When the world paused this summer to look back on Michael Jackson's extraordinary career, one chapter was missing from all the retrospectives, which skipped straight from the Jackson Five's formation in Gary, Indiana, to their explosive rise to stardom on Motown Records. Though every last recording by Elvis and the Beatles—the only other pop stars of Jackson's magnitude—has been meticulously documented, not even the most obsessive collectors have the whole story behind "Big Boy," the Jackson Five's first single.
Die-hard fans know it was recorded in late 1967 and released early in '68 on Gary's Steeltown Records. But most of the rest of the information out there is flawed or incomplete. The 1992 miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream fictionalizes the session, placing it in 1966 and pretending, probably for licensing reasons, that the Jacksons recorded a cover of "Kansas City." Even Michael's 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, gets most of the details wrong—not surprising given that he was nine at the time. And to my knowledge no published account has ever mentioned that "Big Boy" was cut in Chicago.
What you're about to read is not only a detailed account of the Jackson Five's Steeltown session but also convincing evidence that by then the group had already been in development with one of Chicago's most important black-owned labels—an episode previously completely lost to history. More compelling still, this label's efforts included an even earlier recording session. My efforts to jog the memories of the people closest to that session have resulted in the discovery of what many of the King of Pop's fans will consider the ultimate artifact: a studio master, by all appearances recorded by the Jackson Five, that predates the sides that for more than 40 years have been considered the group's earliest. In other words, Michael Jackson's first professional recording.
Anyone attempting to fill in some of the blank pages of the Jackson Five's early history will shortly find there are few facts upon which any two witnesses agree. Virtually everybody who encountered the group during its formative years, for instance, claims to have discovered Michael. Some claims are reasonable: Roosevelt High teachers Genevieve Gray and Yjean Chambers showcased the Jackson brothers in momentum-building talent shows starting in 1965. Others are ridiculous: Motown exec Berry Gordy fabricated Diana Ross's 1969 "discovery" of the group to whip up hype. Steeltown Records cofounder Gordon Keith, 70, is the man with the largest body of tangible evidence to back up his claim: he estimates that "Big Boy" sold more than 60,000 copies.
Many have made and lost millions on the backs of the Jacksons, but Keith's fortunes have remained largely unchanged since the mid-60s, when he founded Steeltown with four partners: Ben Brown, Ludie Washington, Maurice Rodgers, and Willie Spencer. The former steel-mill worker still lives at the Gary address that's printed on the first pressing of "Big Boy." These days most conversations he has about the Jacksons turn toward bitter reflections on the "double cross" he says took them from him—Joseph Jackson and Berry Gordy are the worst of many antagonists in these stories—yet he still sees their appearance on his doorstep as divine intervention. God, he says, gave him the gift of a group that was ready.
- From the collection of Jake Austen
- Pervis Spann
By 1967 Steeltown had released several singles without scoring a hit. Keith had seen enough Jackson Five show placards around town to convince him that the group was hardworking—he figured they might be the rare young act that combined talent with discipline. He got the family's number from a group that studied with the Jacksons' music teacher, Shirley Cartman (another reasonable claimant in the Jackson Five discovery sweepstakes), called patriarch Joseph Jackson, and was invited to the family's home for a private performance. Before they'd even played a note Keith saw something that convinced him Michael was extraordinary—something he says he'd never seen before and never saw again. "They were setting up in the living room," Keith recalls, "and Michael walked over to Tito's guitar cord, which was stretched between the guitar and amplifier, chest high to Michael, and I seen him flat-footedly jump over that guitar cord . . . not a running jump, flat-footed! I was pretty sold right there."
The boys' performance lived up to Michael's acrobatics, and Keith decided to negotiate with the Jacksons' management to take over their contract. Even then the question of who managed the group was complicated—Joseph would strike deals, often overlapping, with anyone he thought could help the boys get ahead—but two of the major players were WVON disc jockeys Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones.
In late 1965 or early '66 a triumphant Jackson Five talent-contest appearance at Chicago's Regal Theater had so impressed Spann that he and Jones offered to manage the act. (Spann also frequently takes credit for discovering Michael.) Keith remembers Jones (who died in 2004) claiming to have spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting the group to no avail. Keith thought that was odd, considering how polished they were and how influential Spann and Jones were, but he was thrilled to sign them anyway.
- From the collection of Jake Austen
- E. Rodney Jones
Gary had a recording studio, run by Bud Pressner, a saxophonist who in the course of a 50-year career as a performer and engineer worked on everything from his own Buddy Pressner Orchestra tunes in the 40s to raunchy late-80s house music. But Keith decided this recording deserved big-city gloss, and arranged for the boys to head into Chicago.
So after school one afternoon in November 1967, Michael, 9, Marlon, 10, Jermaine, 12, Tito, 14, and Jackie, 16, piled into the family Volkswagen with Joseph and rode across the state line to Chicago's West Englewood neighborhood, parking in front of Sunny Sawyer's recording studio on West 69th. Today that address is a vacant lot overrun by six-foot weeds, neighbored by the last surviving commercial buildings on the block—a tavern called Mitchell's that's attached to Rainbow Food and Liquor and a boarded-up pharmacy. But in the late 60s it was at the heart of a busy business district.