The Jackson 5
ichael Jackson and his brothers offered something to the public that hadn't existed since the early days of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Black teen idols were in short supply, mostly because black musical styles demanded a certain level of maturity for their songs to be performed and interpreted properly. The Jackson 5 solved the problem by presenting themselves as a pop act, and then by surprising everybody with the level of soulfulness that they were capable of conveying. For the first time in music history, black performers were being used as models in an advertising campaign that included lunch boxes, watches, and dolls. It was a questionable step forward as far as progress is concerned, but at least it leveled the racial playing field a bit more. What nobody expected, though, was that a family of (very) white Mormons who sang as a barbershop quartet would ape the Jackson 5 style and go head-to-head with them on the charts.
Then, like a bad dream, they refused to go away. Even worse, they began to proliferate. First, Donny Osmond launched a solo career. Then sister Marie appeared as a pseudo-country star. Donny and Marie next teamed their blinding smiles for their own television show. The capper was when Little Jimmy Osmond was thrust upon us. That should have been the last straw, but the Osmonds maintained an active presence until the late '70s, when it finally appeared as though they may have overstayed their welcome. Boy, those were scary times.
While this was going on, the Jackson 5 were caught in a state of flux. Their string of #1 hits was broken when "Mama's Pearl" was halted at #2. This could hardly be deemed a failure, but after four #1 records, it provided food for thought. Perhaps, with the Osmonds moving onto the Jackson 5's turf of adolescent R&B, it might be a good idea to abandon that slot altogether and focus on a more adult-oriented sound. After all, they weren't getting any younger. "Never Can Say Goodbye" was a mature love song written by songwriter Clifton Davis. It almost single-handedly put an adult slant on the boys' image -- so much so that it frightened Motown's A&R department and caused them to withhold its release. It wasn't until Gordy got personally involved that "Never Can Say Goodbye" was finally sent out and quickly went to #2 on the pop charts and #1 on the R&B charts. It caused enough of a sensation to spawn two additional hit versions, first by Isaac Hayes (his reached #22 before the Jackson 5's had even fallen from the charts) and later by Gloria Gaynor (#9 in 1975).
The mature subject matter and confident performance poised the Jackson 5 for entry into a career as mature interpreters of first-class material. Instead of capitalizing on the obvious superiority of the Jackson 5, Motown decided to counteract Donny Osmond's solo career by launching Michael Jackson as a solo artist. By following the Osmonds' lead, Motown showed that it was now willing to place the cart before the horse. Although Michael's solo career was inevitable, the timing for his "coming out" was unfortunate because it implied that Motown was conceding its place as a leader in the pop market. With their main attraction now soliciting attention on his own, the bloom was off the flower for the once fresh-faced Jackson 5.
- Thomas Ryan, American Hit Radio, Prima Entertainment, 1996.
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