Monday 20 August 2018

'Our father would have wanted us to go on' - Jackie Jackson

Jackie Jackson speaks to Shilpa Ganatra about his dad's death, a difficult childhood and brother Michael's legacy

Boogie nights: The Jacksons headline Beatyard festival in Dun Laoghaire tonight. Photo: Getty Images
Boogie nights: The Jacksons headline Beatyard festival in Dun Laoghaire tonight. Photo: Getty Images

Shilpa Ganatra

On June 27 this year, after years of ailing health and a short battle with pancreatic cancer, the Jacksons' patriarch Joe Jackson passed away in his home city of Las Vegas aged 89. His family, who under his stewardship now bear the most famous surname in pop culture, were by his side.

"We knew he wasn't 100pc for a while, but he was still travelling around, doing speeches and talking to people," recalls his eldest son Jackie, with more than a touch of sadness in his voice. "Then we got the news that he was very, very sick. The doctor found out that he had cancer of the pancreas, and he had maybe three weeks to live. That's when he wanted to see his whole family."

The day after Joe was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California - the same cemetery in which his son Michael is buried - Jermaine, Tito, Jackie and Marlon went back out on the road to perform as The Jacksons, a group assembled by their father over 50 years ago.

"That's what he would have wanted us to do," says Jackie. "My father would say the show must go on, and we must carry on entertaining. He was the one who got us going, so it was very healing for us to continue what he started."

There's no denying it's a fitting tribute to Joe's life and legacy - under his watchful eye, The Jackson 5 achieved the unthinkable and rose as five black, working-class kids to chart-topping superstars, shaping the landscape of the 70s with their distinct image and dance moves that brought tunes like 'ABC' and 'I'll Be There' to life. They became the subject of their own animated series (and later, a reality show), were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and now renamed The Jacksons, they're still a popular touring act - we speak to Jackie while they're on tour in Spain. But their enduring success is a far cry from what could have been.

"When we began we lived in a bad neighbourhood, there were a lot of gangs. Our father had five boys, so he wanted to make sure we stayed off the street," remembers Jackie. "We could have easily gone astray. A lot of my friends from growing up are in prison, some are dead. It didn't happen to us because our father kept us focused on our dream. And that's what you're supposed to do when you have children. If you see your kids enjoying something and being good at something, it's up to you to cultivate that talent."

Over the course of the Jackson story, Joe's iron hand became the subject of much contention. He admitted to hitting his children with a strap ("It kept them out of jail and kept them right," he told Oprah). And speaking in a candid interview in 1993, also to Oprah, Michael described being so scared of his father that he would vomit when Joe paid him a visit. Even since his death, the accusations continue: Michael's controversial former doctor, who served jail time over his death, said that Joe chemically castrated Michael to keep his voice high.

But Jackie insists that the truth isn't necessarily the same as the image portrayed.

"When you have successes like us, or The Beatles or Elvis, they always want to hear something negative," he says. "That's what sells newspapers. He wasn't like that, although he was tough on his boys because he didn't want us to be in gangs, like any parent would be. He kept us busy. But my dad wasn't like they said he was, he wasn't like that."

Certainly, the Jacksons are well used to dealing with unwanted media attention thanks to their high profile compounded by eccentricities that muddy the picture between truth and rumour. An average family they are not, but for a family of nine remaining children and their loving matriarch, Katherine, they remain close. That's especially the case for the brothers in The Jacksons, who've spent much of this summer on the road after reuniting in 2012. They performed live for the first time in Ireland at the Beatyard festival in Dublin on Friday.

"There's nothing like being on stage with your brothers," says Jackie. "I was going to be a baseball player and I was headed for that career - I was pretty close to it. But when 'I Want You Back' came out, that's when I chose what I wanted to do and I think I chose the right profession."

Released in 1969 on the back of a support tour with The Supremes, it was the first number one for The Jackson 5 and launched the group from budding singers to Motown royalty. It has sold six million copies since then, and regularly features in 'Best Songs of All Time' lists.

"Sometimes when you hear a song over again as you record it, you get tired of it. But when I first heard the song when we were recording it, I got very excited, and that's never stopped," says Jackie. "I remember when I heard it on the radio for the first time - I had to pull over to the side of the road to hear it. It sounded so great, it sounded like a hit record.

"Afterwards, I got the phone calls from my brothers: 'Did you hear it? Did you hear it?' 'Yeah I heard it'."

Jackie says that, to this day, playing the song is the highlight of the set for him, although their tribute to their late, great brother Michael is a close second.

"We show his face on the screen, so he's among us brothers," he explains. "It's still tough for me at times. I still get teary-eyed a little bit. I know at any given time exactly where he would have been on the stage with us. And I know that he'd be giving 110pc, so that's what we try to do instead."

In addition to playing their own favourites like 'Can You Feel It', 'Shake Your Body' and 'Blame It On The Boogie', they include solo tracks from their brother, like 'Rock With You' and 'Wanna Be Startin' Something'.

Even off tour, Michael is never far away from Jackie's mind.

"I live in Las Vegas and there's a Michael Jackson tribute show there called One," he explains. "Every time I drive up the Las Vegas strip and I stop, there's a big bus with his picture all over it advertising the show. And I think, 'I see you, little brother'. Every single time I go there, it stops right next to me. It never fails. It's like it's happening for a reason." When he's not touring with The Jacksons, Jackie records solo records, runs his own label Critically Amused and generally lives an entertainer's life in Lake Las Vegas where he counts Rush Hour actor Chris Tucker and singer Celine Dion among his neighbours ("she lives three doors down from me, so we see each other often").

He lives with his Dutch wife Emily Besselink-Jackson and their four-year-old twins, so touring Europe is a convenient time for him to pay his in-laws a visit. "I'm going to meet Emily today for about five or six days," he explains excitedly. "That's when I get a chance to relax and be with her side of the family, so we just hang out and sightsee."

But it won't be long before he's back on stage with his brothers. We ask about his future plans, and he assures us that the family work ethic is still as strong as ever. "There'll be more touring and more music coming out," he says. "The Jacksons are in the studio all the time. If Mick Jagger can keep doing it, I'm going to keep doing it too."

And for that, his father would be proud.

Irish Independent

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