48 Years Ago Today, 'I Want You Back' Kicked It All Off For the Jackson 5

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Jackson 5 photographed circa 1970. 

The single that launched one of music’s most famous dynasties debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 exactly 48 years ago today. “I Want You Back,” the first Motown single by the Jackson 5, began its journey up the chart dated Nov. 15, 1969.

It wasn’t the first single by the group of five brothers from Gary, Indiana. Their father, Joe, approached a local label, Steeltown, about signing his five sons. The Jacksons spent several consecutive Saturdays at Steeltown, recording a number of tracks, and on Jan. 31, 1968, the small independent firm released “Big Boy.” “It felt good to have a single out,” says Tito Jackson, second oldest of the group. “It made us feel like we were getting somewhere. We saw our record selling in stores. But we didn’t realize what a small level we were at in Gary, compared to the world.”

“Big Boy” garnered some local airplay and was picked up by Atlantic Records for national distribution, but the single really didn’t break out beyond the borders of Gary.

The Jacksons had been playing local gigs for some time, including amateur nights at the Regal Theater in Chicago. That’s where Gladys Knight heard the boys singing from her second floor dressing room and was impressed enough to call her Motown label boss, Berry Gordy, to tell him about the Jacksons. The call was never returned.

In July 1968, the Jackson 5 were the opening act at the High Chaparral club in Chicago. The headliners were Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, the Motown group that had a hit R&B single with “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” Taylor also made a phone call to Motown; he asked A&R VP Ralph Seltzer to arrange an audition for the Jacksons with Gordy.

“Right after the Chicago gig, Bobby invited the Jackson 5 to live in his apartment in Detroit,” says Vancouvers guitarist Tommy Chong (later of comedy duo Cheech & Chong). While playing the Apollo in New York, the Jacksons were booked to sing on David Frost’s show. But their father had to break the news to his sons that he was cancelling the Frost appearance because it conflicted with their audition for Motown. Joe drove his sons to Detroit in the family VW van and Gordy signed them to his label.

Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael went to work in the Hitsville studio in Detroit with Taylor as their producer. He helmed a number of tracks, including remakes of the Miracles “Who’s Loving You,” Sly and the Family Stone's“Stand” and Marvin Gaye’s “Chained.” They would all end up on the album Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, but none of the Taylor-produced cuts were released as singles. Gordy moved the Jacksons to Los Angeles and assigned them to a new production team known as the Corporation (Deke Richards, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell and Gordy).

The Corporation had been working on a track for Gladys Knight & the Pips, “I Wanna Be Free.” There was some discussion of giving the track to Diana Ross, but Gordy heard it and suggested they rewrite it for the young group he had just signed, the Jackson 5.

“I remember going into the Motown studio and hearing the track coming through the big studio monitors right in our face,” says Jackie Jackson. “It was slamming. The intro was so strong. Berry always taught us to have a strong intro to get people’s attention right away. And I remember the Corporation teaching us the song. Michael picked it up so fast; it was easy to learn for all of us. They kept changing it here and there for the better. We told them it was great, but the next day Freddie and Fonce added more things to it. They wanted to make it perfect. Michael did these ad-libs at the end of the song. They didn’t teach him that; he just made up his own stuff.”

“I Want You Back” entered the Hot 100 at No. 90. Eleven weeks later, the single began a four-week reign at No. 1. 
“When I heard ‘I Want You Back’ on the radio for the first time, I was driving in my car by myself on Fairfax in L.A. and I pulled over to the side of the road,” Jackie remembers. “Hearing your song for the first time on the radio is unbelievable. You hear it in the studio all the time, but when you hear it on the radio, it sounds 10 times better.”

Motown’s Suzanne de Passe called the family at home to let them know “I Want You Back” was No. 1. “I didn’t wait for them to send us a copy of Billboard,” says Jackie, who went right to a newsstand and bought five copies. “There we were, on top of the pop and R&B charts, in front of all the other acts. There’s nothing more exciting than to be No. 1 with your very first record. We worked so hard in the recording studio and it paid off.”

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“I Want You Back,” one of the most iconic songs of the rock era, was just the beginning for the Jackson 5. Their next three Motown singles -- “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” -- all topped the Hot 100. 

“For me, the musical highlight of our entire career is ‘I Want You Back,’” says Jackie. “Because that’s the one that put the flag in the ground. When people hear it, they go crazy. That’s the one that got us known around the world and it will be with us for life.”

Longtime Billboard contributor Fred Bronson adapted this article from his new book, The Jacksons Legacy, written with the Jacksons.