Jackson 5 At Home
Jackie is 20, Tito 17, Jermaine 16, Marlon 14. They sing some, and play guitar. Michael, the lead singer, is twelve. They are brothers, and taken together they add up to the Jackson Five, a group that in hardly more than a year-has become the biggest thing to hit Pop Capitalism since the advent of the Beatles. They had four hit singles in 1970, two more already this year, four albums, with all ten releases selling in the millions, and one (I'll Be There) already well over 4,000,000. Teen-age girls besiege their home for autographs and sometimes faint when they sing. They have their own magazine, a quarterly in which fans can revel in a whole issue devoted entirely to the Jackson Five and read things like "Michael's Love Letter to You." Stores now bulge with Jackson Five decals, stickers and sweaters. A Jackson Five hair spray and a Jackson Five watch are planned, as well as a television cartoon about their lives. Despite this commercial hoopla, the group manages to be one of the best soul bands in the country. It is also part of the most likable and natural family ever to survive the pressures of teen-age stardom. So Correspondent Timothy Tyler discovered on a recent visit to the Jackson Five in Los Angeles:
First of all, they are really the Jackson twelve or 13, depending on whether you count Sister Maureen, who lives in Kentucky. There are the parents, Joe and Katherine, and Cousins Johnny Jackson and Ronnie Rancifer, who play drums and piano respectively, Sisters Janett, 4, and Latoya, 15, and Little Brother Randy, 8, who is getting ready to join the group.
They all live together in a massive twelve-room stucco-modern house on a large lot guarded by an electric gate out in Los Angeles' sprawling San Fernando Valley. The place is mammoth, flanked by a guesthouse, playhouse and servants' quarters. But there are only six bedrooms so that Michael—culture hero though he is—has to triple up with Randy and Marlon, and the other brothers are forced to share too.
The Jackson fortress wraps itself around a pool; it has walkways and plants growing all around; there is a basketball half court, badminton court, an archery range and, inside, a pool table in a sunken rec room and a den that looks like a cross between a motel lobby and the foyer of a Sunset Boulevard record company. The walls are plastered with platinum records (each signifying $2,000,000 in sales) and various other trophies the boys have picked up. For furniture, there is a bar, a stereo with big speakers and leatherette couches.
The place is almost totally impersonal, the fiercest personality around being without a doubt Lobo, a German shepherd trained to eat anything, black or white, that's squeaky and carries an autograph book. The family's closest friends have to wait outside in their cars in the parking lot and call up to the window, "Is Lobo O.K.?" The kids hold the raging beast down, inside the house, until a split-second before the visitor comes in the front door. Then Lobo is allowed to rush out the back door, a tornado of bristles and snarls, in a vain (hopefully) attempt to race around the establishment and up the front steps in time to rip the pants off whoever is going in the front door.
The kids wander around the place, not exactly at home but definitely in control of the situation. Michael, with the loveliest, fullest, twelve-year-old Afro you'll hope to see, has the history of the group down pat: "We all started singing together after Tito started messin' with Dad's guitar and singin' with the radio. It was Tito decided we should form a group, and we did, and we practiced a lot, and then we started entering talent shows, and we won every one we entered, and then we did this benefit for the mayor [Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind.], and Diana Ross was in the audience, and afterward we was in the dressin' room and Diana Ross knocked on the door, and she brought us to Motown in Detroit and that was it."
He is taken aback when you question him beyond this, because that's as far as his training takes him. But he responds well enough. Yes, Mother Katherine had played clarinet in high school, but she wasn't much of a musical influence. Father Joe, who also sports a natural and who as a youth had sung and played guitar with a local group called the Falcons, set more of an example. The whole family, Maureen on piano, would sit around the house through the '60s and sing on weekends, Joe providing the chords on guitar. Tito got the idea they should be a formal group when Michael was only six.
Tito was playing guitar, and Jermaine learned bass—on Tito's guitar at first, there being no money for a real bass. Then came the bass amps and speakers, and there wasn't enough money left to buy any more instruments, so the cousins were enlisted, more for their set of drums and their piano than for their musical talents. Singing songs like the Temptations' I Wish It Would Rain and My Girl, or Smokey Robinson's Going to a Go-Go, they began making tours to Chicago, Arizona, New York and Boston. The family made most of these trips in their Volkswagen bus, with a second van for equipment. The kids just remember all the snow and all their weekends and school holidays being spent in motels and strange arenas. Says Marlon: "We would do a show somewhere Sunday night, we'd get home at 3 in the morning, then we'd have to get up at 8 to go to school. That was rough."
Things have eased up in some ways. But it's still remarkable that they're as big as they are, considering that their concert and recording schedules, TV appearances and the creation of a new series of J-5 animated cartoons all have to be worked around school and homework. The Buckley School (in Sherman Oaks, where all five of them go) makes allowances, and a social worker-tutor travels with the boys wherever they go, but show biz is still a schooling handicap. But then again, the boys, who; get only a small allowance each week, aren't subject to the pressures of traveling grown-ups —you know, wasting time with those worthless chickies on the road, migraine headaches, creaking bones, drugs and alcohol—instead, they unwind nightly with pillow fights and card games, Scrabble and Monopoly.
Motown Magic. But neither their schooling nor their music has really suffered from their schedule. Seeing the boys together, you begin to realize how hard they've worked to get good. Some of their stuff is certainly a product of "that Motown magic," as Motown publicists put it, meaning Motown President Berry Gordy and Songwriters Fonso Mizell, Freddy Perren and Deke Richards, who wrote Love Child for the Supremes. The tunes they are given are good black pop, the rhythms authentic rhythm and blues. But it takes some kind of private and personal magic for a twelve-year-old like Michael to sound convincing in a lyric like this:
Let me fill your heart with joy
Togetherness, girl, is all I'm after.
Whenever you need me,
I'll be there.
Musically, they're all really just getting started. Michael plays drums. He says he is learning piano too. "It's not hard. You just have to put your mind to what you doin'; that's all there is to it." Marlon says in his soft child-voice that he's a dancer, and Jermaine adds that Marlon is known around the house as "Las Vegas" because of his prowess with cards. It turns out that Jermaine is a poet, and that he and Michael (Michael does everything) draw pictures of people. Jackie likes to recall how 16 girls fainted in Cincinnati when Jermaine was doing his solo in I Found That Girl. When he ad-libbed, "Won't you take me with you?" the girls apparently confused the concert with a gospel response meeting, broke out in sweats and screamed, "Yes!" and then keeled over.
It's still a bit too chilly to swim just now, so after a little basketball the kids settle down to a game of pool. "I'm good on my trampolin," Michael remarks. "And I'm good at pool." "Not as good as me," says Jermaine. Back home in Gary, says Tito, "We all played Little League, and we all hit home runs during the series. We were always the best at everything." Somehow it sounds neither phony nor swellheaded —merely the truth.