MURRAY CAMMICK'S BLOG: The Jacksons: Blame It On MotownThursday , 07 Mar 2013
All talk of the soap opera lives of one of music’s biggest families needs to be put aside; it’s time to revisit the classic tunes that made them famous in the first place.
Sometimes an international tour starts in New Zealand, but it's more fun when tours end here. The Jacksons Unity tour that started June 2012 in North America will conclude in Auckland on March 26, 2013. The tour will re-establish ‘The Jacksons’ name so long overshadowed by the over-the-top success and untimely death of their brother Michael.
The group that emerged in 1969 as the Jackson Five on Motown Records had massive success with the Detroit label, but their success as a teen act gained them the perception of being "bubblegum soul" and it was not easy for the group to evolve into a grown-up act with adult credibility.
In just a few years, by 1973, Motown was having to adjust to the fact that there was a need to move the band's music and image away from the ‘teeny bopper’ market that had purchased their recordings by the millions.
I spoke to Jackie Jackson, the oldest Jackson brother in advance of their March concert. "I have very positive memories of Motown, it was where we got started, learning everything about this business," he says. "It was like going to a music school. "I see Berry Gordy often. He's still going strong. He's looking great!"
I mentioned to Jackie that Ronald La Praed, bassist for funk legends, the Commodores lives in Auckland. "He'd better be there. All the brothers want to see him!"
Before the Commodores had their first hit 'Machine Gun' (1974), Motown had the band on the road opening for the Jackson Five. “We worked with them for three years,” recalls La Praed. “The Commodores have to attribute their fame to the Jackson Five. The kids came to see the boys, but they were so young, they came with their parents who got to hear the Commodores.”
On the first tour the Commodores stayed in different places but soon the Jackson Five were reserving the top floor of a hotel for both bands. “It was crazy. Water balloons, pillow fights and practical jokes,” says La Praed. “They were little kids. I was 17 or 18 years old.” In 1973 Motown tried to get funky with the Jackson Five album G.I.T. Get It Together. The album is now recognised as a brilliant LP and their first coming-of-age album with the title track and the eight-minute long 'Hum Along And Dance' taking the group into new territory. Michael was now 15 and most of his brothers were older, yet Motown's attempt at a more grown-up sound would languish in the bargain bins. Motown had one more hit with the highly-regarded 'Dancing Machine' but the group were by this stage seeing the need for a new start.
"Motown had great songs and great writers like Berry Gordy," says Jackson. "But every artist has songs they've written and they want to produce themselves. It was time to start writing our own material."
In 1975 the group made the move from Motown to the Epic label, reportedly improving their royalty percentage from 2.8% to 20%, but the latter sounds more like a figure that would be achieved at a later date by Michael Jackson. The move to Epic initially put the renamed group, The Jacksons, with the Philadelphia producers Gamble and Huff, with limited success. At this stage it looked like the Jacksons could soon become history, but the lads took over the writing and production themselves and recorded the groundbreaking 1978 album Destiny, restarting the family's career with the worldwide dancefloor hits 'Blame It On the Boogie' and 'Shake Your Body Down to the Ground'.
In the musical evolution of the Jacksons, Destiny is the turning point album for the family, not the much-heralded Off The Wall from the following year. The first steps were made with Destiny and the Jacksons' album that followed was rightly called Triumph (1980) with 'Can You Feel It'. In 1981 The Jacksons went on tour and recorded a phenomenal live album, simply titled Live which gives you The Jacksons hits plus Michael with his brothers doing solo hits 'Off The Wall', 'Working Day and Night' and 'Don't Stop Until You Get Enough'. It is always rumoured that "great" live albums have been tampered with in the studio. Jackie insists Live was not.
"We did not! It was a very exciting tour. We recorded four or five dates and compiled the best takes from different nights. After the tour all the brothers scattered. They all went on vacation."
The set list for the current Unity tour has most of the songs from the 1981 album, with the only up tempo song from Michael Jackson's later solo career being 'Wanna Be Startin' Something' from 1982's Thriller.
I asked Jackie whether they considered any songs from the later Motown album Get It Together, like 'Hum Along And Dance'. "It might be on the next tour. Will.i.am's favourite is 'Hum Along And Dance'.”
There are several Michael Jackson solo tracks in the Unity Tour set list, but some are clearly chosen to evoke memories of his life, for example 'Gone Too Soon' and 'I Wanna Be Where You Are'.
Jackie likes performing his brother's songs. “It's wonderful,” he says. “The fans want to hear them. That's why we sing them. We take turns on different verses and it sounds great.”
When I point out that there is sometimes confusion as to what late 1970s hits were Michael's and which were The Jacksons, Jackie agrees. “Sometimes I forget,” he says. Jackie Jackson was the athlete of the family and is still a sports fan and a Lakers fan. "They're not doing that well," says Jackson. "I'm sure they'll turn it around." When he was 17 years old, Jackie had the chance to join the Chicago White Sox draft as a young baseball player.
"I'm so glad I chose singing with my brothers. The career of an athlete is limited, says Jackson. “You can't be a 40 year old baseball player. You can be any age and be in the music business."
Jackie still gets to be athletic. While Tito plays guitar throughout the show and Jermaine plays bass at times, Jackie is in charge of the dance moves. Without alluding to age, I ask whether the dancing is hard work?
“It's like a work out,” he says. “It's great exercise, like going to the gym. We're getting good feedback from the audience and we're having a great time.”
You can see The Jacksons Unity Tour live at Vector Arena on Tuesday 26th March. Enter to win tickets here >
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