How we made the Jackson 5's I Want You Back

‘Michael and I were such pranksters. We’d put itching powder on men’s bald spots – or a bucket of water over a door to give someone a soaking’

Tito Jackson, singer

We were five of nine siblings who grew up in a house the size of a double garage in Gary, Indiana. We weren’t allowed to touch our father’s guitar when he went to work. Of course I did – my mum would let us play – and he found out, because I’d broken a string. He scolded me, put a new string on and said: “Show me what you know.” He was surprised that I could play, so gave me the guitar and I just started learning every Motown song, with Jackie, Jermaine and myself singing. When we heard Michael sing our tongues fell out of our mouths. We invited our other little brother, Marlon, to join as well, and that was the start of the Jackson 5.

We’d come home from school and go straight into rehearsal, and a couple of hours later we’d go out to perform. Gladys Knight saw us and told Berry Gordy at Motown but he didn’t want to know. Then when we opened for Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, Bobby told Berry: “You’ve got to see these kids.” We’d just been asked to appear on David Frost’s TV show, which was national, so when we had to cancel that to audition for Motown, I didn’t want to go. Berry still wasn’t that interested either because he already had Little Stevie Wonder and didn’t want to deal with more kids, but we stunned him so much he walked over and said: “I’m gonna get you guys three No 1s in a row.” We were more excited to be in his mansion. He had a bowling alley, a golf course. It was like Disneyland.

I Want You Back was written for us by a team of writers called the Corporation, which included Berry. Michael was 10 years old, but he sang it like a bird. Everything took off after we did The Ed Sullivan Show. America had not long been through the civil rights era and the song brought black and white and young and old together. When we landed in London, thousands of fans chased us through the airport, through the streets, banging on the roof of the car. Michael had a scarf on and some fans were pulling it through the window until he turned blue. In school, we’d been learning about the Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace, the Statue of Liberty and so on. Then suddenly we were going back to class with pictures of us in all these places.

The Jackson 5, from left, Jermaine, Michael (front), Jackie, Marlon and Tito.
‘We’d come home from school, rehearse, then go out to perform’ … from left, Jermaine, Michael (front), Jackie, Marlon and Tito. Photograph: Gilles Petard/Redferns

Marlon Jackson, singer

Our father was a hard taskmaster. There’s a James Brown song, Papa Don’t Take No Mess. That was my father. He drilled us into becoming a professional group. We were playing the chitlin’ circuit, clubs, theatres, everywhere. Every talent show we entered, we won. I don’t know how much we were being paid for all this but audiences would throw money on the floor, so I went into school with a lot of dollars in my pocket.

When we auditioned for Motown, Marvin Gaye was there, the Temptations, Diana Ross, all of them. We were singing their songs while they were looking at us. We started recording in Hitsville studios in Detroit, then Motown relocated to Los Angeles, so we finished the songs there.

I Want You Back was one of the last songs we recorded in those sessions. We could all play instruments, but we weren’t allowed to play on the records because Motown wanted them to sound really tight, so they had top musicians. As kids, you don’t know how good those songs are. You just sing what you’re told to sing. I remember hearing the finished record for the first time when our next-door neighbour ran over with a portable radio yelling: “You’re on the radio!” Then our first four singles went to No 1, which nobody had ever done before.

When you’re 11 years old, you don’t think about that type of stuff, or how this song is going to save someone’s life years from now, or get someone’s family back together. We were just kids having fun. Michael and I were such pranksters. We’d put itching powder on men’s bald spots, or put a bucket of water over a door so that when someone walked in they’d get a soaking. We never threw televisions out of windows. Our first album was called Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, but she wasn’t that much older than us and had a lot of kid in her. We were always having pillow fights.

• Tito Jackson’s debut solo album, Tito Time, is out now.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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