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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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.

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