By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
This is the greatest story never told in my lengthy and broad career in journalism.
It all started when as a high school student I wrote a weekly column called “On the Teen Scene” in the Gary Info Newspaper. Topics focused on people, places and things in and around Gary of interest to the younger reader.
About that time, I was president of the Gary Roosevelt High School Hi-Y Club – the closest thing to fraternities you could find before hitting the college campus.
For our annual Sweetheart’s Ball, our signature social event, I asked friend and member Sigmund Jackson (you know him as Jackie) if he and his gifted brothers were available as entertainment for the ball set for February 14, 1969. Jackie jotted down the date and took home the request.
A couple of days later, in the second-floor hallways of Roosevelt, he caught up with me from behind. “Sorry, Vernon. I asked Joe (yep, that’s what they called him even then). We have a date at the Apollo Theater on the same day as the sweetheart’s ball.”
No argument there. The nation’s Mecca for Black entertainers seriously trumped a teenage dance. I thanked Jackie for asking and that was it.
A month later, I heard someone calling my name just as everyone was walking into the building. It was Jackie. He had the excitement in his voice of a man who had either just hit the lottery or found the love of his life. In a sense, it was both. With that Hollywood smile from ear to ear, Jackie blurted, “Vernon, we just signed with Motown records! Berry Gordy signed us to a contract with after shows at the Apollo and the Regal!”
Jackie’s enthusiasm was contagious. It was a surreal moment frozen in time. The Jackson Five! Motown! We high-fived and absorbed the magnitude of the moment in chatter until the warning bell. As he turned to run to class, I shouted: “Jackie, would your father let me interview him…you…everybody in the group for my Info column.”
With one of those, “I can’t promise anything” looks on his face, Jackie replied with a shrug as we were getting farther apart, “I’ll ask him.”
A couple of weeks passed (which in adolescent time is a couple of months). It had been so long to me that I actually had to remind myself of the conversation when Jackie came up to me and said, “Joe said kay. He will do the interview with you for Info.”
Two weeks later, I was in the tiny living room of the house at 2300 Jackson Street with Joseph Jackson answering any and all questions. He was a gentleman’s gentleman. No rush. No limits. Thorough responses. After about 45 minutes, we were done.
Mr. Jackson then turned to me with Michael, Marlon, Tito, Jermaine, and Jackie to his right and asked, “Would you like to hear them play something?” Even though I had seen their awesome act a dozen times before Motown at various venues around Gary and on our high school stage, I acted brand new, responding, “Yes sir. I would!”
Joe just nodded the gifted young siblings toward the tight performance area. The Jackson Five went to their instruments and microphones, and then belted out the ballad “Who’s Loving You” without missing a note, a beat or any well-choreographed moves. They performed for a teen columnist as if the audience was the royal family.
Right then I knew, nothing would stop these boys from reaching the top. They were the next big thing in the recording industry and the world would soon know it.
Now let us fast-forward 15 years. By 1984, the Jackson Five had become the most famous singing group in the world with tens of millions of records sold, their own cartoon, product line, sold-out concerts, etc. Michael’s meteoric solo career found him nominated for a record eight Grammy Awards in the wake of his iconic “Thriller” album.
Still in the news business, I was a reporter at the Gary Post-Tribune at this point.
The day Grammy nominations were announced, Post-Tribune man-aging editor Jim Driscoll darted to my desk and told me the newspaper was sending me to cover the historic event. In the interim, since the 1969 Info column, I had written dozens of articles on the Jackson Five and interviewed the pride of G.I. more times than I could remember.
A crestfallen Driscoll summoned me to his office the next day to inform me that Knight-Ridder – the Post-Tribune owners – preferred that their national entertainment reporter cover the awards. Driscoll debated the decision right there while I was in his office, arguing that my being closer to the family would be an advantage in coverage.
Driscoll seethed and paced for almost a half of an hour – stringing profanities well out of earshot of the “suits” at the Miami chain headquarters. When he could not persuade them, Driscoll called back, “Okay, I tell you what. If Knight-Ridder won’t approve Vernon’s expenses, I will cover the trip to California out of my own pocket.”
They would not relent and threatened serious repercussions if Driscoll circumvented their authority. Reluctantly, angrily Driscoll gave up. I never got to Los Angeles to cover Michael winning but like all of Gary, celebrated vicariously.
Gary has always been the kind of place to take great pride in achievements of native sons and daughters. Michael Jackson was the brightest of the Steel City galaxy.
Driscoll was right. My history of covering the Jacksons and Michael would have been an edge; along with the fact that through Michael, I formed a professional friendship with Bob Jones, Michael’s personal publicist and media manager. We will never know what might have come out of that night. The Grammy assignment wasn’t meant to be.
Instead, I covered Grammy parties all around Gary that night. Throughout the city, Garyites shared Michael Jackson’s moment – a collective toast to one of our own.
During this week of reflections on the anniversary of the June 25, 2009 passing of The King of Pop, it just felt right to share this remembrance. RIH Michael.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].