Earliest Known Jackson Five Studio Recording Found
Jake Austen has an amazing feature this week about the discovery of an unheard Jackson Five studio recording.
This tape predates the session for the group’s first single—the session
that for 40 years was thought to be the group’s first—by four months.
Even more amazing, it was found as a direct result of Austen’s
Personally my favorite
angle concerns guitarist Larry Blasingaine, who played guitar on the
newly discovered recording, cut at the studio of One-derful Records in
July 1967. At One-derful the Jacksons recorded "Big Boy," and their
first single, released by Steeltown in early 1968, also included "Big
Boy," but from a different session that Blasingaine didn’t know
about—for all this time, in other words, he’s mistakenly believed that
he appeared on the first Jackson Five record. Though it was
heartbreaking to imagine how he must’ve felt when he learned the truth,
it was at least as heartwarming to imagine how he must’ve felt when he
learned that the tape he actually did play on had been discovered after
all this time.
No one’s had the chance to actually hear the music on the tape
yet—as you might imagine, certain precautions must be taken with an
artifact like this—but you can be sure the Reader will stay on top of the story.
The Jackson Find
was supposed to be the story of the Jackson Five’s first single, cut in
Chicago in 1967. But while writing it, Jake Austen picked up the trail
of a tape nobody knew existed: the earliest known studio recording of
Michael Jackson and his brothers.
By Jake Austen
Jackson Five photo from the collection of Jake Austen; photo of tape by Jim Newberry
The Jackson Five; the "Big Boy" reel from One-derful Records
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
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.
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.
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.
From the collection of Gilles Petard
The Jackson Five: Marlon, Tito, Jackie, Jermaine, and Michael, with Johnny Jackson (no relation) on drums
An ambitious entrepreneur, Sawyer was running a small record-pressing
plant called Apex at 2009 W. 69th when, around 1965, he partnered with
an older recording engineer, Vaughn Morrison, who designed and built a
studio one door west. Most people knew it as Sunny Sawyer’s studio and
others simply called it Apex, but its proper name, painted on its
glass-brick facade, was Morrison Sound Studio. In ’61 Morrison had
produced a top-ten pop hit, "This Time," for Indiana native Troy
"Morrison was a genius," says legendary Chicago engineer Ed Cody,
who often hired him to make stampers for his records. "Very
knowledgeable." Though relatively small, maybe 1,200 square feet, the
recording room had a rounded ceiling designed to disperse sound evenly.
"Acoustically it was a live room, instead of a big dead-sounding
studio," recalls Jerry Mundo, a musician and songwriter who frequently
worked there. "It didn’t suck up a lot of sound, so most of the things
we did came off bright and very definite." The studio was stocked with
high-quality Austrian microphones and an Ampex MR-70 four-track tape
recorder, a costly top-of-the-line machine. "Unfortunately," Mundo
says, "only three tracks were working, so we’d have to mix down and
ping-pong. It was tedious, but it was better than having one track or
By 1967 Sawyer had bought Morrison out. Early on he did some work as a
vanity press—south-side gospel artists would pay to record, then take
home 500 copies to sell or distribute at church. A good engineer with a
good ear who’d worked at Universal, the top studio in the city, Sawyer
also released rock ‘n’ roll, R & B, and blues records by artists
like Mighty Joe Young, Fenton Robinson, and Josephine Taylor on his own
labels, Palos, New Breed, and Betty—the last named after his wife, who
along with another woman operated the machinery at the pressing plant
while he ran the studio. Business was decent, but neighbors complained
about booming bass leaking into their laundromat and grocery store.
"Sometimes, knocking out the jams, you get up there in the dBs," Mundo
says. "To get your hot sound, you’re gonna have some bleed out the
door." According to Mundo, business owners in the neighborhood—which
was then predominantly white—were also intimidated by the steady stream
of black bluesmen coming in for late-night sessions. By 1969 Sawyer’s
landlord had terminated the lease, forcing him to relocate to 72nd and
But it’s unlikely any neighbors were intimidated by the visitors
on that fall day in ’67. "The Jacksons were little angels," Sawyer
says, "and real professionals, doing their own stuff." Joseph had
trained Tito on guitar and Jermaine on bass, and young family friend
Johnny Jackson (no relation, though Motown would bill him as a cousin)
was an excellent drummer. All three play on the recordings, but Keith
supplemented Tito and Jermaine with adult musicians, including Richard
Brown on rhythm guitar, Freddie Young on lead guitar, and Ray Grimes on
bass. He brought in Lamont King on bongos and a conga player whose name
he forgets (though he recalls he was a nephew of deejay Daddy-O
Daylie). Keith and Steeltown co-owner Ludie Washington (who later
recorded his own sides as Lou D. Washington and moved to California to
act in movies like UHF and House Party) sang backup harmonies on "Big
Boy," along with Gary vocalist Delroy Bridgeman.
Bridgeman had been a member of a 50s doo-wop group called the
Senators, who recorded for Vee-Jay subsidiary Abner, and Sawyer’s place
was quite modest compared to studios he’d used in his heyday. "You
could probably put the studio we were in into one of Universal’s office
spaces," he says. While many operations on Michigan Avenue’s Record Row
had offices, rehearsal rooms, and places for musicians to lounge,
Sawyer’s studio consisted of nothing more than the live room (where a
piano and drum kit took up a fair amount of the space), a small control
room, and a bathroom.
In a single lengthy session the group recorded four songs,
all of which Keith says were already in their repertoire. "Big Boy" was
by saxophonist Eddie Silvers, who at the time was playing in a group
called the Soul Merchants and working as music director for Chicago R
& B label One-derful Records. Its eventual B side, "You’ve
Changed"—the only Steeltown track the Jacksons would record again for
Motown—is by Gary native Jerry Reese. "We Don’t Have to Be Over 21" was
by Sherman Nesbary, a prolific Chicago writer who recorded under
several names, including Verble Domino and Little Sherman & the Mod
Swingers. Authorship of the fourth tune, "Some Girls Want Me for Their
Lover," is unclear.
Though in Moonwalk Michael recalls being giddy to put on a pair of
too-big headphones and sing in a studio with adult musicians, he was
far from unprepared. In addition to exhaustively rehearsing at home and
hustling amateur nights and talent contests with pristine ten-minute
sets, the brothers had also been doing proper shows at Chicago
nightclubs like Spann’s Burning Spear and the Confidential Club, and
they had a regular gig, sometimes playing multiple sets, at Mr. Lucky’s
nightspot in Gary. Joe had even bought a microphone for their home to
help the boys get used to singing into one.
Despite the kids’ professionalism, the session was grueling, in part
because the Ampex’s dead track meant they had to stop more often to mix
down and free up space on the tape. As the night wore on the boys grew
weary. "I remember looking at the clock—it was 10 or 11 at night—and
looking at these young kids up that late who had been at school
earlier," says Bridgeman. "I left the studio and went and brought
sandwiches for them, because they hadn’t eaten since I don’t know what
time. They had been too intense with the recording to stop to eat."
Though the Jacksons finished all their tracks at that marathon
session, Bridgeman says he and two other vocalists, Solomon Ard and
George Rias, returned to Sawyer’s to redo some backups. Keith recalls
bringing the tapes to Pressner’s studio in Gary for mixing and
mastering. In Moonwalk Michael remembers recording in a studio he
identifies as Keith’s on Saturday mornings after watching Roadrunner
cartoons, but he was likely conflating trips to Pressner’s with the
recording session—the only thing the boys did at Pressner’s, according
to Keith, was observe postproduction. Keith sent the master to the
Summit pressing plant in Willow Springs, Illinois, and when the records
came back he set the single’s official release for January 31, 1968.
The Jacksons began selling 45s at shows, and Steeltown started working
to get local radio to give "Big Boy" a spin.
From the collection of Bob Abrahamian
"Big Boy" is by far the best song from the
session. Its author, Silvers, had toured with Fats Domino (he contends
he wrote the bridge to "I’m Walking," for which he was compensated one
used pink Cadillac), Bill Doggett, and Ike & Tina, a job he says he
quit because he was tired of refereeing the couple’s brawls. An East
Saint Louis native, he’d settled in Chicago around 1965, where his
relationship with Saint Louis harmony act the Sharpees helped him move
up the ranks at One-derful Records, from writer and arranger to the
label’s music director.
He’d composed the perfect song for little
beyond-his-years Michael: with its combination of juvenile themes
(skateboards, Mother Goose) and adult yearning, "Big Boy" would serve
as a template for much future black bubblegum music. Silvers’s
excellent arrangements shine through the slightly murky mix and
showcase the somewhat raw, soulful vocal style Michael had developed
watching R & B veterans from the wings of the Regal. Though Keith
contends that nine-year-old Michael was "a better singer then than what
he ended up to be," it’s clear from this recording that Motown’s
infamously rigorous training regimen still had something to offer him.
All the same, his slightly nasal, borderline flat singing and odd
enunciation (fairy tales is pronounced "fairy ta-wos") add to the single’s considerable charm.
by regional sales, Atlantic Records struck a distribution deal for the
single, and on March 5, 1968, Steeltown and Atlantic imprint Atco
coreleased a new pressing. Steeltown president Ben Brown says he pushed
the record to stores and radio and drove the brothers to promotional
engagements. He recalls helping sell influential WLS disc jockey Art
Roberts on the Jackson Five, landing them an appearance on Roberts’s
local Swinging Majority dance show in
early 1968, on the same episode as Berwyn rockers the Ides of March.
The record was a local hit, and the future looked bright for Steeltown
and the Jacksons.
But in June 1968, just three months after the Atco
deal, Motown artists Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers (featuring
future stoner comic Tommy Chong on guitar) played Chicago—some accounts
say the Regal, others the Burning Spear—on a tour behind their biggest
hit, "Does Your Mama Know About Me." Amazed by the kiddie-soul act that
opened for them, the band made arrangements for the Jacksons to travel
to Detroit and shoot a short audition film to be sent to Motown’s new
Los Angeles offices.
It wasn’t the first time someone had called Berry
Gordy’s attention to the Jackson Five. Several Motown artists, among
them Gladys Knight, had already been singing their praises. But Gordy
wasn’t interested in dealing with a kiddie act—not until after he saw
that audition film, where Michael turns in a dazzling impersonation of
James Brown (who also said he discovered the Jacksons). Gordy signed
the group away from Steeltown, and Taylor became their first producer
The Jackson Five’s first Motown release wouldn’t come
out till fall 1969. Motown’s story is that they were unsatisfied with
the initial recordings and developed the group for a year; Keith says
Atlantic kept Motown in court, waiting out the Steeltown contract. To
this day he can’t say exactly what happened during all this legal
wrangling—Atlantic and Motown clearly considered him a small fish and
didn’t invite him to the table—but he’s certain he got played like a
fiddle. In the end Keith was left with nothing but the Sawyer tracks he
hadn’t yet released.
During this period the people who thought they were
managing the Jackson Five could’ve fielded a baseball team. They
included Keith, Spann, Jones, a Chicago policeman named Luther Terry,
whom Spann describes as "an individual that had thought he had some
latitude . . . but didn’t," and New York lawyer Richard Arons, who
reportedly struck his deal with Joseph when the boys went east to play
Harlem’s Apollo Theater in May 1968. It was their first pro gig at the
theater, booked by soul singer Joe Simon, who takes some credit for
discovering Michael as a result—but the amateur-night audience that
applauded the Jackson Five to victory in August 1967, on their first
visit, deserves at least as big a share.
After he got squeezed out, Keith says, he just tried to
grab what he could. In 1970 he released "We Don’t Have to Be Over 21"
to cash in on the Jackson Five’s Motown success, hiring Gary musician
Wilton Crump (whose group the Mellow-Tones had played in Roosevelt High
talent shows with the Jackson Five) to add string arrangements that
echoed the group’s first Motown singles. Keith held tight to his last
proper Jackson Five track and instead put a true B side on the B side—a
nearly inaudible rehearsal tape of the Jackson brothers and Joseph
improvising an instrumental blues vamp, which Keith titled "Jam
Session." Later that year he licensed the final side, "Some Girls Want
Me for Their Lover," to Dynamo Records in New York. The song peaks with
nine-year-old Michael imitating a girl (or perhaps some girls)
screaming his name in ecstasy. "We Don’t Have to Be Over 21" appears
again on the flip.
From the collection of Jake Austen
This exhausted the pre-Motown recordings of
Michael Jackson and his brothers—or did it? Though it’s proved to be a
less popular pastime than discovering Michael, you don’t have to dig
too deep to find people who say they’ve discovered a "lost" early
recording by the Jackson Five. These claims are both encouraged and
confounded by the fact that the Jacksons’ 1969 breakthrough was
followed by the emergence of hundreds of kiddie-soul groups, many
deftly imitating Michael’s vocal style. "Every aspiring kid singer
wanted to be like Mike," says Ken Shipley of Chicago reissue label the
Numero Group, whose 2007 compilation Home Schooled collected highlights of this subgenre. "He set off a copycat shock wave."
2006 an English record dealer sold an acetate that he claimed contained
two unreleased Jackson Five songs, "Jackson Man" and "Take My Heart,"
in an online auction for £4,200 (at the time well over $8,000). The
disc turned out to be a 1972 recording by the Magical Connection, a
group from Chicago’s Stateway Gardens housing project. The band later
became the Next Movement—they still play Las Vegas showrooms—and in a
recent interview made it clear that "Jackson Man" was not inspired by
the Jackson Five’s patriarch.
Similarly, though the Ripples & Waves’ "Let Me
Carry Your School Books" mentions a Johnny and a Joe, they’re not the
Jackson Five’s drummer and daddy. But when Steeltown released the song
on the band’s only single—the group included one of Keith’s
nephews—Jackson mania was in full swing, and Keith wouldn’t have minded
if folks made that assumption. In fact he was hoping audiences would
assume they were hearing a lost Jackson Five recording, and even
renamed the group "Ripples & Waves + Michael"—technically accurate,
since they had a vocalist named Michael Rogers. (When I asked Keith if
he wanted people to think it might be Michael Jackson, he replied, "I
sure did!") Some online sources still insist that Jackson sang on the
recording, but Phillip Mack, drummer for the Ripples & Waves,
confirms that it was Rogers.
There does exist a lo-fi collection of mostly cover
songs done by the real Jackson Five on a cheap home tape recorder,
probably in 1967. Keith thinks they were made in the basement of his
home, though they may also be from the Jacksons’ place—Joseph can be
heard speaking and playing guitar on this muddy mess of a session,
which just sounds like regular kids banging bongos and tambourines over
sloppy guitar and bass. Another story has it that the session was at
the home of their teacher Shirley Cartman, and that the tapes were
stolen several years later when she had them transferred. This is
unlikely, though, because the 1970 Steeltown B side "Jam Session" seems
to be from the same recording.
This collection came to light in 1989, after Keith
entered an ill-fated business partnership with Jerry Williams, better
known as soul-rock eccentric Swamp Dogg. They released an album, The Jackson Five & Johnny: Beginning Years,
that supplemented the four Sawyer studio songs with ten of the murky
rehearsal tunes, which Williams enhanced with cheesy 80s backing
tracks. It made little impact, but the rehearsal recordings surfaced
again five years later, when Brunswick Records released Pre-History in advance of Michael Jackson’s HIStory box set.
The liner notes of Pre-History,
which also includes the four Sawyer sides, explain that Steeltown
president Ben Brown produced all the recordings, working with the
Jackson Five on weekends at Bud Pressner’s studio in Gary, and claim
that he later unearthed the master tapes at his parents’ home. The
notes also say the Jacksons were originally known as the Ripples &
Waves, and both sides of the Ripples & Waves single are included as
lost Jackson Five numbers. Of course none of it is true—except that
Brown did in fact hold the title of president at Steeltown. Keith
contends that Pre-History (excepting the Ripples & Waves material) was mastered from a copy of The Jackson Five & Johnny: Beginning Years, and it’s hard to argue—Williams’s 1989 backing tracks are still there.
Brown, billed in the press releases he sent out this
summer as "The Man Who Discovered Michael Jackson," says he had nothing
to do with the liner notes and tried to keep the Ripples & Waves
songs off the album. "I guess the sound was so similar until they
didn’t believe me," he says. But he also says that his billing as
producer didn’t mean he’d produced the original tracks—he admits he
wasn’t involved with them till post-production—but rather that he served
as executive producer for the reissue project. Keith, for his part,
denies that Brown had anything to do with the recordings, even in
The Ripples & Waves single had already fooled others, most notably Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, but Pre-History Ripples and Waves: An Introduction to the Jackson Five,
which prompted Keith and his nephew Elvy Woodard (a Ripple) to sue the
Jacksons for infringement on the Ripples & Waves name. Keith says
the suit was settled in part by several Jackson brothers—Michael not
among them—making a DVD in which they personally apologize.
redoubled the problem. Because Brown, as a Steeltown founder, was in a
position to know the truth, his involvement made the album’s false
claims that much more persuasive. The resulting flood of misinformation
still clogs not just message boards, online forums, and wikis but print
accounts as well. In 2000 Motown/Universal even released a compilation
of early Motown material titled Ripples and Waves: An Introduction to the Jackson Five,
which prompted Keith and his nephew Elvy Woodard (a Ripple) to sue the
Jacksons for infringement on the Ripples & Waves name. Keith says
the suit was settled in part by several Jackson brothers—Michael not
among them—making a DVD in which they personally apologize.
This past July 5, Chicago soul historian Bob
Abrahamian interviewed a guitarist named Larry Blasingaine on his
long-running WHPK show (it’s archived, alongside interviews with
hundreds of members of local vocal groups, at sittinginthepark.com).
At the time my best information said the Jackson Five had cut their
first single at Sunny Sawyer’s studio—I hadn’t yet learned what it was
called—but Blasingaine spoke confidently of a session with the Jacksons
at One-derful Records.
who now goes by both Larry and Hakeem, tells me that on a warm July day
in 1967, he headed to the studio in the One-derful building at 1827 S.
Michigan. All that year he’d been dropping in after his classes let out
at Westinghouse High, and he didn’t stop for summer vacation. Though
only 15, he was already a brilliant guitarist and seasoned studio
veteran, having honed his skills with a west-side community arts
organization called Teens With Talent. He’d been recording since age 13
with his own group, then called the Four Dukes and later to be known as
Larry & the Hippies. Though none of the members were old enough to
shave, they served as house musicians for One-derful in the mid-60s and
played behind Alvin Cash, Otis Clay, and Josephine Taylor, among
others. They’d later back the Emotions and Jackie Wilson.
On the afternoon Blasingaine remembers, about four
months before the Sawyer session, he went into the studio and found his
friends the Jackson Five recording with songwriter Eddie Silvers and
producer Otis Hayes. Blasingaine’s band often crossed paths with the
Jacksons—they played the same circuit, sometimes sharing equipment, and
both were booked by Luther Terry. "Eddie Silvers was producing them,"
Blasingaine says. "He wrote the song they were recording, ‘Big Boy,’
and he saw me when I came in and said, ‘Larry, I need you for a minute.
I want you to show the bass player, Jermaine, how to keep his bass from
booming.’" Then Silvers asked if Blasingaine had his guitar. "Eddie
said, ‘Grab your guitar, I want you to play this other part with them,’
and I did." Silvers had written a melodic guitar part for the song’s
intro that was likely too difficult for the less seasoned Tito;
Blasingaine recorded it and moved on. "I can’t even remember if I was
there when they sang. Once we finished recording I would go. I was
young, you know. We had pop machines; we had other rooms."
vivid memories of this session initially puzzled me. I’d never heard of
any association between the Jackson Five and One-derful, and no
collector, historian, musician, or disc jockey I’d spoken to by then
had any idea such a session had ever taken place—including Spann and
One-derful staffer Larry Nestor, who preceded Silvers as music director.
According to Keith, Spann and Jones had the boys
rehearsing at One-derful—many young bands, including some not signed to
the label, routinely did so—and had hired One-derful guitarist Jimmy
Jones to mentor them. Spann doesn’t recall such an arrangement.
But Keith also contends that when he signed the Jackson
Five in 1967 he had to negotiate with four managers. He’s positive that
the boys had a contract not just with Spann and Jones but also with the
Though less renowned than the Chess brothers,
the Leaners were two of the most important figures in Chicago R &
B. From 1962 till it closed up shop in ’69, George Leaner’s One-derful
Records—one of the city’s few black-owned labels—was a respected
resident of South Michigan’s Record Row. While its neighbors were
perfecting sweet, smooth Chicago sounds, One-derful released hard,
funky, and sometimes crazily comic R & B by artists like McKinley
Mitchell, Alvin Cash, Harold Burrage, and the Five Du-Tones, whose
"Shake a Tail Feather" became one of the label’s most enduring legacies.
Leaner and his brother Ernie had learned the ins and outs of the
business from their sister—they worked at her record store in the
40s—and from their uncle Al Benson, one of the most influential deejays
in the history of Chicago black radio. The label’s second-floor office,
with its rehearsal rooms and its studio, Tone Recordings, became an
incubator not just for the label’s roster but for much of Chicago’s
R & B community. "George was a good-hearted guy," recalls Nestor,
"and he just wanted to promote music in any way." But this was also
good business—the first floor housed Ernie’s United Distribution, which
handled records from many local and national labels. It behooved the
Leaners to have every label succeed, not just their own.
None of this necessarily illuminates the relationship
between the Jacksons and One-derful. Spann is certain he did no
business with the Leaners beyond picking up records at United, and it
would have been unusual for the Leaners to have a contract with an
artist and not release the record themselves. But songwriter and
vocalist Billy McGregor witnessed a scene in 1966 that may cast some
light on the situation. One day when he was at One-derful, working with
Eddie Silvers on arrangements for his excellent debut single, "Mr.
Shy," he saw Joe Jackson and another man (he’s sure it wasn’t Spann or
Jones) bring Michael in alone for an audition. "He was a little boy,"
says McGregor. "He sang a cappella ‘Tobacco Road’ for George Leaner,
who said he has talent but it would take a lot to put him out there
because of his age—he’d have to have someone with him all the time."
Though this suggests a theory as to why Leaner didn’t release a Jackson
Five record on One-derful, it doesn’t explain why the group would’ve
recorded a track at his studio, or what happened to that recording.
Ernie Leaner’s youngest son, Eric, was able to help,
though he’d turned five years old in 1967 and was unaware of any
Jackson Five session at One-derful. He put me in touch with Otis Hayes,
who was with the label from its inception as a producer, engineer,
writer, and accountant. Hayes describes a previously undocumented
chapter in the development of the Jackson Five. He recalls being
approached about the Jacksons by Louis Jefferson, aka J.J. the DJ, who
was one of the "Mellow Fellows"—a popular group of disc jockeys on the
Chicago Heights radio station WMPP.
Though it was a low-power station, WMPP had an
influence on black music buyers in East Chicago and Gary out of
proportion to its wattage, and this seems to have led Joseph Jackson to
enlist J.J. the DJ as yet another agent for his sons. Hayes says
Jefferson brought the group in to audition for Hayes, Jimmy Jones, and
George Leaner, probably in early 1967. Leaner was apparently more
impressed than he had been when Michael auditioned alone the prior
year, and according to Hayes he decided to develop the Jacksons at
One-derful, intending to sign them to a recording contract.
The Jackson family, including Joseph and his wife
Katherine, would drive in from Gary after school three or four days a
week, Hayes continues, arriving at One-derful around 5 PM—about when
Larry Nestor left the office, which could explain why he doesn’t
remember any of this. Hayes, Silvers, and Jimmy Jones would coach the
boys for two or three hours as they studied chord progressions and
vocal harmonies, rehearsed their sets, or just jammed, impressing Hayes
with their creative tweaks to popular songs. At times the adults would
accompany the boys to gigs at clubs and record hops in Gary or Chicago.
This went on for perhaps five months, helping transform a talented teen
band into an act on the verge of greatness.
As Hayes remembers things, no outside management was
involved after Jefferson set up the original audition, which might
explain why Spann says he’s never heard of this arrangement. "As far as
I knew then," Hayes says, "there was no other agent. Joseph was the
man. He was pretty strict on ’em." In Hayes’s eyes this fatherly
discipline was more constructive than problematic, turning the boys
into perfect students. "They were all great kids, they would listen,
and I think that’s what carried them a long way. The father got that in
them to learn and learn and learn."
Hayes was convinced that the Jackson Five "had what it
took," and says George Leaner was impressed by their progress. "He
probably would have signed them up," Hayes recalls, "but when it got
into the legalities of it, there was a lot involved with them being
minors. They have to have costs in there for tutoring and all that, in
case they had to go on the road. Once he checked into it and found out
what it involved monetary-wise, he wasn’t able to do it at that time."
With the benefit of hindsight it’d be easy to
characterize that decision as shortsighted, especially if One-derful
already had some kind of preliminary development deal with the group.
The label worked with other minors—Blasingaine’s band, a young Deniece
Williams, members of Alvin Cash’s entourage—both before and after the
Jacksons. But in all likelihood it was because Leaner realized how big
the Jackson Five could get that he chose to be cautious—a runaway hit
could bankrupt a small label, because up-front costs ballooned much
faster than profits.
One of the strangest things about this chapter in the
Jacksons’ history is that the major players have kept it to themselves
for so long. Discretion and humility often seem to be in short supply
whenever the Jacksons are concerned; many of the people who claim to
have had a hand in discovering them do so on the thinnest of premises.
But Louis Jefferson appears to have taken the story of his role in the
band’s development to his grave in the early 70s. Amos Cobb, who worked
in radio with Jefferson in 1969 and ’70, the peak years of Jackson Five
mania—and who himself boasts about being the Jacksons’ driver, touting
his role in their development—says Jefferson never mentioned it, not
even privately. Otis Hayes, Jimmy Jones, and Eddie Silvers (who also
died in the early 70s, reportedly during a session for Chess) have
never gone on record about preparing the Jacksons for megastardom. And
the Leaners never loudly lamented the Ones That Got Away, at least not
Tony Leaner, another of Ernie’s sons, never heard
anything about a Jackson Five session at One-derful either. But he does
recall that the label’s dalliance with the group was family lore,
something they would sit around the kitchen table and joke about during
the 70s—he says with a chuckle that his brother Eric, ten years his
junior, missed out on all the stories. In the label’s waning days, Tony
handled promo work alongside his brother Billy (now deceased), and he’s
quick to point out that his family knew it was far from certain they’d
be able to turn the Jacksons into Motown-esque million sellers. "To
think that One-derful Records could have had the same success would be
a stretch," he says. "And remember, even Berry Gordy was reluctant to
work with kids that young."
Because the group spent so many hours at the
label’s studio, Hayes didn’t attach any great significance to the day
they recorded "Big Boy" and strains to recall details. It seems
unlikely that the session was just a casual rehearsal being taped, but
it’s not necessarily a given that it was intended for release. George
Leaner might have wanted to hear how the band sounded in the studio, or
Eddie Silvers might have been documenting his tune and arrangements,
making something halfway between a demo for the group and a songwriter
Silvers seems to have been approaching it as a serious
endeavor, since he asked Blasingaine to help Jermaine muffle his bass.
Blasingaine was certainly experienced enough in the studio to know the
difference between a rehearsal and a real session—and if I were
inclined to doubt his memory, I would’ve reconsidered when I saw how
upset he was when it came up in conversation that his version of "Big
Boy" wasn’t the one that got released. For more than 40 years he’d
believed that he played on the Jackson Five’s first single. Though he’d
always had a hard time accounting for the song’s middling production
quality ("It was kind of a rinky-dinky mix for a One-derful recording,"
he recalls), he’d never heard that another version had been recorded.
When I told him he wasn’t on the Steeltown release, he was seriously
While it’s not totally impossible that Steeltown had
access to the One-derful tracks, the label definitely had the group
rerecord the song with Sunny Sawyer. Silvers could’ve passed his
version along to Steeltown to use as a template, and Ben Brown claims
he and Keith listened to it at Pressner’s studio, but Keith says he
never heard it.
After Ernie Leaner’s death in 1990, his children
inherited One-derful and its assets, and they’ve since organized and
maintained an archive of more than 700 masters. Unfortunately
One-derful’s holdings weren’t maintained to the highest standards
between the company’s demise in 1969 and George Leaner’s death in 1983.
Things got pretty grim in the late 70s, when they were opened up to
deep-pocketed record collectors from Japan and Europe. English
collector Rod Shard remembers a 1979 visit: "I’m mooching about and
trying to avoid things and I’ve got tape all wrapped around my
feet. . . . I try to extricate myself with little luck and I traced it
back to a spool with ‘Twine Time’ written on it. I had to snap the tape
to get out of it."
Though the reel Shard saw may not have been the master,
Alvin Cash’s "Twine Time" was the label’s biggest hit. Many tapes less
valued by the elder Leaners would’ve been recorded over or discarded
and never even put into storage. The odds of the One-derful version of
"Big Boy" turning up seemed slim.
"Big Boy" reel and studio worksheet from One-derful Records
After our initial conversations, Eric and Tony Leaner
said they’d try to find the Jackson tape among the surviving masters.
They’d just made a deal with a new music-administration firm to
digitize their holdings, but though the tapes were finally well
organized the brothers weren’t optimistic about uncovering one that
neither of them had known existed.
On the morning of August 17, though, I received an
e-mail from Eric Leaner informing me that his sister, Phyllis Newkirk,
had just found two very promising tapes in storage. One reel, dated
July 22, 1967, was labeled "Jackson 5 band tracks" and "Young Folks
band." (The Young Folk were a former Teens With Talent group with whom
Blasingaine often played.) Unfortunately the tape itself looked to be
badly deteriorated, warped and discolored and with its magnetic coating
coming off in flakes. This made it all the more amazing that the other
tape, dated July 13, seemed to be in excellent shape. It was labeled
"Jackson Five—I’m a Big Boy Now."
It will likely be some time before anyone, even the
Leaners, can hear this recording. Its significance necessitates
high-level precautions to protect against damage or piracy. Even after
the music is transferred to a digital medium, the Leaners would be wise
to explore their options before playing it for the world. Its value—in
both historic and monetary terms—is potentially huge. Because of
Keith’s prickly relations with both Joseph Jackson and Motown,
Steeltown’s "Big Boy" has never been included in any major-label
Michael Jackson or Jackson Five box set or collection. If the unearthed
One-derful tape turns out to be what it seems, the song might finally
see widespread release—which could turn out to be a very good thing for
Keith, especially if it sparks interest in the Steeltown recordings.
The find has also lifted a weight from Larry
Blasingaine’s shoulders. Still disappointed about the Steeltown single,
he was very happy to learn that he played on what might be an even more
important Jackson Five recording, and that his memories of the
session—almost certainly the group’s first—led to the discovery of the
tape. When I told him the good news, he was at a loss for words. "Man,
oh man!" he declared, the joy plain as day in his voice. "I don’t know
what to say."
The decades to come may well bring a wealth of
unreleased Jackson songs, on par with the from-the-grave output of
Hendrix or Tupac. But most observers expect this onslaught to consist
principally of overproduced late-period jams, many of them unfinished
at the time of Jackson’s death and augmented posthumously. The
possibility that the first unreleased track to surface will instead be
a decades-unheard recording of the Jackson Five’s first studio
endeavor—a stripped-down 60s R & B tune, cut without adult ringers
at a better studio than their debut single—is almost too good to be
true. The One-derful session is worlds away from the slick and
calculated work the Jacksons would soon do for Motown. It captures an
eager, unjaded nine-year-old only months away from the end of his
childhood, a childhood he would pursue for the rest of his life:
Michael, a big boy now, soulfully lamenting that "fairy tales and
wishful dreams are broken toys."
Many thanks to Bob
Abrahamian, Rob Sevier, Wilton Crump, James Porter, Larry Nestor, and
Robert Pruter for their assistance with this story.