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 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.

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