In an Bleader exclusive, Jackie speaks about the Jackson 5 in Chicago and other childhood memories. This Friday at the Star Plaza in Merrillville, Indiana, the Jacksons return to where they started, more or less. Their current Unity Tour is not only the first time they’ve played live since Michael Jackson’s passing in 2009, it’s also the first time Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon (the surviving members of the original Jackson Five—drummer Johnny Jackson died in 2006) have hit the road since 1984. After their final rehearsal last Thursday, I spoke to Jackie Jackson by phone about the Jackson Five’s early days in Chicago, White Castle burgers, one particularly supportive midget fan, and the group’s emotional return home.
Jake Austen: A lot of people around here are really excited for this show, because so many folks saw you play in the late 60s when you were a teenager, before you signed with Motown. Hearing clubgoers talk, it seems like the Jackson Five must have played shows in Chicago every night.
Jackie Jackson: We would rehearse all week in Gary, and then on the weekend we’d go to Chicago, the south side, play at the High Chaparral, the Regal Theater, places like that all the time. Those were just fun days—I had a great time.
How long would your sets be back then?
A half-hour, maybe 45 minutes. And we’d leave after that because it was all about adults. I don’t know how we did it ourselves, to tell you the truth, because we weren’t supposed to be there [laughs].
I hear that often you wouldn’t get paid a fee, you’d just get to keep the money the fans threw at you.
That’s how we got paid a lot, they’d throw money on the stage. I remember sometimes Michael and Marlon would be up front, right, and they’d get all the money—we’d be in the back and we’d get kind of mad a little bit, because Michael and Marlon would be up front, dancing and singing and picking up money at the same time.
You wouldn’t pool the money later?
They’d keep it.
What else do you recall about coming into Chicago?
I remember I would pass the White Sox stadium on the freeway, and the Magikist lips sign, the Jays Potato Chips [factory], and all those places like that … I have so many fond memories.
One Chicago club you played a lot was Guys and Gals.
Oh my God, you’re bringing back memories! Man, that place was huge, it was a big club. We used to play at that place all the time. And I remember that after we played there we’d go by White Burger … White Castle, it was called. We were looking forward to that place after we’d play there. We’d get all these little bitty hamburgers—it was great!
When you would play the Regal Theater matinees, would kids come, even before you had records?
Oh yes, fans used to come all the way to the hotel to see us. I guess they saw something that we really didn’t see—we were just having fun onstage. It was very supportive. Today they do fine with the Internet, it’s a whole different thing, but we had our following back there. Kids would follow us everywhere.
Before you recorded for Motown you recorded Big Boy, first at One-Der-Ful then at another studio.
I can remember being in the studio a couple of times recording that song, that’s true.
Can you remember any details about the sessions?
You were so young then, spending all your weekends in clubs—did you make friends? Were there other young musicians you’d see?
The other musicians were happy to see us, and they’d talk to us and say “Keep up the great work.” I remember seeing this little midget, I can’t remember his name—this little midget, he was incredible and he could dance really, really good. And Michael loved this little guy, he would always come over to us, and he was a great dancer, and every time we were at the club he was always there up front to say hello to us. He was always throwing his hands up, cheering the whole crowd. He was rocking off us, we were rocking off him too—I can’t remember his name, but he was incredible, the little midget guy! He was incredible. I hope he’s still living today, I’d love to say hello to him.
Do you remember Dancin’ Boy?
Oh yeah! You’re bringing back some memories!
He’s still around.
Oh my God, Dancin’ Boy! He was an incredible dancer, he was so cool. This white guy be at the black clubs, that was never heard of. He was so welcome, everybody loved him, this white guy named Dancin’ Boy—I remember him!
Anything you want to say about the Unity tour?
This tour is an incredible show—it’s hard to fit everything in this one show, but we figured out a way to do it, and it’s going to be a great show, an exciting show. I’m so happy to be back on the stage again and be able to sing in front of our fans. They’ve been so supportive of us over the years and it’s time for us to go out and do something. And I’d like to thank all the people in Chicago, because if it wasn’t for you guys … [chokes up, starts to cry] I’m very emotional because all the people in Chicago, they made us who we are—they saw us before we even made it. And Chicago, you guys rock—you guys were there from the very beginning, and we want to thank you for that.