A dominant influence on American popular music since the 1960s, the Jackson family consists of the nine children of Joseph and Katherine Jackson. The couple's first three sons, Sigmund "Jackie" (May 4, 1951–), Toriano "Tito" (October 15, 1953–), and Jermaine (December 11, 1954–), began singing in 1962; Marlon (March 12, 1957–) and Michael (August 29, 1958–) joined a year later. Their other children, Maureen "Rebbie" (May 29, 1950–), LaToya (May 29, 1956–), Steven "Randy" (October 29, 1962–), and Janet (May 16, 1966–) began entertaining publicly with their siblings in the 1970s. By the 1980s the Jackson family was generating a nonstop stream of recordings, music videos, movies, television shows, and concerts that were hugely popular among both African-American and white audiences. In the 1990s, however, public attention turned to squabbles within the family and the increasingly questionable public behavior of some of the family members.
All of the Jackson children were born and raised in the Midwestern industrial city of Gary, Indiana, where they led a sheltered existence in a working-class neighborhood. The five oldest sons were driven by their father, a steel mill crane operator and one-time rhythm-and-blues guitarist, to practice music three hours a day. They began to perform in local talent contests in 1963 and rapidly advanced to amateur contests in Chicago. In 1967 Michael's lead soprano and irresistible dance moves, borrowed from James Brown, helped the brothers win the famed amateur night contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater. The next year the Jacksons signed with Motown, the black-owned Detroit recording company. Motown's owner, Berry Gordy, took complete control of the group, choosing their songs, managing their performances, and gaining the rights to their name, then The Jackson 5. The group's first singles, including "I Want You Back" (1969) and "ABC" (1970), were popular, layering Michael's vocals over funky, stutter-step bass lines.
In 1970 the family moved to Los Angeles, and in the years that followed, the Jacksons made numerous television appearances. Although their recordings from this time suffered from a sense of forced cuteness, their popularity never flagged, and the brothers began to insist on performing much of the instrumental backing themselves. Their recordings from this time include Lookin' Through the Windows (1972) and Get It Together (1973). In 1974 the Jacksons broke with the formulaic routine of Motown recordings and produced "Dancing Machine," a frenetic dance hit that presaged the disco era. In 1975 the group broke with Motown and signed with Epic, which offered them five times more in royalties. Because Motown owned the name The Jackson 5, they called themselves The Jacksons. Jermaine, having married Hazel Gordy, the daughter of Motown's founder, remained with Motown to pursue a solo career.
Like Motown, Epic at first refused to let the Jacksons, who had replaced Jermaine with Randy, write or produce their own material. Instead, their densely layered pop hits, bridging the gap between soul and disco, were written by the Philadelphia-based team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Only in 1977 were they finally allowed to fully control their own recordings. The resulting album, Destiny, mixed Michael's gospel-style vocals with disco rhythms and yielded the hit single "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," written by Michael and Randy.
Meanwhile, although Michael was concentrating on his spiraling solo character, he reunited with his brothers in 1980 on Triumph, but by this time it was clear that his superstar status virtually relegated his brothers to a backup role. After Triumph, the Jacksons brought Michael back in 1984 for the enormously successful Victory album and tour. Since then the Jacksons as a group have been less active, concentrating on solo careers, although Jackie, Marlon, Tito, and Randy did record the largely unsuccessful 2300 Jackson Street (1989).
After Michael, Jermaine Jackson has been the most successful male singer in the family. He released Jermaine in 1972 and recorded almost a dozen more solo albums over the next decade. In 1991 he recorded "You Said, You Said" and "Word to the Badd," a scalding attack on Michael. Marlon Jackson's solo album, Baby Tonight, was released in 1987. Randy Jackson, badly injured in a 1980 auto accident, recovered in time for the Jacksons' reunion in 1984. He released his first solo album in 1989. In 1997 The Jackson 5 was admitted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The Jackson daughters have also had solo careers. The oldest, Rebbie, continued performing after the 1970s but without the popularity of her two younger sisters. LaToya Jackson released four undistinguished solo albums. In 1991 she countered her mother's 1990 memoirs, The Jacksons: My Family, by publishing LaToya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family, which portrayed a childhood dominated by fear and abuse. Janet has gone on to parlay modest singing abilities with hot choreography and even hotter lyrics into a vastly popular career.
Despite internal family conflicts, the Jacksons remain, collectively and individually, the most prominent and productive family in African-American popular music.
Brown, Geoff. The Complete Guide to the Music of Michael Jackson and the Jackson Family. New York: Omnibus Press, 1996.
Jackson, La Toya. La Toya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family. New York: Dutton, 1991.
McDougal, Weldon A. The Michael Jackson Scrapbook: The Early Days of the Jackson 5. New York: Avon Books, 1984.
harris friedberg (1996)
Updated by author 2005