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 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.

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