Let’s be honest upfront: almost no modern music in America would exist without the blues.
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From its roots in Black communities of the 19th century to its blossom in the Mississippi Delta to its moment of global stardom with the rise of rock in the 1960s, the blues have played an integral role in almost every step of American culture. Whether it’s Robert Johnson, B.B. King, John Mayer, or even modern pop stars, like The Weeknd, SZA, and more, the blues is a key part of the foundation of any strain of popular song. In fact, the blues even served as the starting point for the biggest pop star of all time: Michael Jackson. Speaking with American Songwriter, Michael’s brother Tito explained the forgotten history.
“See, this is what people don’t know about the Jackson 5: we started out singing the blues,” he tells American Songwriter. “I remember we used to do these nightclubs in Chicago—like High Chaparral or the Tiffany Lounge—and we’d sing songs like ‘Stormy Monday’ and ‘Hideaway’ or play some Johnnie Taylor. We had a set of four or five blues songs.”
For young Tito, this was ideal—as history goes, it was Tito’s interest in blues guitar that spurred the birth of The Jackson 5 to begin with. In those early days, he loved singing those blues numbers with his brothers—it’s what his father Joe and his uncle Luther had spent years doing around the Chicago area. But once the younger Jacksons got some attention from Motown, their bluesier side began to fade away.
“When we got to Motown, man… no more blues,” Tito said. “If Michael or Jackie split for a break, maybe I’d get to play a song or two. As a guitarist, you’re always able to play little licks and stuff like that… but those few times out on stage were the only times I got to play the blues. But my passion’s always been with that music.”
It’s true—and Tito’s held onto that love through all the decades since he and his brothers first began performing in the ‘60s. While the blues might only be a loose influence (though, a palpable one nonetheless) on the output of the Jackson 5, The Jacksons, and Michael’s own work, Tito’s new solo endeavor shows the now-67-year-old’s blues chops in their full glory.
“I used to hate it when my brothers didn’t want to sing ‘Stormy Monday,’” Tito said. “I’m just passionate about that music, just like my mother is and just like my father was. I just love it.”
Yet, the blues era of the Jackson 5 isn’t entirely lost to history—the first known recording of the band is actually a cut of their version of “Stormy Monday.” The arrangement might be a little meandering, the recording a little fuzzy and the vocal performance a bit way off from the eventual showmanship Michael would deliver, but the song is a brilliant testament to the validity of the fact: The Jackson 5 started out playing the blues. Listen to the recording below: