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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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.

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