The blues, Tito Jackson’s first love… it never dies.
“It’s the music that never dies,” the former Jackson Five star tells me. “It’s universal. It’s always going be here. I want to get younger listeners for the blues, that’s why I tried to get artists who can attract a more pop audience.”
Stevie Wonder, George Benson and Joe Bonamassa are among the legends he recruited.
You wouldn’t think it from his down-to-earth manner, but Tito was once a teenage pop icon. The Jackson Five were a phenomenon. The young brothers exploded into the charts in 1969 and didn’t leave them for fifteen years.
“It was incredible,” he tells me. “We were so young! I’d just turned fifteen when we sold out Madison Square Garden. The screaming happened every night. Most of the time we couldn’t finish a set… It didn’t turn our heads – we were too busy.
“It didn’t really sink in until people started coming up to me and saying things like, ‘I’ll Be There was my wedding song…’ ‘My son was conceived to that song…’ That’s when I realised what popularity means.”
Their music was an infectious mix of R&B, soul, and pop; their dance routines as well-drilled as the Household Cavalry.
The young R&B quintet in the early 1970s
Tito — real name Toriano — was the third of nine children born to crane-driver Joe Jackson and his second wife Katherine. Money was tight and their home was barely big enough to swing a Borrower.
“There were two bedrooms for all of us, and one bathroom,” Tito, 67, recalls. “Our parents had one bedroom, the boys had another, the girls had the sofa.”
The small house in Gary, Indiana, was full of music. “Pop had been in a blues band, and he and my uncle used to get together and play guitars every weekend. My father would listen to BB King, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters…My mother loved country music. We used to sing with mom. Me, my old brother Jackie and Jermaine would do three-part harmony. We were trying to sing like the Temptations.”
Ex-boxer Joe wasn’t impressed. “We’d be making a noise trying to sing, just the three of us, and he’d have just finished a graveyard shift at the steel plant and he’d snap, ‘Be quiet! I have to sleep! I got to work in eight hours.’
“Dad told mother, ‘Those boys can’t sing’. Mother told him, ‘You need to listen to them, these boys might have talent.’ So Pop gave us an audition and his mouth fell open. He took his next paycheque and bought amps and microphones. That’s when it got serious.”
1972: The Jackson Five in the backyard of their LA home
Single-minded Joe focused all of his energy on turning his sons into a professional unit. “We rehearsed every day after we came home from school. Father would have the microphones set up in the living room. All the neighbourhood kids would fight to listen to our music, we had crowds at our window.
“I can’t believe how small that room was…”
Joe’s training regime was brutal. After school, they’d rehearse for four hours, then play a gig, do their homework and get to bed sometime after 2am. “We’d sleep in the car,” says Tito. “Grab 15-minute naps.”
Joe, who died in 2018, was hard on them. “But that was an excellent thing,” Tito insists. “A lot of my childhood friends don’t walk the earth anymore because of gangs and drugs.”
Bolstered by younger brothers Marlon and Michael, the Jacksons progressed from talent shows to support slots with legends like Etta James.
Tito played guitar, Jermaine bass, Jackie shook maracas, Marlon danced and pint-sized Michael sang; with friends on keyboards and on drums.
“We’d play clubs like the High Chaparral in Chicago. We did at least five blues songs in our set before we signed to Motown, songs like Stormy Monday Blues.”
Gladys Knight, an early fan, mentioned them to Motown boss Berry Gordy who didn’t think they were ready. Soul star Bobby Taylor convinced Joe to try again.
“We auditioned at the Apollo in New York, doing Motown stuff, singing and dancing and smiling and Berry’s not showing an expression. I wasn’t sure he was digging us. At the end, he walked over and said ‘I’m going to get you three numbers and make them Number Ones’.”
In fact, their first four Motown singles – I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Share and I’ll Be There – went to Number One in the USA and were Top Ten here.
Jackson-mania erupted. “When we first played the UK we had 10,000 screaming fans meeting us at the airport. We wound up in the same hotel as the Osmonds. So many fans turned up, it stopped the traffic.
“We’d go to school and the teacher would be telling us about Buckingham Palace and we’d been there…”
Michael, a star at 9, was always special. “Before Michael was five, I used to look sideways at him and think how does this little guy do this? Why is everything so easy for him and so difficult for me? He had a natural talent.”
Back on stage: Tito has upcoming gigs in the US, Spain and England
Tito learned to play guitar young, listening to blues legends and jazz guitarist Jimmy Smith. But despite his skill, Gordy refused to let him play on the group’s albums, insisting on using session musicians instead.
The brothers left Motown in 1975, frustrated by low royalties and lack of creative control. “Motown wouldn’t let us write songs for the album so we left, formed The Jacksons and signed to Epic.”
They continued having hits, including Can You Feel It, until the end of the 1980s. Two of their sisters, Janet and La Toya, had successful careers; Michael trumped them all by becoming the biggest star on the planet. He died in 2009. Neither the Jacksons nor the US courts believed the child abuse accusations that clouded his last years.
Tito was the last of the brothers to release a solo album, 2016’s Tito Time. “My free time was for my kids,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a deadbeat dad. I gave time to the boys while my brothers did their solo albums.”
His sons became the 3Ts, who had a string of UK Top Ten hits in the 90s.
Tito was stung into solo action when a US basketball star joked, “If Tito wasn’t in the Jacksons would we really miss him?” He says, “I thought maybe I’ve been too quiet…”
Under Your Spell, a lockdown album, out on August 6
He used lockdown to finish the new album, which also features brother Marlon, former O’Jays singer Eddie Levert and Claudette King, daughter of B.B. King.
“People couldn’t say no,” he laughs. “It was lockdown, what else were they doing?”
Most of the tracks are co-written with Michael K. Jackson (no relation) from R&B group Portrait. The first single from it is Love One Another. “It felt right for right now, the condition of the world. It’s like a yoyo, man, we fight each other, wars, sanctions. But the people of the world love each other.
“People don’t want war. It’s political. The American people didn’t want Iraq or Vietnam. Take politics out and people have a natural instinct to help others.”
Next month Tito has gigs with Mike Zito in the US, then Majorca, before The Jacksons play the Happy Days festival in Esher. He plans to record another blues album next year “with a couple of old friends”.
“I like playing my blues and going on the road and playing to the people, soul music. I’ll be doing that.
“Thanks to everyone who supported my family throughout the years, we appreciate you, we think about you and we pray for you. There are a lot more songs to sing.”
Under Your Spell by Tito Jackson is released on August 6