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 "Big Boy" reel and studio worksheet from One-derful Records - JIM NEWBERRY
  • "Big Boy" reel and studio worksheet from One-derful Records
  • Jim Newberry

After our initial conversations, Eric and Tony Leaner said they'd try to find the Jackson tape among the surviving masters. They'd just made a deal with a new music-administration firm to digitize their holdings, but though the tapes were finally well organized the brothers weren't optimistic about uncovering one that neither of them had known existed.

On the morning of August 17, though, I received an e-mail from Eric Leaner informing me that his sister, Phyllis Newkirk, had just found two very promising tapes in storage. One reel, dated July 22, 1967, was labeled "Jackson 5 band tracks" and "Young Folks band." (The Young Folk were a former Teens With Talent group with whom Blasingaine often played.) Unfortunately the tape itself looked to be badly deteriorated, warped and discolored and with its magnetic coating coming off in flakes. This made it all the more amazing that the other tape, dated July 13, seemed to be in excellent shape. It was labeled "Jackson Five—I'm a Big Boy Now."

It will likely be some time before anyone, even the Leaners, can hear this recording. Its significance necessitates high-level precautions to protect against damage or piracy. Even after the music is transferred to a digital medium, the Leaners would be wise to explore their options before playing it for the world. Its value—in both historic and monetary terms—is potentially huge. Because of Keith's prickly relations with both Joseph Jackson and Motown, Steeltown's "Big Boy" has never been included in any major-label Michael Jackson or Jackson Five box set or collection. If the unearthed One-derful tape turns out to be what it seems, the song might finally see widespread release—which could turn out to be a very good thing for Keith, especially if it sparks interest in the Steeltown recordings.

The find has also lifted a weight from Larry Blasingaine's shoulders. Still disappointed about the Steeltown single, he was very happy to learn that he played on what might be an even more important Jackson Five recording, and that his memories of the session—almost certainly the group's first—led to the discovery of the tape. When I told him the good news, he was at a loss for words. "Man, oh man!" he declared, the joy plain as day in his voice. "I don't know what to say."

The decades to come may well bring a wealth of unreleased Jackson songs, on par with the from-the-grave output of Hendrix or Tupac. But most observers expect this onslaught to consist principally of overproduced late-period jams, many of them unfinished at the time of Jackson's death and augmented posthumously. The possibility that the first unreleased track to surface will instead be a decades-unheard recording of the Jackson Five's first studio endeavor—a stripped-down 60s R & B tune, cut without adult ringers at a better studio than their debut single—is almost too good to be true. The One-derful session is worlds away from the slick and calculated work the Jacksons would soon do for Motown. It captures an eager, unjaded nine-year-old only months away from the end of his childhood, a childhood he would pursue for the rest of his life: Michael, a big boy now, soulfully lamenting that "fairy tales and wishful dreams are broken toys."

Many thanks to Bob Abrahamian, Rob Sevier, Wilton Crump, James Porter, Larry Nestor, and Robert Pruter for their assistance with this story.

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