IN THE BEGINNING...
I don’t know where he got it from.
He was just so good, so young.
Some kids are special.
Michael was special.
What parent doesn’t like to think their kids are special?
However, from the moment she watched her five year old perform Climb Ev’ry Mountain at school assembly, Katherine Jackson didn’t just think her son Michael really was special. She knew – but, to borrow a line from another song from The Sound Of Music, let’s start at the very beginning . . .
Michael’s father, Joseph Walter Jackson, was born on 26th July 1929 in Fountain Hill, Arkansas, to Samuel and Chrystal Jackson. The eldest of five children, teenage Joseph was taken to Oakland by his father when his parents separated and divorced.
But Samuel’s second marriage failed, too, and when his father took a third bride Joseph moved to East Chicago, Indiana, to live with his mother and sisters. Here, at a neighbourhood party, he met Katherine Esther Scruse.
Katherine was born on 4th May 1930 in Barbour County, not far from Russell County, Alabama. She was christened Kattie B. Scruse, after an aunt on her father Prince Albert Scruse’s side. Her mother Martha Upshaw gave birth to Kattie’s only sibling, her sister Hattie, in 1931.
In 1934, in search of work, Prince took his family to East Chicago but things didn’t work out. Divorce quickly followed and, when she eventually re-married, Martha signed an ‘Affidavit To Amend A Record Of Birth’, to change her name from Martha Upshaw to Martha Bridgett. At the same time, Kattie B. Scruse changed her name to Katherine Esther Scruse.
Katherine was smitten with Joseph from their first meeting, but she was also shy and introverted – a legacy of polio, which she had contracted as an eighteen month old baby.
Known in those days as Infantile Paralysis, polio is a crippling disease and, before an effective vaccine became available, many children lost their lives as a result of it. Joseph’s seven year old sister Verna numbered among them. Others, like Katherine, survived but were obliged to wear leg braces and use crutches throughout their childhood. Even as an adult, Katherine still walked with a slight, but noticeable, limp.
When she learned Joseph had married someone else, Katherine must have been devastated. But in less than a year the marriage failed and, following his divorce, Joseph returned to East Chicago. He started seeing Katherine again and before long the courting couple announced their engagement.
They were married on 5th November 1949 and, for the princely sum of $8,500, purchased a two bedroom house in the all-black neighbourhood of Gary, Indiana. Coincidentally, their new address was 2300 Jackson Street.
Katherine and Joseph’s first child, a daughter, was born on 29th May 1950. She was the first of ten children:
29th May 1950 Maureen Reilette – known as REBBIE
4th May 1951 Sigmund Esco – JACKIE
15th Oct 1953 Tariano Adaryll – TITO
11th Dec 1954 JERMAINE LaJaun
29th May 1956 LaTOYA Yvonne
12th Mar 1957 MARLON David & BRANDON
29th Aug 1958 MICHAEL Joseph
31st Oct 1961 Steven Randall – RANDY
16th May 1966 JANET Damita Jo
Twins Marlon and Brandon were born two months premature and, sadly, Brandon died within eight hours of his birth.
By the time her eighth child was born, Katherine was fast running out of ideas for names, so she allowed her mother Martha to christen her sixth son. After rejecting first Ronald, then Roy, Katherine agreed to her mother’s third suggestion: Michael.
The Jackson family quickly outgrew their two bedroom home. ‘You could take five steps from the front door and you’d be out the back,’ Michael recalls. ‘It was really no bigger than a garage.’
But times were hard and, unable to afford to move to somewhere larger, the Jacksons somehow managed. Katherine and Joseph shared one bedroom, their sons had a triple bunk in the other.
Jackie, as the oldest and biggest, occupied the bottom bunk. Michael and Marlon shared the middle bunk, Jermaine and Tito the top bunk. Pillows at different ends of the bunks afforded what little privacy the younger boys had.
Sisters Rebbie and LaToya slept in the living room, on a sofa-bed. Randy, when he arrived on the scene, slept on a second sofa.
To support his family, Joseph worked as a crane operator for Inland Steel, normally on the 4.00pm to midnight shift. Hard, not always steady, work that earned him around $65 a week.
With a mortgage of $60 a month and an ever increasing number of mouths to feed, Joseph often supplemented his income by working days as well, as a welder at American Foundries. During lay-offs, he paid the bills by trudging fields with a sack, hand harvesting potatoes.
Katherine, for her part, dressed her children in clothes she had made herself, or had purchased from the local Salvation Army store.
Meals were simple but nutritious. Bacon and eggs. Egg sandwiches. Tomato soup. Fish croquettes with rice. And, of course, potatoes – baked, boiled, fried and stewed. Favourite desserts included fried apple pie, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.
As Rebbie grew older, old enough to take some responsibility for chores and cooking, Katherine took a part-time job as a sales clerk at a local department store, Sears.
One of Michael’s earliest memories is being cradled in his mother’s arms, as she sang country western songs. Katherine grew up listening to the likes of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubbs on country western radio, and she also learned to play clarinet, guitar and piano.
Joseph was a great music fan, too – rhythm & blues, especially. Dissatisfied with his lot, he, his brother Luther and three friends formed a band called the Falcons (not the similarly named group Wilson Pickett joined in 1960). They played locals bars and clubs mostly, but their dream – to be ‘discovered’ – remained just that. When the Falcons disbanded, Joseph’s prized guitar was consigned to the bedroom closet.
Katherine, in her autobiography My Family, The Jacksons, traces the roots of the Jackson 5 back to 1955 and – a broken television! A Black & White Muntz. The television was duly fixed but, unable to pay him, Katherine repeatedly asked the repairman to hold on to the set.
Meanwhile, she entertained her small children by taking out her husband’s guitar and singing country western songs. Songs like Cotton Fields, The Great Speckled Bird, She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain, Wabash Cannonball and You Are My Sunshine. Before very long, her children were harmonising with her.
In the early 1960s a new, vibrant sound hit the radio waves for the first time. A sound created by a black record company called Motown.
Jackie, Tito and Jermaine loved what they heard, loved to learn the words to the songs, to sing along to the radio in their bedroom. When their parents were out, they dared to take out their father’s prized guitar, taking turns to strum along. Michael and Marlon, still toddlers, for the moment were content to sit and watch.
‘I was strict,’ Katherine wrote in her autobiography. ‘Joe was stricter.’
Her husband was also, she goes on to admit, excitable. Sometimes, he hit their children too hard, or for too long. Whenever he felt they deserved it, he wouldn’t hesitate to strike out with his hands, or beat his kids with his belt or a switch (a long, flexible branch snapped off a tree).
Joseph was also anti-social and when, in 1963, Katherine became a Jehovah’s Witness, this further isolated the family – which suited Katherine and Joseph just fine. They lived in a tough neighbourhood, and anything that kept their offspring from joining the many gangs that roamed the streets of Gary was seen as a big plus.
Almost inevitably, Katherine caught her elder sons playing her husband’s guitar. Playing and singing. Joseph, she knew, had specifically prohibited the children from touching his guitar but, recognising her sons were using the instrument as was intended, and not as a toy, she chose to turn a blind eye. So the deception continued until, one fateful day, eight year old Tito accidentally broke one of the guitar strings.
Joseph was due home from work and there was no time to replace the guitar string – not that Tito or any of his brothers knew how to, anyway. Instead, they returned the instrument to the bedroom closet, and hoped against hope their father wouldn’t discover the damage or, that if he did, he would think the guitar string had somehow broken itself.
But Joseph did discover the damage, and it didn’t take him very long to find out who the culprit was. He whipped his son but afterwards, through his tears, Tito found the courage to proclaim, ‘I can play that thing! I really can . . . ’
Told to do so, Tito proved it. And, when Jackie and Jermaine started singing along, Joseph’s dream was re-kindled.
Soon after, he returned home from work one day with a surprise. A spanking new red electric guitar. For Tito, with the proviso that anyone else who wanted to practice on it, be allowed to do so.
Other musical instruments followed.
A bass guitar for Jermaine. Shakers for Jackie. Amplifiers. Microphones. Expenditure the family could ill afford.
‘We went overboard,’ Joseph later confessed. ‘My wife and I would fight, because I invested in new instruments that cost so much.’
But at the time Joseph was blinkered. He was so determined they would succeed where he had failed, he enforced a strict regime whereby his sons rehearsed for three hours a night, after school – longer at weekends.
By 1962, five year old Marlon had joined his brothers, playing bongos and singing backing vocals. Michael wanted to join the group, too, but whenever he asked his father and brothers refused to take him seriously. So far as they were concerned he was too young.
In August 1963 Michael turned five, too. Just a few weeks later, he got his chance to sing in public for the first time, at the morning assembly at his school, Garnett Elementary.
A cappella, he performed Climb Ev’ry Mountain, from the Julie Andrews musical The Sound Of Music. Katherine and her father-in-law, Samuel, were in the audience. Michael’s performance reduced them both to tears.
In his autobiography Moonwalk, Michael recalled, ‘the reaction in the auditorium overwhelmed me. The applause was thunderous and people were smiling; some of them were standing . . . It was such a great feeling.’
There was no denying young Michael any longer. The Jackson brothers, supposedly after a neighbour suggested it, became known as ‘The Jackson Five’.
In 1964, at a department store in Glen Park, Chicago, the Jackson Five performed Doin’ The Jerk (with Jermaine, not Michael, on lead vocals), which was a hit at the time for the Larks. Mother Katherine hand-made the costumes Michael and his brothers wore.
Joined by neighbours Reynaud Jones (on lead guitar) and Milford Hite (on drums), the group made their competition debut in 1965, when they performed My Girl and Barefootin’ at the annual Roosevelt High Talent Show. Despite tough competition, the Jackson Five took first place.
Michael maintains no one, other than their parents, discovered the Jackson Five. Certainly Diana Ross, for so long cited by Motown as ‘officially’ responsible for discovering the group, didn’t.
But nor can Joseph and Katherine take all the credit. They would have been the first to acknowledge they couldn’t possibly have taken the Jackson Five all the way to Motown, without any outside help. And the first outsider to recognise the raw talent the Jackson brothers possessed was a woman whom history appears to have all but forgotten: Shirley Cartman.
Ms Cartman, in 1966, was a music teacher at Beckman Junior High School in Gary, Indiana. Among the students in her eighth grade orchestra class, one Tito Jackson. Through Tito, she learned of the Jackson Five and their ambitions. Ambitions, she was well aware, many of her students shared. Which is why Beckman’s annual talent show, an event Ms Cartman was responsible for organising, was such a good fundraiser for new musical instruments for the school’s orchestra.
The next contest was scheduled for mid-1967, towards the end of the school year. Tito was keen for the Jackson Five to enter but there was a problem. The show was to be staged during school hours. Michael, Marlon and Jermaine were still at Garnett Elementary School, and Jackie was at Roosevelt High.
Pestered by Tito, Mrs Cartman finally relented and spoke to Katherine and Joseph, who readily agreed their sons be excused from school, so that they could enter the contest.
That sorted, Mrs Cartman dropped by the Jacksons’ home to audition the Jackson Five – and was stunned by their performance. She entered the Jackson Five for the show and, once a professional entertainer herself, she wasn’t in the least surprised when they walked away with first place.
Gary’s Annual Talent Search came next and, his confidence growing all the time, Michael made his presence felt. During Barefootin’, he spontaneously kicked off his shoes, and danced barefoot around the stage!
The audience loved it. So did the judges. Once again, the Jackson Five swept to victory – and were rewarded with their first ever press write-up, in the local Gary Post-Tribune.
Joseph was happy, but not overjoyed. As yet, no one had paid a dime to see his sons perform. Winning talent shows was a fine start, but turning profession – getting a record deal – was the ultimate aim. Which, again, is where Shirley Cartman’s knowledge of the music business proved invaluable.
At her suggestion a Roosevelt High student, Johnny Jackson (no relation, despite what Motown would later claim), was added to the group as full-time drummer.
Promo photos were taken. Work was started on new songs, including originals Cartman had written herself. In her book A Teacher Remembers The Jacksons, she confirmed one such song was titled The Scrub. This, and several other songs, were actually recorded but to date the tapes have somehow escaped being issued.
Demos to send out to record companies were planned, and Joseph booked the Jackson Five and Johnny to appear at local bars and clubs. Earliest among them, a regular booking at Mister Lucky’s Lounge in Gary, for which the group were paid $15 a night.
A track the Jackson Five often performed was Joe Tex’s Skinny Legs. During it, young Michael would slide under tables and mischievously lift ladies skirts, before scurrying away. Light-hearted fun that prompted many in the audience to throw money on stage, so by the time the Jackson Five were through, their pockets were brimming with cash.
Not until she was certain they were ready did Shirley Cartman approach Gordon Keith, the owner of a local company Steeltown Records, to invite him to watch the Jackson Five and Johnny perform.
Sceptical, Keith was reluctant to waste his time on a bunch of kids, but nevertheless he agreed to sit in on one of their sessions. He kept his word and, knocked out by what he saw and heard, he immediately offered Joseph’s boys their first recording contract.
A six month contract was signed in November 1967, following which the Jackson Five and Johnny stepped into a recording studio for the first time. Over a period of months, a dozen or more songs were recorded, a mix of originals and cover versions. Steeltown released four of the songs on two singles.