booker T & the MGs
      “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett
      “My Girl” by Otis Redding [cover of the Temptations, Smokey Robinson]

      • Also, I was going to save this for our next discussion but it fits so well here I think I’ll add it now. This is a Liverpool doo-wop group I’ve never heard the Beatles reference, but wow do they sound like the Beatles:

  3. It’s lovely to have you back! Such an enlightening post, thank you.

    I was just reflecting this morning on my own experience of the death of Dr. King fifty years ago. Your notes on a young Michael being in Chicago that summer bring it full circle. I’m just three months younger than Michael, and as a nine-year-old the experience of Dr. King’s assassination was indelible. I can still see, hear, and feel the cries of a country, the wailing of the mourners, the burning of cities, the despair, and the fury.

    Dr. King’s death was quickly followed by the assassination of RFK. In between those horrors, the evening news assaulted us every day with the sound of Huey choppers in Vietnam.
    The summer of 1968 was generation-defining for us youngest boomers, and it shaped everything about me.

    I think that’s why Michael’s work so resonates with me; why I always “got him.” I see a response to the events of 1968 everywhere in his work, from Heal The World to Man in the Mirror to Stranger in Moscow to Black & White. In the 90’s, this response of his began to feel irrelevant to music & video consumers who didn’t live through those times, and it felt outdated to those who believed that the problems had been solved by the passage of the Civil Rights act.

    But as you pointed out Willa, the progress was not as complete as some assumed. You can’t kill hatred by passing laws; changing hearts was the only way. Michael dedicated himself to heart surgery. He was such a compassionate, wise, and prescient man.

    • “I see a response to the events of 1968 everywhere in his work…”

      That’s a really important observation, D.B. I hadn’t considered Michael Jackson’s activism in that way before, but I think you’re right – he was really shaped by what happened in 1968.

      By the way, your mention of Robert Kennedy reminded me of that moving speech he gave in Indianapolis the evening of the day Martin Luther King died – so 50 years ago tonight. Here’s a video recording of that speech (it’s only 5 minutes long):

      • I love that speech. So moving. The quote he gives from Aeschylus was one my dad loved too, and so true that pain and suffering, that we all experience, can make us wise against our will by the ‘awful grace of god.’ Reminds me too of Keats’ concept of the world as a place of ‘soul making.’ Poor Bobby. I agree with DB Anderson’s comment above that those of us who lived through those times, those assassinations and the Vietnam war, were traumatized and changed by them. I would add Kent State to that, where National Guard troops shot and killed students on their way to class. Looking back on it now, however, I am amazed we came through it and stayed together as a nation. I was at the march on Washington where MLK spoke. Music, as well as wise words from leaders like RFK, helped us cope. Remember the song ‘the Night Train’ by the Commodores?

      • Here is a mourning song I was trying to recall–“Abraham, Martin, and John,” released in 1968. It went to #4 on the Billboard top 100.

  4. Eleanor Bowman

    Hi Willa and Lisha —

    So glad to see Dancing With the Elephant pop up in my mail this morning. What a relief and what a joy to read about MJ! So interesting to see him situated in the midst of such a vibrant musical scene in Chicago at such an early age. I had no idea. And I wholeheartedly agree that music brings people together in ways that nothing else can.

    Being from Memphis, I do have to put in a plug for Stax Records, which opened its doors in 1957 and recorded both black and white artists and was also run by both blacks and whites. And for Memphis DJ, Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first, if not the first, DJ to play both black and white music on the same program. Although the city was still segregated, the music provided at both high school and college dances was always black. I don’t think I ever saw a white group. And, as early as 1961, some friends of mine and I went to an integrated Ray Charles concert at Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium. It all seemed so full of promise.

    And yet, fifty years ago today, Memphis was where MLK was assassinated.

    And today, it is 65% black and the poorest metropolitan area in the US. And still very segregated.

    But, I still hope, and my hope is still in MJ and music. Politically, our country is a mess; but musically, it is very much alive and music knows no boundaries.

    Again, thanks for this!

    • Eleanor, I got transplanted to Memphis for a few years back in the 90’s. Agree about Stax and Dewey Phillips! But the continued segregation and ongoing racist attitudes among white people there were a total shock to my Northeastern system. It was quite an education.

    • Hi Eleanor. It’s so good to hear from you again! Thank you for the reminder about Stax Records, a studio many saw as a more “authentic” counterbalance to Motown (though I say that as a Motown fan).

      You’re right, Stax was a leader in their integrated approach to music production. It’s really inspiring. And how tragic, as you say, that that’s the place where Martin Luther King was killed.

  5. Shelley Minden

    Thank you! So good to see you!

  6. Fascinating!! Wonderful that you’re back!! Thanks so much for this. About where the J5 was in 1968, the family moved to LA in August 1968, along with Motown, so this was a big project taking time for the relocation of the family. Here is from the LA times obituary: “Motown moved the Jacksons to California, and in August 1968 they gave a breakthrough performance at a Beverly Hills club called The Daisy. Their first album, “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5,” was released in December 1969, and it yielded the No. 1 hit “I Want You Back,” with 11-year-old Michael on the lead vocals.” Again, so nice to dive in to the blog again, and I agree, Willa, we need Michael Jackson now more than ever,

    • Hi indigenous! Oh it’s so nice to hear from you again! And thanks so much for pointing out the LA Times obit. I was hoping someone would bring this timeline up.

      The Jacksons story has been told so many ways that I felt like a detective trying to sort it out! At this point, I’m inclined to think they moved to LA in 1969. In the new book “The Jacksons Legacy,” written by the Jacksons themselves, the timeline says the official Motown signing was on March 11, 1969, they started recording in Detroit with Bobby Taylor on July 10, 1969, and then they moved to California later that month, in July 1969.

      Here’s why I’m inclined to think those dates are accurate. Although the J5 had a successful audition for Motown in July 1968, it turns out they were already under contract with Atlantic Records at the time, which is a big deal, but it often gets written out of the narrative because it’s not exactly flattering to either the Jacksons or to Motown.

      In 1968, when Steeltown Records saw what a big hit “Big Boy” was regionally, they contracted with Atlantic Records for national distribution. But then almost immediately, Motown wanted the group for their label. So the time lapse between the Motown audition and the official contract signing is most likely due to the legal wrangling it took to get them out of their other contractual obligations.

      Here is Gordon Keith’s (Steeltown Records) version of events:

      Notice at 4:14 there is a quick shot of an ad from the Chicago Defender, that shows the J5 were still working at the High Chaparral Lounge on March 7-9, 1969. I think they were working in Gary/Chicago right up until the time they started work at Motown.

      Also, the J5 Collectors schedule I linked to in our discussion above looks accurate to me based on other info I collected as we were writing. They cite MJJ Vault as the source of their information, which is based on original newspaper articles and advertising. Unfortunately, I don’t think the MJJ Vault site is still available. I’m really hoping someone might know something about it.

      • Hi, Lisha, great to hear from you again! Wow—I see what you mean about all the various timelines for that period of the J5. LA Times definitely got it wrong as far as the date of the performance at the Daisy, the ‘swankiest’ disco in LA. It was not in ‘68 but ‘69. I agree the move to LA took place after the official contract was signed with Motown on March 11, 1969. Yet it looks like the J5 had an agreement with Motown before then. Randall Sullivan says in his chronology that the J5 auditioned July 23, 1968 and ‘signed with Motown’ on the 26th. Taraborelli says, ‘On September 27, 1968, Motown booked the Jackson 5 in a benefit concert at Gilroy Stadium in Gary’ (along with Motown artists like Gladys Knight, the Vancouver’s, etc.). So Motown had rights of representation at that point it would seem. Taraborelli says Joe waited for the official signing on March 11, 69 before moving out to CA with the J5 while Katherine and the sisters stayed back in Gary, for another year or so (?). He says the boys and Joe lived in seedy hotels in LA until they got settled (Gordy being parsimonious, according to him). Michael, in Moonwalk, doesn’t mention any of that, saying the boys lived with either Diana Ross or Gordy. In any case, LaToya says the J5 performed ‘almost every weekend, up to 5 shows a night,’ from around the time they won the talent show in Gary (spring 1966, according to Sullivan, 1965 according to Adrian Grant, held at Roosevelt High School) up to when they left for LA in March 1969. They were busy!! She mentions seeing them at the Regal and how exciting it was. Thanks for all your sleuthing!!

        • Don’t you love how it takes a village to get all this sorted out? Thanks for reminding me about Sullivan! 🙂

          So I’ve seen several accounts that J5 “signed with Motown” in July ’68, including Gordon Keith’s account that Eddie Holland announced it on WWMP radio at the time. I believe him. And I do think Motown wanted to sign J5, but I don’t think they could because they were already under contract. It appears Sullivan & others have missed the significance of the Steeltown/Atlantic contracts.

          I’ve never heard any inside scoops about how Motown got around those contracts. Was it a buy-out? Did they simply let the clock run out by letting the previous agreements expire? I don’t know and haven’t heard from anyone who has direct knowledge of how that deal went down. Interesting that no one has said a word.

          My guess is that Motown had some kind of informal verbal agreement with J5 in July ’68, letting them know of their strong interest and asking for permission to negotiate with Atlantic. It does appear J5 participated in the September benefit as well as the big soiree in November at the Gordy mansion in Detroit, both non-paid events.

  7. According to Smallcombe, they won the Apollo in 1967. In late 1967, they signed a “short-term deal” w/ Gordon Keith’s Gary-based record label Steeltown Recorders and Big Boy was released in January, 1968. The J5’s “big break” came 6 months later (7/68) when they auditioned w/ Motown and Gordy “officially signed the group in March 1969 following a delay due to a dispute with Steeltown.” That summer (1969) Gordy moved the family to the house on Queen’s Rd in the Hollywood Hills after they’d spent time in several hotels. I also remember Taraborelli writing about the “seedy” hotels which I thought was pretty tacky on Gordy’s part. These boys were going to be his future and he knew it.

    • Hi Corlista1! So nice to hear from you!

      Sounds like Smallcombe reaches some of the same conclusions with the timeline. Thanks for pointing that out! Good to know another researcher got a similar result.

      Wonder where Taraborelli’s description comes from about the “seedy” hotels? Sounds a bit suspicious, but I recall reading this before, too. Did the Jacksons describe it this way?

      • Hi, Lisha, I am looking at Taraborelli and he says the house on Queens Rd was occupied by the Joe and the J5 at the beginning of November 69. The rest of the family arrived at the end of 1969. As far as the hotels, “Gordy registered them at one of the seediest motels in Hollywood, the Tropicana, on Santa Monica Boulevard. Michael, Marlon, and Jermaine shared one room while Tito and Jackie were in another. Joe was by himself down the hall.” Eventually, he continues, Gordy moved them out of the Tropicana to another bad place: “ The Hollywood Motel, across the street from Hollywood High, was a dreadful residence for young boys; prostitutes and pimps used it as a place to conduct business.”
        BTW, he goes into detail about a contract they signed a contract with Motown shortly after the audition. This was discussed on July 26, ‘68 with Joe, Ralph Seltzer, and Jack Richardson. It was for 7 years. Joe got it changed to one year. He signed it without reading it, and so did the J5. Taraborelli goes into some detail about that contract and its deficiencies for the J5.

        • You can not take everything from Taraborrelli’s books as truth, he fabricated lots of things about MJ. Even Theresa, MJ’s close friend in the 70’s said that Taraborrelli said in his book that his parents brought girls to MJ for him to date which wasn’t true, along with some other things. If I were you I wouldn’t even read his book. He claimed MJ had bleaching cream and tried to bleach his skin to become white, etc., when MJ had the bleaching cream to even out his skin from vitiligo. The pathologist found vitiligo in MJ’s body and documented it in his autopsy report, he should know, he was thw pathologist. So Taraborrelli doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He wasn’t MJ dermatologist, neither did MJ ever tell him his person business, all he knows about MJ is what MJ presented to him, like music, jokes, etc., but he doesn’t know anything about MJ’s medical life, etc. What he said about MJ was from drawing his own conclusion from his own person opinion. I have best friends that I don’t know a lot of, all I know is what they presented to me. Even Jermaine, MJ’s own brother stated in his “You Are Not Alone” book that people expect relatives, siblings to know everything about their family and they don’t. Jermaine mentioned how he didn’t know that MJ’s pimples, etc. bothered him so badly as it did. He found out through MJ’s Moonwalk book like everyone else did when MJ brought it up. So I know that Taraborrelli guy doesn’t know much about MJ except for what MJ presented to him which was certainly not his medical history, etc. MJ was not that close to Taraborrelli to tell him his personal business. I will never read a book by a person who talked crap and lies about MJ’s life, never.

      • Taraborelli says that after the contract was signed in July ‘68, “ immediately, the Jacksons began to record at the Motown studios under the direction of Bobby Taylor. For the next few months, they would spend their weeks in Gary attending school and their weekends – and many of their weeks as well – in Detroit, sleeping on the floor of Bobby Taylor’s apartment. While in Detroit, the boys recorded fifteen songs, most of which would surface later on their albums.”

    • Thanks for that info corlista1. Taraborelli also says 2 of the J5 were missing a front tooth but that Gordy said it could wait and they would just fix any promo photos rather than fix the teeth. Of course, eventually, they did fix the teeth, but you got the idea Gordy was shutting down further expenses. Apparently, he had already invested $30k into the J5 at that point and was eager for a hit before putting more cash into the group. I agree with you his behavior was tacky. He was going to make millions!

      Adrian Grant says they won the Apollo talent show in 67. And before that, they had won the talent show at the Regal in Chicago (Sunday night amateur talent show) 3 times, which allowed them ‘the chance to share the bill with a top established star or act.’ He writes that all these wins happened in 67 but doesn’t provide specific dates. Sullivan puts the Regal wins as ‘early 67’ and the Apollo win as in August 67.

      What amazes me, if LaToya is correct about the frequency of the weekend performances, that Michael was doing all this at such a young age, traveling too from Gary to other, sometimes distant cities and attending school all at the same time.

      On the other hand, he loved meeting the other performers, esp. James Brown. LaToya writes: “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Michael’s biggest influence then, was a special favorite with his tornadolike spins, acrobatic deep splits, liquid glides across the stage, and, of course, soul. James never performed in or around Chicago without visiting our home. I remember his rough, raspy voice and especially his flamboyant clothes and heavy, gaudy jewelry.” She says James spent hours in the living room of their house warning Joe and the J5 about the music business. Good advice but what could they do? They basically had to trust Gordy at that point.

  8. Another amazing post. Thanks for sharing this. I see where you all mentioned how MJ must have known about racism in the 60’s, I don’t think he did though because MJ said so in his own words that he did not grow up knowing about racism while he was a kid, nor did he experience it because he was too busy with his music, etc. He said that he was a 70’s kid, meaning that he begin to understand more about the world in the 70s while he was too young in the 60s to understand about racism. MJ mentioned this during the Jesse Jackson interview I believe. And it’s so true because Diana Ross, his dear friend who is like 14 years older than him said the same thing, she said she did not experience racism when she was little because she was shielded from that as a kid. It wasn’t until she was older that she begin to learn about racism. Not every single black person experienced racism while racism was going on, some were shielded from that like MJ and Diana Ross, and possibly others while they were kids, it wasn’t until they grew older that they begin to understand the racism in the world.

  9. About stringed musical instruments being indigenous to the Americas, I came across this link. It’s interesting info so here is the link:

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