The Jacksons: ‘It was Michael’s body, and he did what he wanted to look how he wanted to look’
The ultimate disco group on fame, family and adding a political edge to their classics
Tito, Marlon and Jackie Jackson: ‘Do we miss having hit records? Of course. Everyone does’. Photograph: Marcus Ingram/ABA/Getty
Can You Feel It is one of the great disco songs. Now the Jacksons are determined to remind us that it is also one of the great political songs, with its call for “all the colours of the world” to unite and tell the “marching men who are killing their brothers” that we all share the same blood.
Forty years after first charting, Can You Feel It has been reworked to include clips from speeches by Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, part of a project to expand the band’s six albums for Epic with remixes and bonus tracks. It makes perfect sense to have MLK and Obama guesting on the song, Tito Jackson says today: “They are the two best rappers in the world.” Tito and Jackie, the oldest brother, laugh.
They are Zooming from Las Vegas, where they live. Both are youthful and run off high-energy batteries. Tito, whose three sons make up the group 3T, is wearing his customary bowler hat – he says it’s the first thing he puts on when he gets up and the last thing he takes off at night. Jackie, who has been married three times and has four children, is smartly dressed and smiley. It’s hard to believe they are approaching 70.
We worked all the time, whether it was on our music or just moving bricks in the backyard from one spot to another spot
The Jackson 5 (later the Jacksons) were the ultimate R&B boy band. Their first four Motown singles (I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save and I’ll Be There) topped the US charts in 1969 and 1970, which was then unprecedented. Their music was an infectious mix of R&B, soul, funk, and pop; their dance routines a synchronised joy. They appealed equally to black and white audiences, and their songs have proved timeless.
Without the Jackson 5, of course, there would have been no Michael Jackson. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. As well as being arguably the world’s most famous and successful music family, they are often cited as one of the strangest. Their father Joe’s alleged tyranny over his children, La Toya’s makeover to look like Michael, love rivalries between Jermaine and Randy, pretty much everything about Michael and so much more.
These days the Jacksons are a foursome (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon) and sometimes a threesome when Jermaine, who lives in Bahrain, can’t make it. “A lot of people think the group was broken up when Michael was alive, but the Jacksons were never broken up. We pace ourselves for longevity,” Jackie says.
Listen to them and you could be forgiven for thinking they were just starting out, despite the 37 years that have elapsed since their last hit single.
“We’re gonna have...” Jackie says.
“... more hit singles,” Tito says. They often finish sentences for each other.
Do they miss having hits? Tito looks at me as if I’m mad. “Do we miss having hit records? Of course. Everyone does.”
Before signing to Motown, the Jackson brothers spent years rehearsing at home in Gary, Indiana. It was a crazy life, scheduled by their father. After school, it is said, they typically rehearsed for four hours, played a gig, did their homework and then got to bed between 2am and 4am.
“That’s about right,” Jackie says, when I mention it.
“That’s right,” Tito echoes.
When did they sleep?
“We slept in the cars,” Jackie says.
“Between shows, Jackie, remember?” Tito says. “A quick 15-minute nap.”
Joe Jackson had a reputation as the toughest father in the music business. Was that fair? ‘Naaah,’ says Jackie. ‘That’s just rumours jumping on this to sell magazines’
There were nine Jackson children in all – six boys (all of whom performed in the band) and three girls (Janet became a huge star in her own right, while La Toya also had a lengthy recording career).
Joe, who died in 2018, had a reputation as the toughest father in the music business. Was that fair? “Naaah,” says Jackie. “Noooooah. I like the fact that he was tough, but he wasn’t like that with us. That’s just rumours jumping on this to sell magazines.”
A moment later, he tells me: “He was real disciplined. And the reason he was tough with us was because we had gangs in the neighbourhood and he didn’t want us to fall into them, so he kept us busy. We worked all the time, whether it was on our music or just moving bricks in the backyard from one spot to another spot.”
Moving bricks? They nod and grin. For no purpose, whatsoever? Again, they nod and grin. That’s bonkers, I say. Well, there was a purpose of sorts, says Jackie. “He did it to keep us occupied because he knew it was going to take us all day to move those bricks from over here to over there.”
In 1993, Michael told Oprah Winfrey that his father would watch them rehearse and if they did anything wrong he would beat them with a belt leaving them covered in welts. But the brothers are staunch defenders of Joe. Without Joe’s iron will, they say, they wouldn’t have made it. Their father saw the boys’ talent as a way out of Gary.
We always hear about Joe’s role in the boys’ success, but what about their mother, Katherine? Actually, Jackie says, there wouldn’t have been a Jackson 5 without her. “She’s the one who from the very beginning realised we had talent. My momma was an avid country-and-western fan, so we would harmonise with her all the time. And she told my poppa: ‘Hey, Joe, the boys can really sing. You need to check them out.’ After he heard us sing, he started buying instruments.”
Jermaine Jackson, who will be touring with the band this summer, is not available to talk, though no reason is given. Jermaine has long had a reputation for being the prima donna of the Jacksons. He is no stranger to controversy, not least for starting a relationship with (and later marrying) Alejandra Oaziaza, the partner of the youngest Jackson brother, Randy, with whom he had two children. Randy himself has hardly led a scandal-free life. In 1991 he was convicted of battery for beating his wife, Eliza Shaffy, and their 14-month-old, daughter Steveanna.
Marlon Jackson is at home in Georgia when we speak. Marlon is a sweet man who has led an uneventful adult life compared with most of his siblings. At 18 he married his childhood sweetheart, Carol Ann – they have three adult children and are still together today. Marlon was one of twins born prematurely, and his brother only lived a couple of hours.
He was closest to Michael in age, just 17 months older, and today is wearing a Study Peace cap. He runs an organisation of the same name, which he calls a brand and a movement. Even though he didn’t know it as a child, he says, peace was always the message behind the Jacksons’ music. “We would go to countries all over the world and everybody would come in harmony and peace, and the music would unify people.”
We were entertainers as well, and Michael was the greatest entertainer of them all
Marlon and Michael were a team. “We were road warriors,” he says. “We’d do things we were not supposed to. One time we were in New York City, and we started throwing toilet tissue out of a 40th-floor window. We were nine and 10 years old. Another time we filled a trash can full of water and threw it off the balcony. And Michael licked his finger and held it up and said the wind is blowing this way, so you gotta throw it out that way so you can hit the people. We both were pranksters.”
The young Marlon often incurred his father’s wrath because he was out of step or missed a note. “It took me time to catch on to things. I got in a good deal of trouble. Michael got in some trouble, too.”
When success came, in 1969, Jackie says, it was a wonderful chaos. What does he remember most clearly? “The camaraderie, the pageantry, the excitement, the pandemonium. We couldn’t finish a concert – we’d sing maybe five songs and that was it.”
Did that frustrate them? “It excites you,” Tito says, “but you build the show, so it starts here and goes up and we wanted people to see the middle and the end, but they wouldn’t let us.” What they loved most was the travel; experiencing new cultures. “We were kids from Gary, Indiana, and got to go to Japan, go to the UK and perform for the queen of England, go to Germany and perform for the president. Most kids, especially African-American kids, didn’t get that chance.”
Did they experience racism on the road? “In the south our rooms would be facing the trash, and at 4am you’d hear the big trucks come in to pick up the trash,” Marlon says. “You didn’t get much sleep.” They also discovered that their music was tearing down racial barriers. “Somebody wrote a letter to us saying they had been shipped off to an all-white school and it was really troublesome for them,” Marlon says. “And they said what made it change for them with the white kids is that the teacher gave them a project to write about your favourite group, and he said everybody wrote about the Jackson 5.”
It’s impossible to know what level of success the Jacksons would have achieved if Michael had not had such an incredible solo career. But the bigger he became, the less interest the world took in the brothers’ collective work. By 1971, aged 13, he had already had a top five hit in the US and UK with Got to Be There. At 20 he released Off the Wall, which sold more than 20 million copies; and at 24 came Thriller, still the biggest-selling album by a solo artist.
When did they realise that however talented they were, he was on a different level? From the off, Jackie says. “When we started it was Jermaine, Tito and I singing. Then Marlon and Michael came in. Michael used to take a Quaker oatmeal box and they were his bongos. He used to play it so well. Then he got up and did James Brown. We all decided to put him up front.”
“You get a lot of people who can sing well, but not everybody is an entertainer,” Marlon says. “We were entertainers as well, and Michael was the greatest entertainer of them all.”
Michael became one of the most recognisable faces on the planet. To deal with that level of fame must be near impossible, I suggest. Not at all, Jackie says. “He loved it. He loved it. He would work at it every single day – dancing, honing his craft. That’s what he did.” Did they remain close to him throughout? “When you have that kind of career, it’s kinda hard to keep pace with all your brothers, because you’re busy. People used to ask us: ‘Are you jealous of your brother’s career?’ And I’d say: ‘Why would I be? His name is Jackson.’”
I say I was going to ask the opposite – despite Michael’s achievements, wouldn’t the brothers choose the relative stability and anonymity of their lives over his?
Michael had painted himself into a box. And it was difficult for him. It’s mind-boggling. If he just stepped outside, in a couple of seconds people would stop doing what they are doing. That’s why he started wearing disguises
“If you’re going for it, you go for all of it. You go with gusto,” Jackie says. So he’d rather have had Michael’s life? “Yeah, that’s right. That’s what everyone wants who’s in this business.”
Tito: “You want to be on top.”
Marlon sees it differently. He says it was impossible for any of the Jackson 5 to have a regular life. They could just about cope, but the level of fame was intolerable for Michael, he says. “Michael had painted himself into a box. And it was difficult for him. Very difficult for him. It’s mind-boggling. If Michael just stepped outside, in a couple of seconds people would stop doing what they are doing. That’s why he started wearing disguises.”
Marlon smiles, and says Michael never fooled him. He tells me of the time he spotted Michael in a record store incognito. “I walked up behind him and whispered in his ear: ‘Michael, what you doing here?’ He was dressed as a bum. His clothes were dirty, he had bucked teeth, he had an afro, his shoes were dirty, his shirt was torn, but he’s buying all these excellent records. I said to him: ‘Another thing gave you away, Michael, you wear the same shoes all the time!’ They were the same loafers he wore on stage.”
Does he think Michael loved himself enough? “Yes, I think so. Of course nobody loves it when the media starts talking about you negatively.” The reason I ask, I say, is because he was such a beautiful boy and he went to such extreme lengths to alter his appearance, and ended up disfiguring himself. Did that upset Marlon? “No, it didn’t upset me because I look at it this way: the Lord put us on this earth to love one another, not to judge each other, and he wasn’t harming anybody. It was his body, and he did what he wanted to do to be what he wanted to look like. When you get to the gates and the Lord is there, he’s going to judge you not by what you obtained for yourself, or not what you did to yourself, he’s going to judge you by what you did for others. Judge someone by their heart.”
It’s understandable why the Jackson brothers repeatedly tell us to judge Michael by his heart, and talk about negative media. In June 2005, Michael was acquitted on all charges related to the alleged sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy. In a 2019 documentary, Leaving Neverland, two men alleged they had been sexually abused as children by Michael, including Wade Robson, who had testified in his defence at his trial.
I ask Jackie and Tito how damaging the court case and the allegations made in Leaving Neverland have been to Michael’s reputation. The publicist steps in. “We’re going to have to move on from that subject, I’m afraid,” he says.
I ask Jackie and Tito whether they want to answer the question or not.
Jackie: “No, we’re not supposed to.”
Tito: “We want to keep it positive.”
Jackie: “Because of court reasons.”
Even going to the local grocery store you see people who recognise you and they say: ‘I’m sorry about your brother.’ The hardest part for me is healing from that sadness
While the Jackson estate is suing the television network HBO for $100 million over the documentary, the family are certainly allowed to talk about the court case, but they prefer not to. As far as they are concerned, the best way to protect his legacy is to talk about his achievements.
It is 12 years now since Michael died, aged 50, from cardiac arrest after a drug overdose. His doctor, Conrad Murray, who had prescribed the drugs, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2011. I ask how Michael’s death affected them.
“I never stop mourning him,” Tito says. “Even going to the local grocery store you see people who recognise you and they say: ‘I’m sorry about your brother.’ The hardest part for me is healing from that sadness.”
As for his legacy, Tito says the music takes care of that. “Michael is a legend – people aren’t going to forget Michael Jackson.”
Jackie says Michael is still ever-present. “Every time I go into Vegas on the bus I see Michael next to me. His whole face is parked next to me on a billboard. I stop at a light and I say: ‘What’s going on, brother?’”
Marlon feels the loss of his old road warrior acutely. “I just miss hanging out with him,” he says. There will probably be no time that he is more keenly aware of his absence than when they tour later this year, performing all the classics that Michael sang on in their heyday. Now, at least, they can perform without having to run off stage after five songs because they are being mobbed.
Do they get the same excitement when they perform? “You can walk on stage and you don’t feel like doing the show,” Marlon says. “But the moment you hit that stage everything just lights up, and it’s like you’re shot out of a cannon. It’s showtime.” – Guardian