By Vernon A. Williams
I remember like it was yesterday. It was my senior year at Gary Roosevelt High School and as president of the Hi-Y, I wanted to step up the live entertainment for the annual Sweetheart’s Ball. A light went off and I approached Jackie Jackson, whose locally popular group was enjoying their hit, “Big Boy.”
I asked Jackie if the supremely talented young act, the Jackson Five, could perform. He promised to check and came back a few days later offering regrets. “The Sweethearts Ball,” he explained, “is on the same night that we’re scheduled to perform at the Apollo Theater.”
About a month later, Jackie ran up to me in the hall and said, “Vernon, guess what? We just signed with Motown.” It was a stunning moment. You mean the Temptations’ Motown? The Marvin Gaye Motown? The Supremes’ Motown? The Stevie Wonder Motown? THAT Motown???
He was understandably excited. At the time, I was writing a teen column for the Gary Info Newspaper courtesy of Publishers J.T. and Imogene Harris. The “ask” was instinct. “Could I interview you all for my column – ‘On the Teen Scene?’” Jackie responded, “I have to ask Joe.”
As in Joseph Jackson, the patriarch of the famous entertainment family that left his short-lived career as a musician and job at Inland Steel to put together arguably the most all-around talented soul music act ever. It always struck me strange that he called his father by his first name, but all that mattered to me was his response.
A few days later, he confirmed that I would get the opportunity to be the FIRST journalist on planet earth to interview the Jackson Five – featuring the legendary Michael Jackson – after their signing with Motown Records.
The session took place in the tiny living room of the Jackson’s tiny house at 2300 Jackson Street – only three blocks from where I grew up at 22nd and Madison. Joe did ALL the talking. But he was generous with his time, gracious and forthcoming about their incredible good fortune.
At the end, he asked if I would like the group to perform a song for me. Me!!! A teen reporter for a local Black weekly newspaper. You guessed it. I said “yes.”
Understand that I had seen the Jackson Five perform in the Roosevelt auditorium, at the main branch of the library, at Gilroy Stadium and other venues over the years. But this was for an audience of one. And believe it or not, they went through the complete songs and choreography as though they were before a sellout crowd at the Regal Theater.
That’s when even at a young age I knew that this group was destined for greatness, that they belonged with those other luminaries at Motown, that they might even exceed their iconic predecessors. And they did.
On December 14, 1969 – precisely 50 years ago this week – the Jackson Five made their national television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. Every student on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington jammed into every television space in the dormitories to witness history.
When they were introduced – Ed Sullivan said, “From Gary, Indiana…the Jackson Five,” they began a love affair between this talented clan and the world, singing “I Want You Back.” It was a Beatle or Elvis-like moment for Black folk.
And it would be remiss of me not to tell you how buttons popped off shirts and blouses of IU students who happened to be from the Steel City. In those glorious few moments, we were the envy of students from everywhere else in the state and nation.
That pride was sustained throughout the incomparable career of the Jackson Five, then the Jacksons, and the meteoric rise of Michael as a soloist – not to mention the success of Janet Jackson, Jermaine and Tito once the group broke up.
There had never been anything quite like the Jackson Five before they hit the music scene. And most entertainment pundits doubt if the success of this family group will be equaled.
And the most heartening aspect of the whole story is summed up in a few simple but profound words, “…FROM GARY, INDIANA …”