Jerry Macon was the first audience that Michael Jackson ever had.
Jerry’s mother, Leola, was best friends with Michael’s mother Katherine, or Kate, from the Jehovah’s Witness church. The Macons would go and watch the Jackson boys perform in their tiny living room — before Michael Jackson even began to sing.
“Me and my mother used to go over to their house and we used to watch them practise,” Mr Macon remembers. “I remember when they first started practising, he used to play the bongos. “They would be playing a song and he would be playing the bongos and he would put them down and get up and dance. He was about five years old.
“He wasn’t dancing like he was dancing later, but he was a good dancer,” he said. That was before he even started singing,” he said.
I knew he was going to be somebody because of the way he would play them bongos and just get up and start dancing. To me, it just seemed like he had more talent than his brothers.”
Mr Macon, 53, is now a pistol-packing appliance repairman in the “Rust Belt” town of Gary, Indiana, once dubbed “the Murder Capital of America”. He still lives just blocks from the rickety white bungalow where Kate and Joseph Jackson, a crane driver at a steel mill, raised their nine children — the girls sleeping in bunk beds in one room, and the boys all in another.
Jackson’s passing has undammed a flood of nostalgia for better times in the steel town just outside Chicago, now full of abandoned buildings and ravaged by drugs and crime.
Jackson was a micro-star in Gary long before he became a superstar elsewhere. The Jackson 5 performed at clubs, school dances and even busked in their backyard.
“We would see him dancing on the corner,” recalled Cynthia Addison, 60, who lives near the Jacksons’ old home at 2300 Jackson Street (named after President Andrew Jackson).
“When kids were going to the store, they would say, ‘Hey Mike, dance for us. He would do a few steps for them.”
Jeffrey Hurt, 53, played Little League baseball with the Jackson boys at the ground across the street from the family’s bungalow.
“Michael walked around in a baseball uniform, but he would not play,” he recalled. “They used to go in the back yard and the band would play. The mother would take up a collection from the baseball fans.”
The Jackson 5 were soon playing as the opening act at local venues like Club 007 and at school “sock-hops”.
“We had ‘sock-hops’. You would take off your shoes and dance in the gymnasium. The Jacksons used to play. Michael was very talented,” Sarah Ligon, 50, said. “They were young. It was exciting. You didn’t see a lot of really young children perform. “Everybody around loved them,” she said. “It was a time when all of our parents worked at the steel mills and you could walk the streets and leave your door open.”
Leola Macon, now 78, said she and Mrs Kate Jackson used to sing at the Kingdom Hall church and shared an allotment where they grew string-beans and black-eyed peas for their kitchens.
“Kate and Joe were good parents. What I was hearing about Joe being a hard-driver, well, he just wanted them to be successful — and he succeeded," Mrs Macon said.
“They were a lovely couple. I never saw them fight or anything. The kids were all manner-able and at peace with one another. When it came time to practise their music, they wanted to stay outside and play but Joe made them come in and practise.
“Michael was a great little boy — very manner-able and somewhat shy. He would not talk that much, only when you talked to him. He always had a good voice, but I did not think too much of it. I did not ever think they would become famous. They started playing instruments, and I said, ‘Wait a minute. You all are getting down!’”
Mr Macon said he and his brother Stevie formed their own group like the Jackson 5, as did many of their friends.
“At that time, a lot of little groups were formed. Me and my brother had a group at the same time they did. We would go around to barber shops and beauty shops and perform for those people and they would give us nickels and quarters. We even were in a couple of talent shows.
“I remember when I was in the 4th grade and the Jackson 5 were performing at our school, it cost 25 cents to get in and see them. I even remember what they had on — black pants, white shirts and a red cummerbund around the waist, all of them.”
He said that Mrs Jackson kept the family home spotless, even though she struggled to feed her nine children. “Every now and then Michael’s mother would fix dinner for the family and I would be over there,” he said. “The last meal I ate was black-eyed peas and corn bread. They did not have no meat. But we had ice cream for dessert.”
Mr Macon acknowledged, however, that, even before all the allegations that he abused his children, Joe Jackson was “kind of screwed up”.
Ms Addison was present as a child at the school talent contest where, according to local legend, Diana Ross of the Supremes discovered the Jackson 5.
“In Gary, you do not think these people are going to be famous,” she said. “At the talent show, nobody was thinking about Michael Jackson when he got down - and he did get down. We were looking for Diana Ross. Nobody thought she was going to discover him.”
But this is what actually happened. Michael was discovered and became a star once and for all.