Playing alongside brothers Michael, Jermaine, Jackie, and Marlon, Tito Jackson helped define the pivotal pop and soul sounds of an era as guitarist for the Jackson Five. His talent was further solidified as an adult in The Jacksons, to which he lent his writing talents on now-classic anthems like “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” “Destiny,” and “2300 Jackson Street.” The last member of the nine-sibling musical dynasty to test the solo waters, Tito has merged an admiration of the group’s legacy with his passion for the blues on his first full-length album, So Far So Good. He talks with me about his experiences in music and dealing with the loss of The King of Pop. (You can also listen to the interview on BlogTalkRadio.)
I understand that you were initially quite modest about your interest in music when you were growing up?
Yeah, I sort of hid it from my father, because I was playing his guitar. My brothers and I had learned a lot of the songs on the radio, and we were all just singing in the room. Before he could get home from work, we’d have the guitar back in the closet. Until I broke a string one day and I didn’t know how to fix it … he found me out! That’s when he asked me to perform. He was very surprised that I had taught myself how to play all this music. So, he bought me a guitar the next day.
That’s a nice gift. The guitar seems like a pretty intricate instrument to try to learn on your own. Was it by ear that you picked up things, and the fingers just kind of followed?
Yeah, basically whatever I heard, I would just find a note and help myself. I had an uncle, Luther, who played guitar with my father. Once I had my own guitar, they would show me all types of things: chords and blues patterns.
Were the blues a big influence?
Most definitely. You can’t be a guitar player without playing the blues. My father and Uncle Luther were well into the blues back in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
What was it like when you, Jermaine, and Jackie started performing as the Jackson Brothers? What kinds of things were you performing, and how did that help shape your musical identity?
We would basically just listen to the radio or whatever records were in the house that we liked—mainly Motown records and some of the Bee Gees’ stuff. We would learn these songs and sing the harmonies. I think what really got us into harmonies was The Three Stooges. We loved the “hello, hello, hello” thing they did. We learned just from that, you can do all kinds of changes. It was one of the things that helped us to start singing and feeling good about what we were doing. It didn’t sound that great to others, but it sounded okay to us!
Well, you must have done something right, because you guys ended up performing at the Apollo Theater!
Yeah! Actually, when it was Jermaine, Jackie and myself, Michael and Marlon would beg and try to sing with us. We were the older brothers, feeling that Michael and Marlon were just our little brothers and needed to be playing in the sandbox and not bothering us—we were taking care of some serious business! Here we were: eight, 10 and 11, and they were only four and five.
Prior to us even coming to Motown, we used to open up for a lot of artists, such as Jackie Wilson, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Dells, The Chi-Lites, and the Five Stairsteps. As they got wind of us, we didn’t only do the Apollo; we did the Regal in Chicago, the Uptown in Philly. We were known as an opening act that was exciting to the crowd. So that’s how we made it to the Apollo on talent night.
Was performing on the Apollo stage a standout?
I think that they all played a part. Just watching the professionals perform and how they did things, we would learn so much. They would talk to us and tell us to stay away from drugs, and, “You’re great, but don’t get the big head!” Basically, they helped to groom us, and to not fall into some of the pitfalls they had fallen into. The Jackson 5 learned how to work a crowd, seeing how they worked it.
By the time the Jackson 5 achieved major success, did you feel prepared for fame?
I think we were ready for it. It’s almost like any person that’s getting to the professional realm of their career. You look at an athlete who plays college or high school ball, and now all of a sudden he’s drafted for the White Sox. There’s so much that you know, and you’re ready for that draft, but there’s so much to learn still. At that time, we weren’t writing and producing. We were still in the development stage. So, Berry Gordy stepped into the project and basically took us to another, higher level. That’s where our professional training really started to take effect.
I’ve read that during the Motown years, even though you were an accomplished guitar player, you weren’t always allowed to showcase that on the albums.
Well, back then especially, they had what they called studio musicians, and then you had your live musicians. Motown had their own band, the Funk Brothers. Not only were they playing on the Jackson 5 stuff, but on a number of Supremes hits and on down the line. Motown wanted to go with their winning hand, from musicians all the way up to producers and writers. The brothers wanted to do some writing, but Motown didn’t think we were ready. I can understand that, because here we were: a brand-new group of children that they’re trying to develop. It takes a large amount of money to market this type of thing. So, they went with their sure thing. By 1975, with all the Epic stuff, we started writing, producing and playing our own instrumentation on our albums.
Right. And you wrote or co-wrote some big hits for the group, like “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground,” as well as songs like “Style of Life” and “Everybody.” When you were recording those albums, were those songs that you had been stowing away?
They were actually written for those albums. We may have had just a line, a lick, or an idea for some of them beforehand.
Which of the songs that you had a hand in writing are you particularly proud of?
“Destiny” and “Things I Do For You.”
Are there any of the songs from the Motown years that you particularly liked performing?
Absolutely. All the Motown stuff I enjoy playing live to this day. It’s still part of my act.
I saw a clip of that on your website, and noticed that you have a few female vocalists who join you. Now, another song I should mention, going forward in time a little, is “We Can Change the World” from the Victory album. You sang lead on that. Are there any particular memories that you have from that time period when you guys all came together and joined forces again?
That whole album was put together in a rush, because of the time frame we had to work within to get it out and go on tour. I just remember each brother presenting a composition to the album, and there were a few that we did together as a group.
You also have done some production and writing for other artists. One that I always have been impressed with is an album you did for two guys I really don’t know that much about named Steven & Sterling—called One Magic Night. How did you break into that segment of the industry?
I had written and produced for my sister Rebbie and done some writing for LaToya. But I’d known Steven & Sterling since we were kids in California. They got signed by RCA, and they wanted me to work with them and produce their record. I also did some producing for Tramaine Hawkins, the gospel singer, on her songs “Freedom” and “Power”; and for Betty Wright, as well.
Is it different when you’re producing for other artists versus for your brothers?
Well, no matter who you’re working with, a certain amount is going to be you, because it is you. But at the same time, you have to get into that artist’s feel, mood, or what their style is. You have to think what they would enjoy singing—because they have to live with it the rest of their life. So, I basically study the artist, listen to their music for awhile before I start the project, and then just go for it.
You mentioned that blues has been an important part of your foundation, and I’ve read that Albert Collins and B.B. King are among some of your main influences. How has that shaped your musical direction now, or even when you released the I Gotta Play EP a few years back?
What it was, I had put the guitar down; I put show business away for a second. For the first time in my life, I was able to not think about a song or music, and I had a chance to really feel like a person without being a machine—told to go do the interviews, or the recording session or tour. One of my friends had a band that they were performing in, and I went out to see them. He was having so much fun that I just wished I was up there with him. I said, “You know what? I’m gonna start a band.” So, I started a blues band.
He has a little beer joint. I would go there to practice and rehearse. It was the type of place that was very slow. Hardly anybody knew about it; it was right off the freeway. So it was good breaking ground for me to feel confident as a solo artist and to just work out my thing. I would basically put my band together right in front of whoever was there. I didn’t have any solo music to present, such as Jermaine, Michael, or Janet. But I always felt that I had some blues to play. B.B. King has always been one of my heroes. I still feel like doing blues today, so I started looking at people like Eric Clapton. I said, “If Eric Clapton can do both—he can do rock and roll and pop, and still touch his blues—why can’t I?” I try just to be musical, whether it’s blues, reggae, gospel, R&B, pop or rock. If it’s a good song and I feel that I can present it in a decent way, I’ll take a crack at it.
Michael once said that you project “an inner calm that’s vital within a family unit.” Obviously, you had the peace within you to say “I can take a break from the music business, even if it’s what I’m used to doing.” Do you see that as your role in the family? Do his words strike you in any way?
Yes, that’s pretty much been my character, whether I tried to be that person or just am that person. I’ve noticed over the years of being a part of this family that I hear a lot of the problems, and I try to be the peacemaker. I do more listening than talking.
When the family lost Michael a couple of years ago, what went through your mind? What has the process has been like for you?
It’s a really hard thing to deal with, and it still kills me every day. You never have the moments of not being reminded, because you see fans on the street who recognize you and give their condolences. Still, I hear it every day, two or three times a day. Or you’ll see Michael on a news clip or in the newspaper. Or you’ll hear one of his songs on the radio. So, it’s hard to just not remember him every day and remember what happened to him, more so than anything.
Has there been anybody or anything that’s helped you work through it?
It’s been the music. I know Michael would want me to do music. He had heard So Far So Good right before he had passed away, and he really liked it. My sons had played it for him, because they produced and wrote it. He was very proud of it and excited about the project. That’s how I came up with the title. He wanted me to finish this project. It hasn’t been very long since he passed away, but there’s been a little time in-between that and feeling that I have to continue my music. Now, I’m back doing what I do.
Who wrote the first single, “We Made It”?
It was actually co-written by my son and a group called Satellite. The song was written for me, and I fell in love with it because it says a lot of things to a lot of people. It can relate to a lot of things: after disaster, pulling through and coming together; weddings, basketball games, even graduating from school; or an anniversary.
I believe that you also collaborated with your sons, 3T, on another song on So Far So Good?
Yes, they sing the backgrounds for me on quite a few songs, such as “Something Ain’t Better Than Nothing,” “Gone,” and “Jammer Street.”
Is the album generally uptempo along the lines of “We Made It”?
It’s a mixed bag, but it probably leans more toward the mid-to-uptempo. There’s also a reggae tune called “Home Is Where the Heart Is.”
I’ve heard that you are going to perform on Tom Joyner’s Fantastic Voyage Cruise shortly. Is there anything else in the pipeline?
Well, they can look out for me in Europe. I’ll be in the Netherlands and Germany, come June. I’m also planning a trip to Japan in November. So, hopefully, doing a lot of touring. I think the Jackson family will continue to make music for a long time. That is our job and that’s what we enjoy doing.
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