How we made ... The Jack­son 5’s I Want You Back

‘We’d put buck­ets of wa­ter over doors and play pranks with itch­ing pow­der’

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

Tito Jack­son, singer

We were five of nine sib­lings who grew up in a house the size of a dou­ble garage in Gary, In­di­ana. We weren’t al­lowed to touch our fa­ther’s gui­tar when he went to work. Of course I did – my mum would let us play – and he found out, be­cause I’d bro­ken a string. He scolded me, put a new string on and said: “Show me what you know.” He was sur­prised that I could play, so gave me the gui­tar and I just started learn­ing ev­ery Mo­town song, with Jackie, Jer­maine and my­self singing. When we heard Michael sing our tongues fell out of our mouths. We in­vited our other lit­tle brother, Mar­lon, to join as well, and that was the start of the Jack­son 5.

We’d come home from school and go straight into re­hearsal, and a cou­ple of hours later we’d go out to per­form. Gla­dys Knight saw us and told Berry Gordy at Mo­town but he didn’t want to know. Then when we opened for Bobby Tay­lor & the Van­cou­vers, Bobby told Berry: “You’ve got to see these kids.” We’d just been asked to ap­pear on David Frost’s TV show, so when we had to can­cel that to au­di­tion for Mo­town, I didn’t want to go. Berry still wasn’t that in­ter­ested be­cause he al­ready had Lit­tle Ste­vie Won­der and didn’t want to deal with more kids, but we stunned him so much he walked over and said: “I’m gonna get you guys three No 1s in a row.” We were more ex­cited to be in his man­sion. He had a bowl­ing al­ley, a golf course. It was like Dis­ney­land.

I Want You Back was writ­ten for us by a team of writ­ers called the Cor­po­ra­tion, which in­cluded Berry. Michael was 10 years old, but he sang it like a bird. Ev­ery­thing took off af­ter we did The Ed Sul­li­van Show. Amer­ica had not long been through the civil rights era and the song brought black and white and young and old to­gether. When we landed in Lon­don, thou­sands of fans chased us through the air­port, through the streets, bang­ing on the roof of the car. Michael had a scarf on and some fans were pulling it through the win­dow un­til he turned blue. In school, we’d been learn­ing about the Eif­fel Tower, Buck­ing­ham Palace, the Statue of Lib­erty and so on. Then sud­denly we were go­ing back to class with pic­tures of us in all these places.

Mar­lon Jack­son, singer

Our fa­ther was a hard taskmaster. There’s a James Brown song, Papa Don’t Take No Mess. That was my fa­ther. He drilled us into be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional group. We were play­ing the chitlin’ cir­cuit, clubs, theatres, ev­ery­where. Ev­ery tal­ent show we en­tered, we won. I don’t know how much we were be­ing paid for all this but au­di­ences would throw money on the floor, so I went into school with a lot of dol­lars in my pocket.

When we au­di­tioned for Mo­town, Marvin Gaye was there, the Temp­ta­tions, Diana Ross, all of them. We were singing their songs while they were look­ing at us. We started record­ing in Hitsville stu­dios in Detroit, then Mo­town re­lo­cated to Los Angeles, so we fin­ished the songs there.

I Want You Back was one of the last songs we recorded in those ses­sions. We could all play in­stru­ments, but we weren’t al­lowed to play on the records be­cause Mo­town wanted them to sound re­ally tight, so they had top mu­si­cians. As kids, you don’t know how good those songs are. You just sing what you’re told to sing. I re­mem­ber hear­ing the fin­ished record for the first time when our next-door neigh­bour ran over with a por­ta­ble ra­dio yelling: “You’re on the ra­dio!” Then our first four sin­gles went to No 1, which no­body had ever done be­fore.

When you’re 11 years old, you don’t think about that type of stuff, or how this song is go­ing to save some­one’s life years from now, or get some­one’s fam­ily back to­gether. We were just kids hav­ing fun. Michael and I were such pranksters. We’d put itch­ing pow­der on men’s bald spots, or put a bucket of wa­ter over a door so that when some­one walked in they’d get a soak­ing. We never threw tele­vi­sions out of win­dows. Our first album was called Diana Ross Presents the Jack­son 5, but she wasn’t that much older than us and had a lot of kid in her. We were al­ways hav­ing pil­low fights.

In­ter­views by Dave Simp­son. Tito Jack­son’s de­but solo album, Tito Time, is out now.

‘I don’t know how much we were be­ing paid, but I went to school with a lot of dol­lars in my pocket’

‘Mo­town didn’t want any more kids be­cause they al­ready had Lit­tle Ste­vie Won­der’

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