Jackson Five photo from the collection of Jake Austen; photo of tape by Jim Newberry
When the world paused this summer to look back on Michael Jackson’s extraordinary career, one chapter was missing from all the retrospectives, which skipped straight from the Jackson Five’s formation in Gary, Indiana, to their explosive rise to stardom on Motown Records. Though every last recording by Elvis and the Beatles—the only other pop stars of Jackson’s magnitude—has been meticulously documented, not even the most obsessive collectors have the whole story behind “Big Boy,” the Jackson Five’s first single.
Die-hard fans know it was recorded in late 1967 and released early in ’68 on Gary’s Steeltown Records. But most of the rest of the information out there is flawed or incomplete. The 1992 miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream fictionalizes the session, placing it in 1966 and pretending, probably for licensing reasons, that the Jacksons recorded a cover of “Kansas City.” Even Michael’s 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, gets most of the details wrong—not surprising given that he was nine at the time. And to my knowledge no published account has ever mentioned that “Big Boy” was cut in Chicago.
What you’re about to read is not only a detailed account of the Jackson Five’s Steeltown session but also convincing evidence that by then the group had already been in development with one of Chicago’s most important black-owned labels—an episode previously completely lost to history. More compelling still, this label’s efforts included an even earlier recording session. My efforts to jog the memories of the people closest to that session have resulted in the discovery of what many of the King of Pop’s fans will consider the ultimate artifact: a studio master, by all appearances recorded by the Jackson Five, that predates the sides that for more than 40 years have been considered the group’s earliest. In other words, Michael Jackson’s first professional recording.