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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"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.

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