Jackson, Millie 1944–
Millie Jackson 1944–
Rhythm and blues singer
Long before contemporary rap albums carried parental-advisory warnings, Millie Jackson’s highly charged, sexually explicit soul records bore the admonishment “For Mature Audiences Only.” Her mid-song, minutes-long tales of heartache and betrayal, usually delivered in rather frank language, gave Jackson a cult following for her originality, but also made her records all but unplayable on the radio. Despite these drawbacks, Jackson’s popularity has endured well into a third decade, and music writers have deemed her the ultimate godmother to pop music’s tough-talking rap divas of the 1990s.
Jackson was born in 1944 in Thompson, Georgia, and brought up in her grandparents’ home. It was a devout household, and she attended church services as often as six days a week at times. When she was 15, she moved to New Jersey, where her father lived, and found work at Schrafft’s, a famous New York City luncheon counter. She began her singing career one night on a dare at a Harlem nightclub, joining a band on stage at the urging of her friends. Her first paid engagement came in 1964 at a Hoboken, New Jersey venue; only in 1967 did she quit Schrafft’s and embark on her first real concert tour. Life on the road proved to be difficult and unprofitable. Jackson returned to New York and took a clerical job in the garment district, although she continued to sing at night.
At this point in her life, Jackson became pregnant and married the father of her daughter. It was a short-lived union, however, and neither motherhood nor the romantic setback dampened her enthusiasm for performing. She cut her first single in 1970, and soon gained enough minor attention to win a record contract with Polydor, which released her debut, Millie Jackson, in 1972. The work offered standard soul fare, and a Billboard critic termed it “a top-drawer debut.” Other reviewers compared her with Roberta Hack and Aretha Franklin, among others. During the first years of Jackson’s career, record-company executives attempted to groom her as the next Diana Ross.
Two of Jackson’s songs from the early 1970s climbed onto the Top Ten on the R&B charts. “Ask Me What You Want” and “My Man a Sweet Man.” She had another hit with “Hurts So Good,” a track that was included in the soundtrack to Cleopatra Jones, a blaxploitation film. Her most notable success came with the single “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be
At a Glance…
Born July 15, 1944, in Thompson, GA; married once, late 1960s; children: Neisha, Jerroll.
Awards: Nominated for Grammy Award as best female R&B vocalist, 1974, for “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right.”
Addresses: Office— c\o BMC Records, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY10036.
Right,” which earned her a Grammy nomination in the best female R&B vocalist category in 1974.
Buoyed by this success, Jackson had enough leverage to convince her management company to let her co-produce some of her own tracks. The 1974 album, Caught Up, marked this new musical direction, as well as the start of collaborative efforts with a group of musicians from the famed Muscle Shoals Studios. Jackson’s records became paeans to soured romance, mini-dramas about lust, infidelity, and betrayal that occurred mid-song. She had already done such monologues for several years during her live shows. “When I started singing, in order to be a good female vocalist you had to hit a higher note than the other female vocalists, and with this low voice of mine, there weren’t too many high notes to hit,” she told Boston Globe writer Jim Sullivan. “So I used to talk my way out of it and I found the audience liked me better talking than they did singing.” Reviewers used the word “rap” to describe her style as early as 1976.
This approach became Jackson’s signature style, and began earning her legions of devoted fans. Nearly all of her subsequent albums continued in this vein. Because Jackson’s songs dealt with frank topics, and used words that were prohibited by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines, few of her songs received significant air time on the radio. Despite this drawback, several of Jackson’s albums went on to earn her gold records, and she became known as the “Richard Pryor of Soul” for her free use of profanity. Even the usually recalcitrant legion of music critics seemed to appreciate Jackson’s talents. In a 1978 review of Jackson’s album, Get It Out’Cha System, a Billboard review termed it “ablaze with wit and wisdom, musical and lyrical.”
Jackson’s stage shows became legendary events. She interacted with the audience, taunted the men, and brought fans into the act itself. When disco emerged as a credible new musical genre in the mid-1970s, critics began comparing a new star, Donna Summer, to Jackson, especially after Summer enjoyed great success with the hits “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby.” The new, sexually charged atmosphere within music forced record company executives to reassess Jackson’s talents, and the changing times also caused Jackson to re-evaluate her own career. “To be perfectly honest with you, I never took this serious until three years ago,” she told Washington Post writer Jacqueline Trescott in 1980. “My contract was up; I renegotiated. And said,’I am worth this much money? I better start taking it seriously.’”
Two successful live albums cogently showcased Jackson’s unique stage presence and repudiated any efforts to peg her as an overproduced disco queen: Live and Uncensored from 1980, which included outtakes from shows at such venues as the Roxy in Los Angeles, and Live and Outrageous, released two years later. She continued to write, record, and produce new material every year or so, and even cut a duet with Elton John, “Act of War,” that enjoyed modest chart success in Britain in 1985. In 1989, Jackson made her New York stage debut with a musical she co-wrote, Young Man, Older Woman. The musical played at the Beacon Theater, and toured elsewhere as well. It also provided the material for an album of the same name. Young Man, Older Woman was less a dramatic event than a nightclub act built around a romantic plot, one in which Jackson leaves her no-good husband for a younger man. The show garnered a positive review from the New York Times’s Neil Strauss, who compared her voice to that of Tina Turner’s and asserted that the musical “proves that Ms. Jackson still has the strength, prurience, humor and taste for the extreme to hold her position as a big sister to most female rappers.”
Jackson admitted elsewhere that the impetus for Young Man, Older Woman was drawn from real-life experiences, in some cases dating men more than 25 years her junior. She had never remarried after her first match ended in divorce, but did have a second child in the late 1970s. “Let’s face it, when you reach my age and you haven’t gotten married, chances are if you want to go anywhere, it may be that he is going to be younger,” the 53-year-old singer told Jet in 1998. “[Men] my age are married, divorced or have so many hangups you don’t want to be bothered with them anyway. If you’re looking for an escort, he’ll probably be younger. I have no problem with it.”
Jackson followed the success of her play with The Sequel — It Ain’t Over!, which debuted at the Beacon in early 1997. The musical opens with Jackson’s wedding to a younger man, a psychiatrist played by Douglas Knyght-Smith. The union quickly disintegrates over the course of several numbers that showcase Jackson’s unique vocal talents. She still attracted a cult following, noted Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times, and still went off into her characteristic monologues during the songs—where “Jackson gives a display of the star power and showmanship that account for the excitement of the fans who turn out.”
Jackson’s 1999 release, Between the Sheets, was a compilation of her most memorable tracks, including “Hurts So Good” and “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” “There’s only one Millie Jackson, and she’s here in all her fabulous glory,” declared Billboard reviewer Michael Paoletta. For a performer who had never courted stardom, Jackson was undoubtedly pleased that she had achieved a place in music history. “This is an industry where you don’t have ambitions,” she told Trescott in the Washington Post interview in 1980. “The public will tell you where you are going for the next three or four years. You just say, I hope you will be nice and remember to take me somewhere.”
Millie Jackson, Spring\Polydor, 1972.
It Hurts So Good, 1973.
Caught Up, 1974.
Soul Believer, 1974.
Still Caught Up, 1975.
Free and In Love, Spring\Polydor, 1976.
Best of Millie Jackson, 1976.
Lovingly Yours, 1977.
Get It Out’Cha System, Spring\Polydor, 1978.
A Moment’s Pleasure, 1979.
(With Isaac Hayes) Royal Rappings, 1979.
Live and Uncensored, 1980.
For Men Only, Spring\Polydor, 1980.
Just a Lil Bit Country, 1981.
Live and Outrageous, 1982.
Hard Times, 1982.
E.S.P (Extra Sexual Persuasion), 1984.
An Imitation of Love, 1986.
The Tide Is Turning, 1988.
Back to the S, 1989.
Young Man, Older Woman, 1992.
Totally Unrestricted! The Millie Jackson Anthology, Rhino, 1998.
Between the Sheets, Buddha\BMG, 1999.
Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness Publishing, 1992, p. 1250.
Billboard, September 9, 1972; April 24, 1976; July 8, 1978; December 8, 1979; June 14, 1980; October 2, 1999, p. 30.
Boston Globe, June 24, 1980.
Jet, March 23, 1998, pp. 14–16.
New York Times, July 20, 1989, p. C19; January 16, 1995, p. C17; February 4, 1997.
Village Voice, January 6, 1998, p. 77.
Washington Post, March 8, 1980, p. B1.
Singer, songwriter, producer
Millie Jackson has built her singing career on her rich, smoky voice, her musical talent, her business acumen, and her sense of humor. Jackson has always made her own business and career decisions; for many years she has acted as her own manager. A coproducer of her own recordings, she also owns a production company, Keishval Enterprises. She writes many of her own songs and all of her own raps, the spoken sections in her concerts and on her records. In these raps, she has consciously chosen to continue the blues tradition of explicit honesty. She talks about every angle of sex, relationships, and everyday life. As Vertamae Grosve-nor wrote in Ms.magazine, “Her buck-naked everyday truth-telling style is pure raunch…. When Millie sings and raps about love and relationships, the liberated lyrics of her spokesongs proclaim that there are choices. Alternatives.”
Jackson grew up in the middle of the blues-oriented South, in Georgia. Her mother died when she was two years old; her father left her to go find work in the north when she was 11. For years, she lived with her strictly religious grandparents. When she was 15, she moved to New Jersey to live with her father again, but left shortly thereafter to live with an aunt in Brooklyn.
Jackson began singing professionally in her late teens on a dare. One evening she was with friends at the Palm Café in Harlem. A friend challenged her to get up and sing with the band. Not one to shy away from any such challenge, she got up and sang “Stand By Me,” and the audience loved her. One member of the audience liked her so much he offered her a job singing at a nearby club, the Crystal Ballroom.
Jackson wanted a singing career, but also was quite aware of the pitfalls and insecurities of such a life. For ten years, she sang at night and on weekends while still holding down a full-time day job. “I didn’t quit my secretarial job until I had two records on the charts,” she told Essence. “I wasn’t sure I was gonna continue because so many singers come out there and get hits then disappear. I told my agent that if he could book me three months in advance, I’d quit. I came in the next day and I was booked. That was it.”
Beginning with little formal musical training, Jackson learned what she needed to know about music on the road. She described her musical education in High Fidelity: “[My road band] taught me a lot, and I familiarized myself enough with the piano to write…. I took a test at Juilliard in order to enroll. I told the professor ’You
For the Record…
Born July 15, 1944, in Thompson, GA; divorced; children: Keisha, Jerrol.
Singer, songwriter, and producer, early 1970s—. Performed in first singing job at Harlem’s Crystal Ballroom, c. 1962; worked as a full-time secretary, singing evenings and weekends, c. 1962-72; recorded Top Ten singles “Ask Me What You Want” and “My Man a Sweet Man,” early 1970s; recorded first album, Millie, 1973; recorded gold albums Caught Up, 1974, and Still Caught Up, 1975; cast member and regular performer on radio program Young Man, Older Woman, KKDA-FM, Dallas, TX, 1990s—. Works as own producer and manager; founder of production company Keishval Enterprises.
Awards: Named best female rhythm and blues vocalist, Cash Box, 1973.
Addresses: Office —Keishval Enterprises, Inc., 2095 High Point Tr. S.W., Atlanta, GA 30331. Record company —Ichiban Records, P.O. Box 724677, Atlanta, GA 31139-1677.
know I came here to better my career. Why do I have to name three Russian composers? I could give a damn!’ He said, ’Well, you have to know theory—about major and minor, about diminished and augmented.’”
When Jackson told the Juilliard professor that she knew theory, she related, “He said, ’Go home. You’re further ahead now than the majority of students graduating this year. You say you’ve got a record? How many of my students do you think would love to have one? If you go through these classes you’re going to think about the right way of doing things and kill your artistic side. Go home.’” She went home, and has been writing many of the songs she sings ever since.
Jackson’s early recordings fit squarely into traditional rhythm and blues categories, and included two singles that made the Top Ten: “Ask Me What You Want” and “My Man a Sweet Man.” She developed her stage personality as she developed her raps in her live performances, in which she often talked about sex. “Sex is always a good subject,” she told Essence. “People always been cheatin’ and always will be…. [My songs] give people something to talk about and keeps their minds off their problems.” She has also acted as something of a role model and spokesperson for women. “Women come to me all the time to comment on what I ’m doing,” she explained to Essence. “Maybe it’s because I’m saying something they want to say.”
In 1974 Jackson scored a big hit with the release of Caught Up. This album, which contained country-western and rock tunes as well as soul, was the first successful concept album by a female singer, describing a love triangle from the perspectives of both the wife and the “other woman.” It was her first album to contain raps developed from her concerts, and it was the first to contain explicitly sexual talk. It was also her first album to go gold.
Jackson’s next album, Still Caught Up, continued with the same themes and also went gold. After her initial albums drew some complaints about her frank language and subject matter, she recorded a couple of tamer albums. She described the results in High Fidelity: “After I saw the sales I tapped on a few desks and said, ’I’m gonna do what the hell I want and if it doesn’t sell it’s my career.’… I went back into the studio and did Feelin’Bitchy and it was the biggest album I ever had.” She did not change her style again.
Jackson’s success has been something of an anomaly in the music industry. Usually a song’s financial success depends almost completely on how much airplay it gets—recordings that are played frequently on the radio sell well. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, few radio stations played Jackson’s songs because of their explicit lyrics, and few radio and television talk shows invited her to appear.
Even when Jackson did appear on shows, she rarely had a chance to really talk. “They always expect you to go completely off [the air] and say all those dirty words. You get to sing your song sometimes, but they never let you say anything,” she explained to Rolling Stone. “Then when the show’s over and you’re backstage talking, they realize you have a brain in your head slightly larger than the size of a pea, but the show is over with, so you gotta wait until you get your next hit record maybe.”
Even Jackson’s clean albums did not receive radio play. “When I have a clean album, nobody’ll play it. They say it’s not Millie,” she told Rolling Stone. In the long run, she does not waste too much time worrying about the radio. “I found out it doesn’t make too much sense to gear yourself for radio anyway,” she observed in Rolling Stone. “I’m one of those few artists whose albums people will buy without hearing. But I’ve had Number One R&B records that got no pop play at all.”
In 1994, however, Jackson released Rock N’ Soul, a collection of 11 tracks of varied styles, ranging from a cover of country singer Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around” to rockers Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me. “Billboard’s J. R. Reynolds noted that the album marked “a more conservative approach” in the singer’s career, as it left out the racy lyrics and off-color poetry in favor straight-ahead rock and R&B. Reynolds reported that the move was due to Jackson’s disapproval of much of what is on the airwaves. Jackson remarked in Billboard, “It all sounds the same, and I wanted to show you can make different kinds of good music.”
Jackson has spent much time during her career deciding what does make sense (and cents), for she manages herself and runs her own production company, Keishval Enterprises. “It’s a pain in the neck,” she told High Fidelity, “and very time consuming, but no one has given me a better offer. I haven’t given a manager 20, 25, or 30 percent of my money because I’ve found that I can speak for myself very well. He’d have the right to place me with a booking agency, but I’ve already got one that I like. I’ve never had any trouble collecting money or saying whether or not I want to work this week.”
After almost 20 years of recording and performing in concert, Jackson felt it made sense for her to begin expanding her career. The woman who could not get radio airplay in the 1980s got her own radio show on KKDA-FM in Dallas in the 1990s. She took her concert raps to their logical conclusion, and created an entire program, “set up more as a play than a concert,” as she told the Atlanta Constitution.
The show, Young Man, Older Woman, includes monologues, dancing, and comedy; the cast features not only Millie Jackson, but her daughter, singer Keisha Jackson. Like the rest of her work, Young Man, Older Woman talks about life and relationships, telling the story of a married woman who becomes complacent in her relationship, ceases to take pride in herself, and then regains control over her life.
Having command over one’s own life has been a personal theme for Jackson, and her gift to her audience and younger female performers. While her many recordings constitute a rich legacy of their own, Jackson has given the music industry much more than songs. Through her individuality and independence, she has been a role model for many young women. She paved the way for aggressive female rappers in a genre famous for its misogyny. In her business dealings, she showed other female performers like Janet Jackson and Madonna that women can manage their own careers. Just as her songs feature raps about choices and alternatives for women, Millie Jackson’s life course has been determined by her own choices.
Millie, Spring, 1973.
Caught Up, Spring, 1974.
Still Caught Up, Spring, 1975.
Free and In Love, Spring, 1976.
Lovingly Yours, Spring, 1976.
Get It Out’cha System, Spring, 1978.
A Moment’s Pleasure, Spring, 1979.
Royal Rappin’, Spring, 1979.
Live and Uncensored, Spring, 1979.
I Had to Say It, Spring, 1980.
For Men Only, Spring, 1980.
Just a Little Bit Country, Spring, 1981.
Live and Outrageous, Spring, 1982.
Hard Times, Spring, 1982.
ESP, Spring, 1984.
An Imitation of Love, Jive, 1987.
Back to the S—t, Jive, 1989.
Young Man, Older Woman, Jive, 1992.
The Very Best! of Millie Jackson, Jive, 1994.
Rock N’ Soul, Ichiban, 1994.
New Grove Dictionary of American Music, volume 2, Macmillan, 1986.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 7, 1992.
Billboard, December 10, 1994.
Essence, July 1975.
High Fidelity February 1981.
Jet, August 16, 1979; January 14, 1985; October 21, 1985; February 9, 1987; February 12, 1990; October 25, 1993.
Ms., October 1979.
New York Times, June 13, 1988; July 20, 1989.
Rolling Stone, April 3, 1980.
Vibe, September 1993; September 1994.