The Jackson Find | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

The Jackson Find 

This was supposed to be the story of the Jackson Five’s first single, cut in Chicago in 1967. But while writing it, Jake Austen picked up the trail of a tape nobody knew existed: the earliest known studio recording of Michael Jackson and his brothers.

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The Jackson Five; the "Big Boy" reel from One-derful Records

The Jackson Five; the "Big Boy" reel from One-derful Records

Jackson Five photo from the collection of Jake Austen; photo of tape by Jim Newberry

When the world paused this summer to look back on Michael Jackson's extraordinary career, one chapter was missing from all the retrospectives, which skipped straight from the Jackson Five's formation in Gary, Indiana, to their explosive rise to stardom on Motown Records. Though every last recording by Elvis and the Beatles—the only other pop stars of Jackson's magnitude—has been meticulously documented, not even the most obsessive collectors have the whole story behind "Big Boy," the Jackson Five's first single.

Die-hard fans know it was recorded in late 1967 and released early in '68 on Gary's Steeltown Records. But most of the rest of the information out there is flawed or incomplete. The 1992 miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream fictionalizes the session, placing it in 1966 and pretending, probably for licensing reasons, that the Jacksons recorded a cover of "Kansas City." Even Michael's 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, gets most of the details wrong—not surprising given that he was nine at the time. And to my knowledge no published account has ever mentioned that "Big Boy" was cut in Chicago.

What you're about to read is not only a detailed account of the Jackson Five's Steeltown session but also convincing evidence that by then the group had already been in development with one of Chicago's most important black-owned labels—an episode previously completely lost to history. More compelling still, this label's efforts included an even earlier recording session. My efforts to jog the memories of the people closest to that session have resulted in the discovery of what many of the King of Pop's fans will consider the ultimate artifact: a studio master, by all appearances recorded by the Jackson Five, that predates the sides that for more than 40 years have been considered the group's earliest. In other words, Michael Jackson's first professional recording.

Anyone attempting to fill in some of the blank pages of the Jackson Five's early history will shortly find there are few facts upon which any two witnesses agree. Virtually everybody who encountered the group during its formative years, for instance, claims to have discovered Michael. Some claims are reasonable: Roosevelt High teachers Genevieve Gray and Yjean Chambers showcased the Jackson brothers in momentum-building talent shows starting in 1965. Others are ridiculous: Motown exec Berry Gordy fabricated Diana Ross's 1969 "discovery" of the group to whip up hype. Steeltown Records cofounder Gordon Keith, 70, is the man with the largest body of tangible evidence to back up his claim: he estimates that "Big Boy" sold more than 60,000 copies.

Many have made and lost millions on the backs of the Jacksons, but Keith's fortunes have remained largely unchanged since the mid-60s, when he founded Steeltown with four partners: Ben Brown, Ludie Washington, Maurice Rodgers, and Willie Spencer. The former steel-mill worker still lives at the Gary address that's printed on the first pressing of "Big Boy." These days most conversations he has about the Jacksons turn toward bitter reflections on the "double cross" he says took them from him—Joseph Jackson and Berry Gordy are the worst of many antagonists in these stories—yet he still sees their appearance on his doorstep as divine intervention. God, he says, gave him the gift of a group that was ready.

click to enlarge Pervis Spann - FROM THE COLLECTION OF JAKE AUSTEN

By 1967 Steeltown had released several singles without scoring a hit. Keith had seen enough Jackson Five show placards around town to convince him that the group was hardworking—he figured they might be the rare young act that combined talent with discipline. He got the family's number from a group that studied with the Jacksons' music teacher, Shirley Cartman (another reasonable claimant in the Jackson Five discovery sweepstakes), called patriarch Joseph Jackson, and was invited to the family's home for a private performance. Before they'd even played a note Keith saw something that convinced him Michael was extraordinary—something he says he'd never seen before and never saw again. "They were setting up in the living room," Keith recalls, "and Michael walked over to Tito's guitar cord, which was stretched between the guitar and amplifier, chest high to Michael, and I seen him flat-footedly jump over that guitar cord . . . not a running jump, flat-footed! I was pretty sold right there."

The boys' performance lived up to Michael's acrobatics, and Keith decided to negotiate with the Jacksons' management to take over their contract. Even then the question of who managed the group was complicated—Joseph would strike deals, often overlapping, with anyone he thought could help the boys get ahead—but two of the major players were WVON disc jockeys Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones.

In late 1965 or early '66 a triumphant Jackson Five talent-contest appearance at Chicago's Regal Theater had so impressed Spann that he and Jones offered to manage the act. (Spann also frequently takes credit for discovering Michael.) Keith remembers Jones (who died in 2004) claiming to have spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting the group to no avail. Keith thought that was odd, considering how polished they were and how influential Spann and Jones were, but he was thrilled to sign them anyway.

click to enlarge E. Rodney Jones - FROM THE COLLECTION OF JAKE AUSTEN

Gary had a recording studio, run by Bud Pressner, a saxophonist who in the course of a 50-year career as a performer and engineer worked on everything from his own Buddy Pressner Orchestra tunes in the 40s to raunchy late-80s house music. But Keith decided this recording deserved big-city gloss, and arranged for the boys to head into Chicago.

So after school one afternoon in November 1967, Michael, 9, Marlon, 10, Jermaine, 12, Tito, 14, and Jackie, 16, piled into the family Volkswagen with Joseph and rode across the state line to Chicago's West Englewood neighborhood, parking in front of Sunny Sawyer's recording studio on West 69th. Today that address is a vacant lot overrun by six-foot weeds, neighbored by the last surviving commercial buildings on the block—a tavern called Mitchell's that's attached to Rainbow Food and Liquor and a boarded-up pharmacy. But in the late 60s it was at the heart of a busy business district.

click to enlarge The Jackson Five: Marlon, Tito, Jackie, Jermaine, and Michael, with Johnny Jackson (no relation) on drums - FROM THE COLLECTION OF GILLES PETARD

An ambitious entrepreneur, Sawyer was running a small record-pressing plant called Apex at 2009 W. 69th when, around 1965, he partnered with an older recording engineer, Vaughn Morrison, who designed and built a studio one door west. Most people knew it as Sunny Sawyer's studio and others simply called it Apex, but its proper name, painted on its glass-brick facade, was Morrison Sound Studio. In '61 Morrison had produced a top-ten pop hit, "This Time," for Indiana native Troy Shondell.

"Morrison was a genius," says legendary Chicago engineer Ed Cody, who often hired him to make stampers for his records. "Very knowledgeable." Though relatively small, maybe 1,200 square feet, the recording room had a rounded ceiling designed to disperse sound evenly. "Acoustically it was a live room, instead of a big dead-sounding studio," recalls Jerry Mundo, a musician and songwriter who frequently worked there. "It didn't suck up a lot of sound, so most of the things we did came off bright and very definite." The studio was stocked with high-quality Austrian microphones and an Ampex MR-70 four-track tape recorder, a costly top-of-the-line machine. "Unfortunately," Mundo says, "only three tracks were working, so we'd have to mix down and ping-pong. It was tedious, but it was better than having one track or two tracks."

click to enlarge Jerry Mundo (second from left) with his group the Galaxies - FROM THE COLLECTION OF JAKE AUSTEN

By 1967 Sawyer had bought Morrison out. Early on he did some work as a vanity press—south-side gospel artists would pay to record, then take home 500 copies to sell or distribute at church. A good engineer with a good ear who'd worked at Universal, the top studio in the city, Sawyer also released rock 'n' roll, R & B, and blues records by artists like Mighty Joe Young, Fenton Robinson, and Josephine Taylor on his own labels, Palos, New Breed, and Betty—the last named after his wife, who along with another woman operated the machinery at the pressing plant while he ran the studio. Business was decent, but neighbors complained about booming bass leaking into their laundromat and grocery store. "Sometimes, knocking out the jams, you get up there in the dBs," Mundo says. "To get your hot sound, you're gonna have some bleed out the door." According to Mundo, business owners in the neighborhood—which was then predominantly white—were also intimidated by the steady stream of black bluesmen coming in for late-night sessions. By 1969 Sawyer's landlord had terminated the lease, forcing him to relocate to 72nd and Racine.

But it's unlikely any neighbors were intimidated by the visitors on that fall day in '67. "The Jacksons were little angels," Sawyer says, "and real professionals, doing their own stuff." Joseph had trained Tito on guitar and Jermaine on bass, and young family friend Johnny Jackson (no relation, though Motown would bill him as a cousin) was an excellent drummer. All three play on the recordings, but Keith supplemented Tito and Jermaine with adult musicians, including Richard Brown on rhythm guitar, Freddie Young on lead guitar, and Ray Grimes on bass. He brought in Lamont King on bongos and a conga player whose name he forgets (though he recalls he was a nephew of deejay Daddy-O Daylie). Keith and Steeltown co-owner Ludie Washington (who later recorded his own sides as Lou D. Washington and moved to California to act in movies like UHF and House Party) sang backup harmonies on "Big Boy," along with Gary vocalist Delroy Bridgeman.

Bridgeman had been a member of a 50s doo-wop group called the Senators, who recorded for Vee-Jay subsidiary Abner, and Sawyer's place was quite modest compared to studios he'd used in his heyday. "You could probably put the studio we were in into one of Universal's office spaces," he says. While many operations on Michigan Avenue's Record Row had offices, rehearsal rooms, and places for musicians to lounge, Sawyer's studio consisted of nothing more than the live room (where a piano and drum kit took up a fair amount of the space), a small control room, and a bathroom.

click to enlarge Eddie Silvers (center) with his group the Soul Merchants - COURTESY LARRY NESTOR
  • Eddie Silvers (center) with his group the Soul Merchants
  • Courtesy Larry Nestor

In a single lengthy session the group recorded four songs, all of which Keith says were already in their repertoire. "Big Boy" was by saxophonist Eddie Silvers, who at the time was playing in a group called the Soul Merchants and working as music director for Chicago R & B label One-derful Records. Its eventual B side, "You've Changed"—the only Steeltown track the Jacksons would record again for Motown—is by Gary native Jerry Reese. "We Don't Have to Be Over 21" was by Sherman Nesbary, a prolific Chicago writer who recorded under several names, including Verble Domino and Little Sherman & the Mod Swingers. Authorship of the fourth tune, "Some Girls Want Me for Their Lover," is unclear.

Though in Moonwalk Michael recalls being giddy to put on a pair of too-big headphones and sing in a studio with adult musicians, he was far from unprepared. In addition to exhaustively rehearsing at home and hustling amateur nights and talent contests with pristine ten-minute sets, the brothers had also been doing proper shows at Chicago nightclubs like Spann's Burning Spear and the Confidential Club, and they had a regular gig, sometimes playing multiple sets, at Mr. Lucky's nightspot in Gary. Joe had even bought a microphone for their home to help the boys get used to singing into one.

click to enlarge Delroy Bridgeman with the Senators - COURTESY DELROY BRIDGEMAN
  • Delroy Bridgeman with the Senators
  • Courtesy Delroy Bridgeman

Despite the kids' professionalism, the session was grueling, in part because the Ampex's dead track meant they had to stop more often to mix down and free up space on the tape. As the night wore on the boys grew weary. "I remember looking at the clock—it was 10 or 11 at night—and looking at these young kids up that late who had been at school earlier," says Bridgeman. "I left the studio and went and brought sandwiches for them, because they hadn't eaten since I don't know what time. They had been too intense with the recording to stop to eat."

Though the Jacksons finished all their tracks at that marathon session, Bridgeman says he and two other vocalists, Solomon Ard and George Rias, returned to Sawyer's to redo some backups. Keith recalls bringing the tapes to Pressner's studio in Gary for mixing and mastering. In Moonwalk Michael remembers recording in a studio he identifies as Keith's on Saturday mornings after watching Roadrunner cartoons, but he was likely conflating trips to Pressner's with the recording session—the only thing the boys did at Pressner's, according to Keith, was observe postproduction. Keith sent the master to the Summit pressing plant in Willow Springs, Illinois, and when the records came back he set the single's official release for January 31, 1968. The Jacksons began selling 45s at shows, and Steeltown started working to get local radio to give "Big Boy" a spin.

"Big Boy" is by far the best song from the session. Its author, Silvers, had toured with Fats Domino (he contends he wrote the bridge to "I'm Walking," for which he was compensated one used pink Cadillac), Bill Doggett, and Ike & Tina, a job he says he quit because he was tired of refereeing the couple's brawls. An East Saint Louis native, he'd settled in Chicago around 1965, where his relationship with Saint Louis harmony act the Sharpees helped him move up the ranks at One-derful Records, from writer and arranger to the label's music director.

He'd composed the perfect song for little beyond-his-years Michael: with its combination of juvenile themes (skateboards, Mother Goose) and adult yearning, "Big Boy" would serve as a template for much future black bubblegum music. Silvers's excellent arrangements shine through the slightly murky mix and showcase the somewhat raw, soulful vocal style Michael had developed watching R & B veterans from the wings of the Regal. Though Keith contends that nine-year-old Michael was "a better singer then than what he ended up to be," it's clear from this recording that Motown's infamously rigorous training regimen still had something to offer him. All the same, his slightly nasal, borderline flat singing and odd enunciation (fairy tales is pronounced "fairy ta-wos") add to the single's considerable charm.

click to enlarge The master reel of the Steeltown/Sunny Sawyer version of "Big Boy" - COURTESY GORDON KEITH
  • The master reel of the Steeltown/Sunny Sawyer version of "Big Boy"
  • Courtesy Gordon Keith

Impressed by regional sales, Atlantic Records struck a distribution deal for the single, and on March 5, 1968, Steeltown and Atlantic imprint Atco coreleased a new pressing. Steeltown president Ben Brown says he pushed the record to stores and radio and drove the brothers to promotional engagements. He recalls helping sell influential WLS disc jockey Art Roberts on the Jackson Five, landing them an appearance on Roberts's local Swinging Majority dance show in early 1968, on the same episode as Berwyn rockers the Ides of March. The record was a local hit, and the future looked bright for Steeltown and the Jacksons.

But in June 1968, just three months after the Atco deal, Motown artists Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers (featuring future stoner comic Tommy Chong on guitar) played Chicago—some accounts say the Regal, others the Burning Spear—on a tour behind their biggest hit, "Does Your Mama Know About Me." Amazed by the kiddie-soul act that opened for them, the band made arrangements for the Jacksons to travel to Detroit and shoot a short audition film to be sent to Motown's new Los Angeles offices.

It wasn't the first time someone had called Berry Gordy's attention to the Jackson Five. Several Motown artists, among them Gladys Knight, had already been singing their praises. But Gordy wasn't interested in dealing with a kiddie act—not until after he saw that audition film, where Michael turns in a dazzling impersonation of James Brown (who also said he discovered the Jacksons). Gordy signed the group away from Steeltown, and Taylor became their first producer at Motown.

The Jackson Five's first Motown release wouldn't come out till fall 1969. Motown's story is that they were unsatisfied with the initial recordings and developed the group for a year; Keith says Atlantic kept Motown in court, waiting out the Steeltown contract. To this day he can't say exactly what happened during all this legal wrangling—Atlantic and Motown clearly considered him a small fish and didn't invite him to the table—but he's certain he got played like a fiddle. In the end Keith was left with nothing but the Sawyer tracks he hadn't yet released.

During this period the people who thought they were managing the Jackson Five could've fielded a baseball team. They included Keith, Spann, Jones, a Chicago policeman named Luther Terry, whom Spann describes as "an individual that had thought he had some latitude . . . but didn't," and New York lawyer Richard Arons, who reportedly struck his deal with Joseph when the boys went east to play Harlem's Apollo Theater in May 1968. It was their first pro gig at the theater, booked by soul singer Joe Simon, who takes some credit for discovering Michael as a result—but the amateur-night audience that applauded the Jackson Five to victory in August 1967, on their first visit, deserves at least as big a share.

After he got squeezed out, Keith says, he just tried to grab what he could. In 1970 he released "We Don't Have to Be Over 21" to cash in on the Jackson Five's Motown success, hiring Gary musician Wilton Crump (whose group the Mellow-Tones had played in Roosevelt High talent shows with the Jackson Five) to add string arrangements that echoed the group's first Motown singles. Keith held tight to his last proper Jackson Five track and instead put a true B side on the B side—a nearly inaudible rehearsal tape of the Jackson brothers and Joseph improvising an instrumental blues vamp, which Keith titled "Jam Session." Later that year he licensed the final side, "Some Girls Want Me for Their Lover," to Dynamo Records in New York. The song peaks with nine-year-old Michael imitating a girl (or perhaps some girls) screaming his name in ecstasy. "We Don't Have to Be Over 21" appears again on the flip.

This exhausted the pre-Motown recordings of Michael Jackson and his brothers—or did it? Though it's proved to be a less popular pastime than discovering Michael, you don't have to dig too deep to find people who say they've discovered a "lost" early recording by the Jackson Five. These claims are both encouraged and confounded by the fact that the Jacksons' 1969 breakthrough was followed by the emergence of hundreds of kiddie-soul groups, many deftly imitating Michael's vocal style. "Every aspiring kid singer wanted to be like Mike," says Ken Shipley of Chicago reissue label the Numero Group, whose 2007 compilation Home Schooled collected highlights of this subgenre. "He set off a copycat shock wave."

click to enlarge The Next Movement - FROM THE COLLECTION OF BOB ABRAHAMIAN

In 2006 an English record dealer sold an acetate that he claimed contained two unreleased Jackson Five songs, "Jackson Man" and "Take My Heart," in an online auction for £4,200 (at the time well over $8,000). The disc turned out to be a 1972 recording by the Magical Connection, a group from Chicago's Stateway Gardens housing project. The band later became the Next Movement—they still play Las Vegas showrooms—and in a recent interview made it clear that "Jackson Man" was not inspired by the Jackson Five's patriarch.

Similarly, though the Ripples & Waves' "Let Me Carry Your School Books" mentions a Johnny and a Joe, they're not the Jackson Five's drummer and daddy. But when Steeltown released the song on the band's only single—the group included one of Keith's nephews—Jackson mania was in full swing, and Keith wouldn't have minded if folks made that assumption. In fact he was hoping audiences would assume they were hearing a lost Jackson Five recording, and even renamed the group "Ripples & Waves + Michael"—technically accurate, since they had a vocalist named Michael Rogers. (When I asked Keith if he wanted people to think it might be Michael Jackson, he replied, "I sure did!") Some online sources still insist that Jackson sang on the recording, but Phillip Mack, drummer for the Ripples & Waves, confirms that it was Rogers.

click to enlarge The Ripples & Waves with Gordon Keith (circled at upper left) - COURTESY PHILLIP MACK
  • The Ripples & Waves with Gordon Keith (circled at upper left)
  • Courtesy Phillip Mack

There does exist a lo-fi collection of mostly cover songs done by the real Jackson Five on a cheap home tape recorder, probably in 1967. Keith thinks they were made in the basement of his home, though they may also be from the Jacksons' place—Joseph can be heard speaking and playing guitar on this muddy mess of a session, which just sounds like regular kids banging bongos and tambourines over sloppy guitar and bass. Another story has it that the session was at the home of their teacher Shirley Cartman, and that the tapes were stolen several years later when she had them transferred. This is unlikely, though, because the 1970 Steeltown B side "Jam Session" seems to be from the same recording.

This collection came to light in 1989, after Keith entered an ill-fated business partnership with Jerry Williams, better known as soul-rock eccentric Swamp Dogg. They released an album, The Jackson Five & Johnny: Beginning Years, that supplemented the four Sawyer studio songs with ten of the murky rehearsal tunes, which Williams enhanced with cheesy 80s backing tracks. It made little impact, but the rehearsal recordings surfaced again five years later, when Brunswick Records released Pre-History in advance of Michael Jackson's HIStory box set.

The liner notes of Pre-History, which also includes the four Sawyer sides, explain that Steeltown president Ben Brown produced all the recordings, working with the Jackson Five on weekends at Bud Pressner's studio in Gary, and claim that he later unearthed the master tapes at his parents' home. The notes also say the Jacksons were originally known as the Ripples & Waves, and both sides of the Ripples & Waves single are included as lost Jackson Five numbers. Of course none of it is true—except that Brown did in fact hold the title of president at Steeltown. Keith contends that Pre-History (excepting the Ripples & Waves material) was mastered from a copy of The Jackson Five & Johnny: Beginning Years, and it's hard to argue—Williams's 1989 backing tracks are still there.

Brown, billed in the press releases he sent out this summer as "The Man Who Discovered Michael Jackson," says he had nothing to do with the liner notes and tried to keep the Ripples & Waves songs off the album. "I guess the sound was so similar until they didn't believe me," he says. But he also says that his billing as producer didn't mean he'd produced the original tracks—he admits he wasn't involved with them till postproduction—but rather that he served as executive producer for the reissue project. Keith, for his part, denies that Brown had anything to do with the recordings, even in postproduction.

The Ripples & Waves single had already fooled others, most notably Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, but Pre-History redoubled the problem. Because Brown, as a Steeltown founder, was in a position to know the truth, his involvement made the album's false claims that much more persuasive. The resulting flood of misinformation still clogs not just message boards, online forums, and wikis but print accounts as well. In 2000 Motown/Universal even released a compilation of early Motown material titled Ripples and Waves: An Introduction to the Jackson Five, which prompted Keith and his nephew Elvy Woodard (a Ripple) to sue the Jacksons for infringement on the Ripples & Waves name. Keith says the suit was settled in part by several Jackson brothers—Michael not among them—making a DVD in which they personally apologize.

click to enlarge Larry Blasingaine today and in 1965, playing guitar with his band the Four Dukes - JIM NEWBERRY; CLIPPING FROM THE COLLECTION OF BOB ABRAHAMIAN
  • Larry Blasingaine today and in 1965, playing guitar with his band the Four Dukes
  • Jim Newberry; clipping from the collection of Bob Abrahamian

This past July 5, Chicago soul historian Bob Abrahamian interviewed a guitarist named Larry Blasingaine on his long-running WHPK show (it's archived, alongside interviews with hundreds of members of local vocal groups, at sittinginthepark.com). At the time my best information said the Jackson Five had cut their first single at Sunny Sawyer's studio—I hadn't yet learned what it was called—but Blasingaine spoke confidently of a session with the Jacksons at One-derful Records.

click to enlarge The facade of the One-derful Records building - PHOTO BY CARY BAKER FROM THE COLLECTION OF ROBERT PRUTER
  • The facade of the One-derful Records building
  • Photo by Cary Baker from the collection of Robert Pruter

Blasingaine, who now goes by both Larry and Hakeem, tells me that on a warm July day in 1967, he headed to the studio in the One-derful building at 1827 S. Michigan. All that year he'd been dropping in after his classes let out at Westinghouse High, and he didn't stop for summer vacation. Though only 15, he was already a brilliant guitarist and seasoned studio veteran, having honed his skills with a west-side community arts organization called Teens With Talent. He'd been recording since age 13 with his own group, then called the Four Dukes and later to be known as Larry & the Hippies. Though none of the members were old enough to shave, they served as house musicians for One-derful in the mid-60s and played behind Alvin Cash, Otis Clay, and Josephine Taylor, among others. They'd later back the Emotions and Jackie Wilson.

On the afternoon Blasingaine remembers, about four months before the Sawyer session, he went into the studio and found his friends the Jackson Five recording with songwriter Eddie Silvers and producer Otis Hayes. Blasingaine's band often crossed paths with the Jacksons—they played the same circuit, sometimes sharing equipment, and both were booked by Luther Terry. "Eddie Silvers was producing them," Blasingaine says. "He wrote the song they were recording, 'Big Boy,' and he saw me when I came in and said, 'Larry, I need you for a minute. I want you to show the bass player, Jermaine, how to keep his bass from booming.'" Then Silvers asked if Blasingaine had his guitar. "Eddie said, 'Grab your guitar, I want you to play this other part with them,' and I did." Silvers had written a melodic guitar part for the song's intro that was likely too difficult for the less seasoned Tito; Blasingaine recorded it and moved on. "I can't even remember if I was there when they sang. Once we finished recording I would go. I was young, you know. We had pop machines; we had other rooms."

click to enlarge Teens With Talent bands: the Gayletts, the Ediquits, and Larry Blasingaine's group the Four Dukes - FROM THE COLLECTION OF BOB ABRAHAMIAN

Blasingaine's vivid memories of this session initially puzzled me. I'd never heard of any association between the Jackson Five and One-derful, and no collector, historian, musician, or disc jockey I'd spoken to by then had any idea such a session had ever taken place—including Spann and One-derful staffer Larry Nestor, who preceded Silvers as music director.

According to Keith, Spann and Jones had the boys rehearsing at One-derful—many young bands, including some not signed to the label, routinely did so—and had hired One-derful guitarist Jimmy Jones to mentor them. Spann doesn't recall such an arrangement.

But Keith also contends that when he signed the Jackson Five in 1967 he had to negotiate with four managers. He's positive that the boys had a contract not just with Spann and Jones but also with the Leaner brothers.

Though less renowned than the Chess brothers, the Leaners were two of the most important figures in Chicago R & B. From 1962 till it closed up shop in '69, George Leaner's One-derful Records—one of the city's few black-owned labels—was a respected resident of South Michigan's Record Row. While its neighbors were perfecting sweet, smooth Chicago sounds, One-derful released hard, funky, and sometimes crazily comic R & B by artists like McKinley Mitchell, Alvin Cash, Harold Burrage, and the Five Du-Tones, whose "Shake a Tail Feather" became one of the label's most enduring legacies.

click to enlarge Deejay Richard Stamz and Ernie Leaner - FROM THE COLLECTION OF ROBERT PRUTER
  • Deejay Richard Stamz and Ernie Leaner
  • From the collection of Robert Pruter

George Leaner and his brother Ernie had learned the ins and outs of the business from their sister—they worked at her record store in the 40s—and from their uncle Al Benson, one of the most influential deejays in the history of Chicago black radio. The label's second-floor office, with its rehearsal rooms and its studio, Tone Recordings, became an incubator not just for the label's roster but for much of Chicago's R & B community. "George was a good-hearted guy," recalls Nestor, "and he just wanted to promote music in any way." But this was also good business—the first floor housed Ernie's United Distribution, which handled records from many local and national labels. It behooved the Leaners to have every label succeed, not just their own.

None of this necessarily illuminates the relationship between the Jacksons and One-derful. Spann is certain he did no business with the Leaners beyond picking up records at United, and it would have been unusual for the Leaners to have a contract with an artist and not release the record themselves. But songwriter and vocalist Billy McGregor witnessed a scene in 1966 that may cast some light on the situation. One day when he was at One-derful, working with Eddie Silvers on arrangements for his excellent debut single, "Mr. Shy," he saw Joe Jackson and another man (he's sure it wasn't Spann or Jones) bring Michael in alone for an audition. "He was a little boy," says McGregor. "He sang a cappella 'Tobacco Road' for George Leaner, who said he has talent but it would take a lot to put him out there because of his age—he'd have to have someone with him all the time." Though this suggests a theory as to why Leaner didn't release a Jackson Five record on One-derful, it doesn't explain why the group would've recorded a track at his studio, or what happened to that recording.

click to enlarge Billy McGregor (far left) with the Antennas - FROM THE COLLECTION OF BOB ABRAHAMIAN

Ernie Leaner's youngest son, Eric, was able to help, though he'd turned five years old in 1967 and was unaware of any Jackson Five session at One-derful. He put me in touch with Otis Hayes, who was with the label from its inception as a producer, engineer, writer, and accountant. Hayes describes a previously undocumented chapter in the development of the Jackson Five. He recalls being approached about the Jacksons by Louis Jefferson, aka J.J. the DJ, who was one of the "Mellow Fellows"—a popular group of disc jockeys on the Chicago Heights radio station WMPP.

Though it was a low-power station, WMPP had an influence on black music buyers in East Chicago and Gary out of proportion to its wattage, and this seems to have led Joseph Jackson to enlist J.J. the DJ as yet another agent for his sons. Hayes says Jefferson brought the group in to audition for Hayes, Jimmy Jones, and George Leaner, probably in early 1967. Leaner was apparently more impressed than he had been when Michael auditioned alone the prior year, and according to Hayes he decided to develop the Jacksons at One-derful, intending to sign them to a recording contract.

click to enlarge George and Ernie Leaner circa 1949; Phyllis Newkirk and Eric Leaner - JIM NEWBERRY; PHOTO OF GEORGE AND ERNIE LEANER COURTESY PHYLLIS NEWKIRK, REPHOTOGRAPHED BY JIM NEWBERRY

The Jackson family, including Joseph and his wife Katherine, would drive in from Gary after school three or four days a week, Hayes continues, arriving at One-derful around 5 PM—about when Larry Nestor left the office, which could explain why he doesn't remember any of this. Hayes, Silvers, and Jimmy Jones would coach the boys for two or three hours as they studied chord progressions and vocal harmonies, rehearsed their sets, or just jammed, impressing Hayes with their creative tweaks to popular songs. At times the adults would accompany the boys to gigs at clubs and record hops in Gary or Chicago. This went on for perhaps five months, helping transform a talented teen band into an act on the verge of greatness.

As Hayes remembers things, no outside management was involved after Jefferson set up the original audition, which might explain why Spann says he's never heard of this arrangement. "As far as I knew then," Hayes says, "there was no other agent. Joseph was the man. He was pretty strict on 'em." In Hayes's eyes this fatherly discipline was more constructive than problematic, turning the boys into perfect students. "They were all great kids, they would listen, and I think that's what carried them a long way. The father got that in them to learn and learn and learn."

Hayes was convinced that the Jackson Five "had what it took," and says George Leaner was impressed by their progress. "He probably would have signed them up," Hayes recalls, "but when it got into the legalities of it, there was a lot involved with them being minors. They have to have costs in there for tutoring and all that, in case they had to go on the road. Once he checked into it and found out what it involved monetary-wise, he wasn't able to do it at that time."

With the benefit of hindsight it'd be easy to characterize that decision as shortsighted, especially if One-derful already had some kind of preliminary development deal with the group. The label worked with other minors—Blasingaine's band, a young Deniece Williams, members of Alvin Cash's entourage—both before and after the Jacksons. But in all likelihood it was because Leaner realized how big the Jackson Five could get that he chose to be cautious—a runaway hit could bankrupt a small label, because up-front costs ballooned much faster than profits.

One of the strangest things about this chapter in the Jacksons' history is that the major players have kept it to themselves for so long. Discretion and humility often seem to be in short supply whenever the Jacksons are concerned; many of the people who claim to have had a hand in discovering them do so on the thinnest of premises. But Louis Jefferson appears to have taken the story of his role in the band's development to his grave in the early 70s. Amos Cobb, who worked in radio with Jefferson in 1969 and '70, the peak years of Jackson Five mania—and who himself boasts about being the Jacksons' driver, touting his role in their development—says Jefferson never mentioned it, not even privately. Otis Hayes, Jimmy Jones, and Eddie Silvers (who also died in the early 70s, reportedly during a session for Chess) have never gone on record about preparing the Jacksons for megastardom. And the Leaners never loudly lamented the Ones That Got Away, at least not in public.

Tony Leaner, another of Ernie's sons, never heard anything about a Jackson Five session at One-derful either. But he does recall that the label's dalliance with the group was family lore, something they would sit around the kitchen table and joke about during the 70s—he says with a chuckle that his brother Eric, ten years his junior, missed out on all the stories. In the label's waning days, Tony handled promo work alongside his brother Billy (now deceased), and he's quick to point out that his family knew it was far from certain they'd be able to turn the Jacksons into Motown-esque million sellers. "To think that One-derful Records could have had the same success would be a stretch," he says. "And remember, even Berry Gordy was reluctant to work with kids that young."

Because the group spent so many hours at the label's studio, Hayes didn't attach any great significance to the day they recorded "Big Boy" and strains to recall details. It seems unlikely that the session was just a casual rehearsal being taped, but it's not necessarily a given that it was intended for release. George Leaner might have wanted to hear how the band sounded in the studio, or Eddie Silvers might have been documenting his tune and arrangements, making something halfway between a demo for the group and a songwriter demo.

Silvers seems to have been approaching it as a serious endeavor, since he asked Blasingaine to help Jermaine muffle his bass. Blasingaine was certainly experienced enough in the studio to know the difference between a rehearsal and a real session—and if I were inclined to doubt his memory, I would've reconsidered when I saw how upset he was when it came up in conversation that his version of "Big Boy" wasn't the one that got released. For more than 40 years he'd believed that he played on the Jackson Five's first single. Though he'd always had a hard time accounting for the song's middling production quality ("It was kind of a rinky-dinky mix for a One-derful recording," he recalls), he'd never heard that another version had been recorded. When I told him he wasn't on the Steeltown release, he was seriously rattled.

While it's not totally impossible that Steeltown had access to the One-derful tracks, the label definitely had the group rerecord the song with Sunny Sawyer. Silvers could've passed his version along to Steeltown to use as a template, and Ben Brown claims he and Keith listened to it at Pressner's studio, but Keith says he never heard it.

After Ernie Leaner's death in 1990, his children inherited One-derful and its assets, and they've since organized and maintained an archive of more than 700 masters. Unfortunately One-derful's holdings weren't maintained to the highest standards between the company's demise in 1969 and George Leaner's death in 1983. Things got pretty grim in the late 70s, when they were opened up to deep-pocketed record collectors from Japan and Europe. English collector Rod Shard remembers a 1979 visit: "I'm mooching about and trying to avoid things and I've got tape all wrapped around my feet. . . . I try to extricate myself with little luck and I traced it back to a spool with 'Twine Time' written on it. I had to snap the tape to get out of it."

Though the reel Shard saw may not have been the master, Alvin Cash's "Twine Time" was the label's biggest hit. Many tapes less valued by the elder Leaners would've been recorded over or discarded and never even put into storage. The odds of the One-derful version of "Big Boy" turning up seemed slim.

click to enlarge "Big Boy" reel and studio worksheet from One-derful Records - JIM NEWBERRY
  • "Big Boy" reel and studio worksheet from One-derful Records
  • Jim Newberry

After our initial conversations, Eric and Tony Leaner said they'd try to find the Jackson tape among the surviving masters. They'd just made a deal with a new music-administration firm to digitize their holdings, but though the tapes were finally well organized the brothers weren't optimistic about uncovering one that neither of them had known existed.

On the morning of August 17, though, I received an e-mail from Eric Leaner informing me that his sister, Phyllis Newkirk, had just found two very promising tapes in storage. One reel, dated July 22, 1967, was labeled "Jackson 5 band tracks" and "Young Folks band." (The Young Folk were a former Teens With Talent group with whom Blasingaine often played.) Unfortunately the tape itself looked to be badly deteriorated, warped and discolored and with its magnetic coating coming off in flakes. This made it all the more amazing that the other tape, dated July 13, seemed to be in excellent shape. It was labeled "Jackson Five—I'm a Big Boy Now."

It will likely be some time before anyone, even the Leaners, can hear this recording. Its significance necessitates high-level precautions to protect against damage or piracy. Even after the music is transferred to a digital medium, the Leaners would be wise to explore their options before playing it for the world. Its value—in both historic and monetary terms—is potentially huge. Because of Keith's prickly relations with both Joseph Jackson and Motown, Steeltown's "Big Boy" has never been included in any major-label Michael Jackson or Jackson Five box set or collection. If the unearthed One-derful tape turns out to be what it seems, the song might finally see widespread release—which could turn out to be a very good thing for Keith, especially if it sparks interest in the Steeltown recordings.

The find has also lifted a weight from Larry Blasingaine's shoulders. Still disappointed about the Steeltown single, he was very happy to learn that he played on what might be an even more important Jackson Five recording, and that his memories of the session—almost certainly the group's first—led to the discovery of the tape. When I told him the good news, he was at a loss for words. "Man, oh man!" he declared, the joy plain as day in his voice. "I don't know what to say."

The decades to come may well bring a wealth of unreleased Jackson songs, on par with the from-the-grave output of Hendrix or Tupac. But most observers expect this onslaught to consist principally of overproduced late-period jams, many of them unfinished at the time of Jackson's death and augmented posthumously. The possibility that the first unreleased track to surface will instead be a decades-unheard recording of the Jackson Five's first studio endeavor—a stripped-down 60s R & B tune, cut without adult ringers at a better studio than their debut single—is almost too good to be true. The One-derful session is worlds away from the slick and calculated work the Jacksons would soon do for Motown. It captures an eager, unjaded nine-year-old only months away from the end of his childhood, a childhood he would pursue for the rest of his life: Michael, a big boy now, soulfully lamenting that "fairy tales and wishful dreams are broken toys."

Many thanks to Bob Abrahamian, Rob Sevier, Wilton Crump, James Porter, Larry Nestor, and Robert Pruter for their assistance with this story.

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