An Interview with The Jacksons
You get the feeling that when The Jacksons talk about music, they’re proud ambassadors for the original Motown sound, an R&B style that’s about distinct harmonies, hooks, hustle and plenty of hard work. The group has such a mystique, that it’s surprising to realize that they are animated and willing to talk at length about their craft. Predictably, they are less likely to discuss the more tabloid related offstage details of their dearly departed brother Michael, or the rest of the family.
Just before taking a Skype call in the Isle of Man—where they were performing as part of a 20 date summer tour—their tour manager quickly nipped any thoughts about the latter. “You’re not going to ask any of those personal questions, are you?” Well no, for there’s plenty to talk about otherwise.
After all, this “Unity” tour is the first time that the brothers—Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon—have played a series of dates in nearly 30 years as a group. A 2012 date in Canada has now morphed into nearly 70 shows on five continents (including a 40 date residency in Las Vegas). Ahead of their November 1st appearance at the 13th annual FCC Ball in Hong Kong, the group revealed they’ll play songs from all aspects of their career: the number one hits that got them inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…and several funky tracks from their late brother Michael’s solo albums.
In person, Jackie and Marlon were friendly, reflective and quick with a quip. Jermaine, meanwhile, looked like he’d rather be anywhere else…and left early on. What follows is the conversation…
Scott Murphy: I saw the group on the Arsenio Hall Show before the Las Vegas stint. So let’s talk about the tour. How has it been?
Jackie: We’ve been doing a lot of dates, from Amsterdam to Monaco, to Russia and now we’re coming to Hong Kong and we’re looking forward to it.
Jermaine: We try to do all the Jackson 5 hits with Jacksons’ songs, Michael songs….
SM: I’ll run a couple names by you of people who are in Hong Kong who talk about having worked with you in the past: Howard McCrary and Bobby Taylor (two noted Hong Kong based musicians). Know them both?
Jermaine: Howard worked with Chaka Khan’s sister. He’s still there? We’d love to see him.
Jackie: And as for Bobby Taylor, he’s the one who found us.
SM: So that’s true?
Jackie: Yes. And then Diana Ross introduced us to the rest of the world. He was one of the producers who worked on our first album. We’d love to see Bobby again. Have him come to the show.
SM: What’s your show like these days?
Jermaine: Do you have a copy of our show?
SM: No, but I can get one.
Jermaine: Well, it’s high energy. All the things we’ve been doing in the past…a great energy. We have such a great time onstage. An audience is dancing on the seats and we’re dancing onstage.
Jackie: Once we get onstage, we rock them the same way. We’ve been in the business for a while—and we just have fun. There’s a lot of experience and years of knowing the stage and communicating with the crowd.
SM: And how’s the supposed new album coming along?
Jermaine: We’re still working, still recording, it’s coming. (Pressed for a specific release date, at this point Jermaine leaves the interview and is replaced by Marlon).
SM: Let’s talk more about the onstage experience. How is it with you all not having performed together for so long?
Marlon: We still have so much energy on the stage and we thank God for that. We’re still moving around like we did in the young days. It’s like going to the gym and doing a workout.
SM: You know, it’s amazing that you all have such a storied career and yet you’ve never won a Grammy. Does something like that bother the group?
Marlon: No. What matters to us is the appreciation from the fans. We’re already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
SM: So what haven’t you accomplished that you would like to? What’s on that bucket list?
Marlon: We’ve pretty much done everything. It would be nice to win a Grammy, but it’s not on my bucket list. What we’d really like to do is unite the world together as one and let the world come together as one.
SM: Offstage, what kind of music are you listening to? And is today’s R&B still relevant?
Jackie: It’s true that R&B has been missing from the scenes, but Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke are a couple of guys that you could point to recently who have had big songs. They’ve made an impact.
Marlon: I listen to all kinds of music. A hit record is a hit record – and it will stand out. It’s true that the music has gotten away from the real structure of music and taking people on a journey in a song. But with the new technology, a lot of these kids have gotten away from it. But it’s starting to come back.
SM: What about the Jacksons story itself? Do you feel that all of your television representations (TV dramas) and what’s printed in the press is accurately telling your story…and would you do it differently?
Marlon: Hell to the upper case no! One of the things I don’t like about today is that there is such a focus on negativity when there is so much positivity that artists have done. There’s a lot of things that WE have done that people don’t realize. For instance, we go to visit churches and hospitals—and try to give back. And those stories are not told?
SM: So why don’t you tell it yourselves via a book or TV series?
Marlon: Cause we’re not finished baby…
Jackie: Oh yes, in other words—just write ‘It ain’t over!’
SM: What do you feel you can do better now?
Marlon: I think, after all the years being in the business, you learn how to structure a show—you bring them in—and you can take them on your journey. That’s what some of these new artists don’t know how to do yet.
SM:What’s in your musically unreleased vault?
Marlon: We have some unreleased material. Motown has a lot of material of ours. On some songs, I’m even surprised it’s us. But right now we are concentrating on new stuff. With some of our songs, you could put together certain sounds and it could be hit music.
Jackie: We’ve been recording since we’ve been on the road and we’re trying to finish up.
SM: There was a conversation that Snoop Dogg had with Jermaine where Michael was playing bongos on Quaker Oats boxes and you were all harmonizing around him. Was it really like that?
Marlon: That’s the way it was, because we couldn’t afford bongos. Today, the difference is that Michael’s not there, but the chemistry amongst us is still there. That camaraderie is still there. We still get excited about being onstage. That came from rehearsing in Gary, Indiana and rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. It’s like getting a good piece of booty. You never forget it. (all laugh)
SM: What do you feel is the difference between today’s scene (stadiums, internet, sound) and yesterday’s scene and all that encompasses?
Marlon: I prefer the original sound of music. I think the artists and producers had a greater appreciation back then and it was more personal. There was live instrumentation. There wasn’t any sampling. The music had a different pulse. And today, everything is so stiff. It doesn’t flow.
Jackie: I feel if you get that background, the old fashioned way, you can come into today’s world and do really well. Some people don’t have that background. They would go into the studio and they wouldn’t know anything about getting an orchestra or making a horn arrangement.
Marlon: And to be honest, the sound is totally different.
SM: What about other aspects—like social media for example?
Marlon: It’s true—social media offers a greater reach. Back then you had to make phone calls. Now you can quickly touch all corners of the world.
Jackie: Today, these kids have one hit single and they feel famous. It wasn’t like that back in the day. It goes to their heads.
Marlon: And just because you have one hit single, it doesn’t mean you can perform. It’s two different things. I don’t think some of these artists cherish those moments onstage and things of that nature. There weren’t a lot of gimmicks like there are today.
SM: When you were all growing up, what musicians did you really respect?
Marlon: We used to listen to Sly and the Family Stone a lot and then he became our neighbor when we moved to California. He used to invite us to the studio, but for obvious reasons we couldn’t go.
Jackie: For obvious reasons (both laugh).
SM: Is there a chance that the next generation of Jacksons could follow in your footsteps?
Marlon: That is possible, but it’s one of the things that I don’t think will ever happen. We were very blessed when we grew up. We went to two universities–that was the Motown University and the Philly International University–when you look at all the hits that they produced, it was unbelievable. We were fortunate enough to be able to learn. Today, the generation today won’t be able to experience that.
SM: You’ve got 24 hours. You can go anywhere, do anything, see anything. Where are we off to?
Jackie: I would go to Monte Carlo and Nice, because I love it there. It’s so scenic and the whole atmosphere makes me happy. You can pick me up and go to Nice.
Marlon: There are so many things I would like to see changed in the world. If I could, I’d probably go to various countries and bring people together as one. Because this world is crazy. What are we trying to accomplish? You can’t take that stuff with you. Bring the people together and make the world unite as one.
SM: And finally, how do you feel about playing in Asia? You know the area well?
Marlon: We’ve got great fans in Asia. They’ve been supportive from day one. The Pacific Rim. We’re going to change it to The Jacksons Pacific Rim!
SM: Thanks guys.