Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back”

Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“I Want You Back” not only introduced America to the biggest post-Elvis superstar in the world. It also kicked off the unprecedented success of a group having its first four singles top the chart, and returned the mojo Motown lost with the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland.

The Jackson 5 – Michael, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Jackie – were famously raised in Gary, Ind. by their ambitious and abusive father Joe. When his sons started showing musical aptitude, Joe Jackson saw them as his ticket out of the Gary steel mills and, after music lessons, sent them out on the chitlin circuit. Their shows caught the eye of Sam and Dave and Gladys Knight, who recommended the group to Motown chief Berry Gordy. Because Gordy already had one child star with Stevie Wonder, he declined to sign them.

One year later, in 1968, the Jackson 5 were paired with Knight and Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, who were riding their lone Motown hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” Taylor and Knight were so impressed by the J5’s performance that they videotaped an audition and send the tape to Gordy to his new home in Los Angeles. Gordy was still reluctant to sign another child act, but relented after watching the tape.

Of course Knight and Taylor received little credit for bringing the Jackson 5 to Motown. The glory went to Diana Ross, who had nothing to do with the quintet or their signing, but received top billing on their debut album, “Diana Ross presents the Jackson 5.”

The arrival of the Jackson 5 draws a sharp line between the Detroit and Los Angeles eras of Motown. Gordy had recently relocated to Los Angeles to start a film career for both himself and Ross, his lover. Although some early J5 songs were recorded at the Hitsville studio in Detroit, Gordy moved the group out to California for grooming.

Gordy copied the songwriting template of the Supreme’s successful “Love Child” to craft “I Want You Back.” He called three of his best writers – Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and Alphonso Mizell – to help him retool a song originally intended for either Gladys Knight or Diana Ross as either “I Wanna Be Free” or “I Want You Back.” As on “Love Child,” Gordy billed the collective anonymously. After the defection of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Gordy did not want any more of his songwriters to become “back room superstars.” Known only as “The Corporation,” the team wrote many of the Jackson 5’s early hits.

One of the most infectiously joyous songs in the Motown catalog, “I Want You Back” has been covered several times. Nickel Creek recorded a bluegrass version in 2007, two pop girl groups – Cleopatra and the West End Girls – had international hits with their 1990s interpretations. It was recorded by indie rockers Discovery on their 2009 debut, and performed by British singer Mika, KT Tunstall and even Guns N Roses in concert.

“I Want You Back” was sampled by Kris Kross for their 1992 hit “Jump,” and Kanye West for Jay-Z’s 2001 smash “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”

Bobby Taylor – “Does Your Mama Know About Me”

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Bobby Taylor – “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” Pop # 29, R&B # 5

By Joel Francis

North Carolina native Bobby Taylor was working with a trio of Canadian musicians performing Motown numbers in Vancouver when the group caught the attention of Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. The pair excitedly contacted Berry Gordy after hearing Bobby Taylor and the Shades in concert, and Gordy signed the group to his Gordy Records subsidiary.

Unfortunately, the excitement over Taylor’s stage shows failed to translate over records to a wider audience, and the group broke up in 1969 after one album and a handful of lukewarm singles. “Does Your Mama Know About Me” was the group’s biggest hit, peaking at No. 29 on the Pop chart.

Although Taylor’s Motown footprint is shallow, he had a hand in scouting and nurturing several well-known performers. While he was never a member of the Shades – later rechristened the Vancouvers by Gordy – Taylor recalled that Seattle guitarist Jimi Hendrix played with the group on several occasions. Shades drummer Floyd Sneed went on to join Three Dog Night. After booking a local band to open for them in Chicago, Taylor recommended Gordy sign the Jackson 5. He went on to produce the majority of the band’s debut album.

The Vancouver to go onto greatest acclaim, though, was the band’s guitarist. The half-Chinese, Scots-Irish born Thomas Chong co-wrote “Does Your Mama Know About Me” and performed on two more Vancouvers singles before being fired for missing a gig – he was applying for a green card – and becoming a superstar as half of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong.

With its sweeping strings and lush orchestration, “Does Your Mama Know About Me” feels more like a Philly soul number than a Motown production. This type of arrangement was used to great effect by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on early ‘70s soul hits like “Me and Mrs. Jones” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Although Gamble and Huff developed their sound independently – though they were no doubt keeping an ear trained on Motown – “Mama” illustrates how Motown continued to be at the vanguard of soul music beyond the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland and its production-line sound.

A forgotten footnote, the only noteworthy cover of “Does Your Mama Know About Me” was performed by Diana Ross and the Supremes and included on their 1968 album “Love Child.”