Black Bubblegum by James Porter
The Jackson Five were pioneers in ways no one really thinks about. When the Motown label released "I Want You Back" in the waning months of the sixties, the group was probably regarded as nothing more than five cute kids whom Diana Ross supposedly discovered, just another one of those novelty child acts that pop up every few years. As it turned out, they wound up with a #1 hit, bringing "The Motown Sound" up-to-date for the seventies. They spawned a host of imitators —suddenly every semi-talented pre-teen got a recording contract.
They also created an animal that had never previously existed: the black teen idol.
Since rock and roll's fifties beginnings, there were heartthrobs on both sides of the color line. However, the fanmags weren't about to push Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson over Caucasian wet dreams like Fabian. This was still the case by the time the Jackson Five turned up in 1969 The cast of The Mod Squad regularly appeared in the pages of 16 magazine, but it was the handsome white male lead who got the most play (the equally hunky black male and the white female leads were relegated to the back burner). Through careful planning and strategizing, Motown prez Berry Gordy sent the five Jackson brothers from Gary, Indiana boldly walking where no black performer had gone before. There had never been an African-American act marketed towards the predominantly white teenybopper market. Berry Gordy and the Jacksons saw an opening and rolled right through.
Being a black teen group was hardly anything unique. The Jackson Five had many predecessors, none of whom were marketed aggressively as sex symbols. When Frankie Lymon hit in the fifties with the Teenagers, several groups led by 13-year-olds invaded the local doo-wop scenes overnight (including Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords, featuring Frankie's little brother). There were other singers who were essentially R&B footnotes: Little Gary Ferguson, Henry Ford and the Gifts, Darrow Fletcher. Probably the most significant J-5 antecedents were the Five Stairsteps, from nearby Chicago, IL, who kicked off a series of soul hits in 1966 (only one of them crossed over to the pop charts: 1970's "Ooh Child"). However, the Stairsteps sang post-doo-wop love ballads that could have been sung by any adult group. The J-5 went straight for the bubblegum jugular.
The story of the well-traveled Jacksons has been covered in far greater detail, many times over. Cutting to the chase, their early (1968) singles on the Steeltown label—"You Don't Have To Be Over 21 To Fall In Love," "Big Boy" (a big hit on Chicago soul playlists), "Let Me Carry Your Books" (credited to the Ripples and Waves)—were very crude versions of the sort of thing they would later record for Motown. "You've Changed," the flip of "Big Boy," was re-recorded for Diana Ross Presents the Jackson Five. The Steeltown version was an obvious rip from a verse that originated with the Temptations' "Fading Away"—"you've changed and it's showing." The theft isn't as obvious on the Motown remake.
The J-5's records were a polite version of the Sly-influenced psychedelic soul that pervaded the Temptations' records during this period. Although the Jacksons later claimed that the Motown hit factory chained them to a formula, a chronological listen of their hits for that label shows that, in the years between '69 and '75, they made fairly quick progress. The earliest hits ("I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," "Mama's Pearl") established a blueprint for the J-5 sound that others copied: the walking basslines, one-note guitar licks, sing-songy choruses. By '72, knowing full well they couldn't milk the same thing forever, Motown actually had them experiment with jazzy harmonies ("Looking Through the Windows," "Skywriter") before getting them in early on disco's ground floor ("Dancing Machine," "Forever Came Today.")
Around the end of 1970, when it became obvious that the J-5 were a force to be reckoned with, the various tributes, parodies, and knockoffs started pouring in. The Osmond Brothers, five white kids from Utah roughly the Jacksons' age, trucked on down to Muscle Shoals, AL, altered their name to the Osmonds, and had a hit the first time out with "One Bad Apple." Previously, the Osmond family were regulars on Andy Williams' variety show, pausing to release the occasional record, but "Apple" broke them wide open. (This was followed by "Double Lovin'" and "Yo-Yo", which were also in line with the J-5 sound.) Like the Jacksons, they too would go on to flirt with other genres (including a short-lived heavy metal phase), but not before temporarily invading the turf of the boys from Gary. ("One Bad Apple," written by renowned R&B songwriter George Jackson, was Top 10 on the black singles charts.)
After the Osmonds broke through, the "black bubblegum" sound was all over black radio in 1971 and the first half of '72. One of the first groups out of the chute was the Ponderosa Twins Plus One, who were literally two sets of twins (Alvin and Alfred Pellham, Keith and Kirk Gardner) plus a fifth member, Ricky Spicer. According to the liner notes of their lone album (2+2+1= Ponderosa Twins Plus One) on the Horoscope label (distributed by All Platinum), they had been together a whopping nine months by the time the LP was released. The album was built around a remake of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." The Ponderosas' version was #12 on Billboard's soul charts in the fall of '71. If the Jacksons had stayed behind in Gary, they would have sounded like this. The kids have the J-5 mannerisms down cold, albeit on a much lower budget. One uncredited kid sounds like a very squeaky Michael, while the other lead vocalist takes Jermaine's role. Motown did a really good job of covering up the J-5's bum notes. If you listen closely, you can hear a drunken-sounding bass voice at the bottom of "Oh How Happy," which appeared on their generically-titled Third Album, but the off-key clams of the Ponderosas are on display for all to hear. "Mama's Little Baby" takes off from the old standard 'Shortnin' Bread" with some Sly Stone "boom-boom-booms” thrown in for good measure. "Turn Around, You Fool" is copped directly from the J-5's "Never Can Say Goodbye." More than one song deals with true love in the face of stern parental disapproval. And for all that, the Ponderosa's album is one of the finest lost classics of the seventies. The J-5 rip-offs are obvious and abundant, but it's good trash, like hearing some suburban garage band in 1966 ape the Rolling Stones. When I hear the mesmeric "Bound"—which is as direct and emotionally blunt as its title—all critical perspective is gone. A year later, they limped to #40 on the soul charts with a remake of "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," the old Frankie Lymon doo-wopper. The production was cleaner this time, and they dropped the "Plus One" from their name (did they lose singer Ricky Spicer?). Not long after, they dropped out of sight altogether.
All Platinum soon struck gold again with Spoonbread, another adolescent vocal group, who charted in the R&B Top 40 with their hilarious version of "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?" circa '72, on the Stang subsidiary. The lead singer was no Isaac Hayes, but he began the song with an opening rap worthy of Black Moses himself: "You know, I'd like to talk to the young folks for a minute. All the grownups can just turn their radios OFF, because I don't believe you understand what I'm talkin' about. You see, grownups don't believe that kids can fall in love—I mean REALLY, REALLY fall in love... grownups don't know what to tell me, so maybe all my friends out there can answer the question I've been axin'..." The lead singer then proceeds to render the Bee Gees’ hit in a voice squeaky enough to have you believe this is the Ponderosas under a new name.
During the early 70's "black bubblegum" explosion, a surefire way to gain sympathy ("...oh, aren't they CUTE!") was to remake an older song. Both the Ponderosa Twins and Jimmy Briscoe and the Little Beavers took a crack at "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" Brotherly Love, like the Ponderosas before them, reworked "Shortnin' Bread" as "Mama's Little Baby Loves Lovin'" (#20 in Billboard's soul chart, circa '72). This was released on the Music Merchant label, owned by the trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland, former writer-producers at Motown, and probably an attempt to show up their former bosses, who were riding high with the real thing. In '71, the oddly named Chee-Chee and Peppy (Dorothy Moore and Keith Bolling, from Philadelphia) released an album on Buddah that not only contained their one hit ("I Know I'm In Love," #12 on the soul chart), but a smattering of oldies from the first rock era. (The duo, by now all grown up and with their Afros traded in for more conservative coifs, even made a reunion album in the eighties!) Lucky Peterson is now a known figure in the blues world, but in 1971 veteran blues singer/songwriter/bassist Willie Dixon produced Lucky's first single, "1-2-3-4." Lucky was then all of seven years old and a monster organist; the song itself was nothing more than James Brown's "Please Please Please" with new lyrics (which consist of Lucky counting to twelve). The flip was a soul groover called "Good Old Candy," with Lucky's garbled voice praising his favorite junk foods and adding a JB scream where necessary. Originally released on Dixon's small Yambo label out of Chicago, this was soon leased to the bigger Today label, where it only made #40 on Billboard's soul chart, but it managed to land Lucky on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sesame Street and other TV programs as a sort-of novelty act ("SEE THE SEVEN-YEAR-OLD KID PLAY BLUES ORGAN!").
Probably the strangest hit to come from this movement was "Love Jones," by Chicago one-hit-wonders the Brighter Side of Darkness (#3 soul/#16 pop, winter ‘72-73). The song was primarily a rambling monologue by 12-year-old Darryl Lamont, who claims that his love for his girl is "almost like that of a JUNKIE!" ("Jones" is period slang for a heroin addiction.) Be sure to catch the part where Lamont says his "jones" made him flunk the big exam in Mr. Russell's class: "I was sittin' up starin' at you... and daydreamin'...." Good thing Mr. Russell didn't call him up to the chalkboard—from the sound of his voice, he probably had a boner in his double-knit slacks, and then they would have SEEN his love jones, too! Later in 1973, comedians Cheech and Chong had a Top 20 pop hit with "Basketball Jones," a wicked parody that featured Cheech Marin, a Chicano from East L.A., in the guise of Tyrone Shoelaces, a black kid describing his love for basketball while George Harrison (guitar), Billy Preston (keyboards), and a host of other rock luminaries wailed on in support.
Not all the family (or pre-teen) groups from this era sang bubblegum, although its generally assumed that they did. The Sylvers, another family unit, were the Jackson Five's biggest rivals in black teen mags like Right On (put out by Laufer Communications, who also gave us Tiger Beat), but their earliest material (on the Pride label, an MGM subsidiary, circa 1972-74) was mostly written by brother Leon, and is far too aware and intelligent for "bubblegum." (But if it's great soul music you want...) Interestingly, they didn't have much crossover success until they switched labels in 1975 (from Pride to Capitol) and started dumbing down their lyrics for the disco era, resulting in "Boogie Fever," "Hot Line," "High School Dance," and others. However, eleven-year old Foster Sylvers managed to get a hit with "Misdemeanor" in 1973 (#7 soul/ #22 pop). Leon Sylvers obviously tailored this catchy number to the teenybop set, but as with the elder Sylvers’ material from the same period, was far more substantial than anyone had a right to expect. The two oldest Sylvers sisters sang backup and got in some good lines, as well, particularly when they compare young Foster's heartbreak to "(running) a red light and (finding) yourself run over." True to bubblegum tradition, he followed this up with an oldies remake (Dee Clark's "Hey Little Girl."). He would join his older brothers and sisters in the Sylvers two years later, pausing to make the occasional solo record.
Other young groups got caught in the post-J-5 youthquake. Jimmy Briscoe and the Little Beavers, started off their career with a single of "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" on Atlantic in 1971. But as their career progressed, with a series of records on the Pi Kappa label, this young Baltimore quintet aspired for the same style of make-out music pioneered by the Stylistics, Delfonics, Blue Magic, and other genre groups. Junior and his Soulettes were a self-contained brother-sister band from Oklahoma (aged from six to ten) who recorded the classic self-pressed Psychodelic Sounds album (1971) in their uncle's garage, but the music is closer to sixties garage-rock than anything the Jacksons spawned. Even Sister Sledge, when they first came on the scene in 1975, were tagged a "female Jackson Five." Sweet Sensation, from England, were closer to the mark—a self-contained band with an adolescent vocalist, whose one hit, "Sad Sweet Dreamer" (1975), featured a banjo, a rare instrument on a soul record. Sophisticated black producers like Gamble and Huff probably would have sent the banjoist packing for Nashville, but it's heard to great, non-intrusive effect here, and may have helped it to cross over to the pop charts, which it did. Others who didn't quite crack the bank include Dexter Redding, the son of the late Otis Redding, who recorded a great single for Capricorn in 1973, "Love Is Bigger Than Baseball," which was backed with "God Bless," a touching tale (written by R&B eccentric Jerry Williams, Jr., a/k/a Swamp Dogg) about a child who not only asks the Lord to bless mom and dad, but Huckleberry Hound, the Easter Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and a host of other celebrities. Marc Copage, who played Corey on the NBC series Julia (1968-71), stepped up to the mike for a few forgettable 45's. In Chicago, there was Pat and Pam, a teen duo who wanted to record more adult material, but their dad (Lucky Cordell, a DJ at WVON, an influential black station in those days) wanted them to ride the J-5 gravy train. Two singles were issued—the better record was "I Love You, Yes I Do," on the Our Own label, which is required listening for any girl-group fan, and remarkably sophisticated for its type (I guess they reached some kind of compromise with Dad).
A disturbing piece of trivia: Wayne Williams, who was imprisoned in 1981 for allegedly killing numerous children in Atlanta, GA, was said to have been auditioning talented kids for a group called Gemini, which never got off the ground.
Quite a few adult records during this time used the Jackson Five blueprint. The Emotions were barely out of their teens themselves when they recorded "From Toys to Boys" (Volt, 1972). Ditto for the Newcomers' "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" (Stax, 1971) and the Sequins' "You Flunked Out" (flip side of "It Must Be Love", Crajon, 1973). Former Motown employees Holland-Dozier-Holland produced the Honey Cone's "Want Ads" (Hot Wax, 1971) and Freda Payne's "Cherish What Is Dear to You" (Invictus, 1972), both of which nailed that Jackson sound dead to rights. Even the Five Stairsteps got in on the act with "I Love You-Stop" (1971).
Parodies showed up in a few places: besides Cheech and Chong's "Basketball Jones," another comedy group called the Credibility Gap recorded "You Can't Judge a Hippie by His Hair" (1973), which took the piss out of the whole Jacksons/ Osmonds sound in general. On the 1971 episode of The Brady Bunch where Peter's voice changes on the eve of a Bradys' recording session, one scene has Peter talking to a record producer in a control booth while five black kids in the background silently mill around in the studio. Who are they? The Five Monroes, a subtle dig at the Jackson Five. A TV commercial from about 1972 for Jiffy Pop popcorn featured a jingle that could only have been made possible by the J-5, while an interracial crew of middle-schoolers were shown dancing to it (and eating the popcorn) at a house party.
Over in Japan, where the Jacksons caused a furor when they toured in 1973, there was a group called the Finger 5. They apparently donned the same fringe-and-bell-bottom look that the Jacksons had in their heyday, and even went so far as to perm their hair in homage to their heroes! And when they weren't doing wah-wah soul songs like the J-5, they covered pop songs like "Heartbeat, It's a Lovebeat" (originally by Canada's own DeFranco Family) and the Monkees’ “I’m Not Your Steppin' Stone." In Japanese. With a lead singer that sounded more like Michael Jackson than the kid from America's own Ponderosa Twins Plus One.
The initial rush that the Jacksons started came to a halt sometime around 1975. The Jacksons themselves continued to refine their sound through the years, which is why you know Michael Jackson today while Chee Chee and Peppy have been lost in time. On occasion, the sound would revive itself: New Edition kicked off their lengthy career with "Candy Girl" in 1983, while around the same time, a teen reggae band called Musical Youth hit the airwaves with "Pass The Dutchie," which might as well have been early J-5 with a Jamaican accent. During the late eighties and early nineties, there was another "black bubblegum" wave, with the Boys, Perfect Gentlemen, Another Bad Creation, and Kris Kross. (This time out, the role of the Osmonds was played by New Kids On The Block, a white group from Boston who had mild success on the black charts, due to their hip-hop image and pretensions. They were notable in that they were one of the few white teen acts Svengalied by a black producer, Maurice Starr.) And in an odd case of deja vu, Tito Jackson formed a group around his sons (3T) that never really made it, while one of the Osmonds also formed a group with his offspring, cashing in on that New Kids "teen group" fame. Most of these groups jockeyed for their share of the pie, with varying results. With the current success of Britney Spears and far too many boy bands to even think of, we're probably due for an African-American take on the same trend. Some producer is probably already working on a "Love Jones" or a Foster Sylvers soundalike for the new millennium.
Five Great Black Bubblegum Classics That WEREN'T Influenced By The Jackson Five
by James Porter
"INSTANT REACTION," Clarence Carter, 1969.
Carter's recordings from the sixties and early seventies (including smashes like "Slip Away" and "Patches") are hallmarks of blues-based southern soul. More recently (eighties and nineties) he's become infamous for blues novelty records like "Strokin'" and "Grandpa Can't Fly His Kite"("...because Grandma won't give him no tail"). However, "Instant Reaction," from his 1969 LP Testifyin' (Atlantic) deserves mention in a book about bubblegum. Listen to it—either this was a demo for the Ohio Express that got routed to Carter by mistake, or else he was trying to snag the 13-year-olds on purpose. Written by Wayne Carson Thompson, whose songs, including "The Letter" and "Soul Deep," were regularly recorded by the Box Tops.
"FLOY JOY," The Supremes, 1972.
Skeptics like to believe that "Floy Joy" is proof that the Supremes were a low priority at Motown after Diana Ross left. Did composer Smokey Robinson write this with five minutes to kill till the session began? It may be a substandard record for a trio of fading sixties icons, but you'll be humming along with it before its over.
"COOL AID," Paul Humphrey & the Cool Aid Chemists, 1971.
"MR. PENGUIN," Lunar Funk, 1972.
Bubblegum instrumentals... a neglected art. The organ on "Cool Aid" is closer to a merry-go-round than the Baptist church.
"RAINY DAY BELLS," The Globetrotters, 1970.
NBC actually had a Harlem Globetrotters' cartoon series (1970-73), where not only were they road-managed by a elderly white lady known as "Granny," but they managed to moonlight as an R&B vocal group. There was an album and several singles released on the Kirshner label, including "ESP," where, over the piano solo, the lead singer asks his lover to guess what instrument is playing, and then wonders if she knows what he wants. A smoochy kiss noise follows. The best was probably "Rainy Day Bells," a stone-cold doo-wopper that features J.R. Bailey from the Cadillacs on lead vocals. This single is reportedly a hot item among East Coast harmony-group cultists, but it's got a definite Ron Dante pop appeal.