Tito Jackson has lived one of the most fascinating lives in all of American cultural history.
As a child, he played a paramount role in the creation of his family’s band, The Jackson 5—featuring himself, older brother Jackie and younger brothers Jermaine, Marlon, and, of course, Michael. Perhaps best known as one of the handsome older brothers “standing on the outside” of the five-man formation with a guitar in hand, he’s been a mainstay of the legendary act since its conception in the 1960s. Contributing to songs like “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” and more, the years logged with that band alone are enough to earn Jackson his place in the updated Great American Songbook.
But recently, Jackson’s found a second wind—having wanted to make his own solo record for years, he finally got around to doing it in 2016 with his debut, Tito Time, which saw the singer, songwriter, and guitarist explore the poppier side of his musical inclinations. Now, on August 6, he’s back with a new record, Under Your Spell, which marks the first time that Jackson gets to unabashedly embrace his favorite music of all: the blues.
And so far as good blues records go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one with better musicianship, performances, or songwriting than Jackson’s new offering. From soulful romps like the lead single, “Love One Another” (which features vocals from Marlon and an utterly sublime harmonica part from the inimitable Stevie Wonder) to the classic stylings of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” (featuring George Benson and King’s daughter Claudette), the record is clad with the blues and Tito Jackson both in their finest forms. Other guests include Joe Bonamassa, Bobby Rush, Eddie Levert, Kenny Neal, and more.
Jackson hopped on a Zoom call with American Songwriter to talk about his history with blues, his experience in the Jackson 5, his solo endeavors, and more. Read the conversation below:
American Songwriter: Your father was a blues musician—what kind of impact did that have on you as a kid? Was being around music in that capacity one of the things that inspired you to do it yourself?
Tito Jackson: When I was a child before I ever even touched a guitar, I used to watch my uncle Luther and my father get together every weekend and mess around with the blues. I got really interested in it because I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything my father did, you know? But he had a rule that we couldn’t touch his guitar—I remember he told that to us three older boys, Jackie, Jermaine, and I. But… I did touch it. Being as young as I was, I couldn’t really understand what that meant. I was just curious, “Why can’t I touch this guitar?” So, when I was around 7 years old, I started to play it.
My mother would actually help me—she’d let me play it and then put it away before my father got back. I did that for a long time and he never knew… until I broke a string. We didn’t know how to fix it. In fact, at the time, I didn’t even know which string it was! And we had no money to go buy another one. So, he found that I was messing with his guitar and he was really mad about it, like “Who’s been touching my guitar?” I just started crying because I knew it was gonna be my butt. He took me into the bedroom and said “Butt up.”
Then, he sat me on a chair in front of the whole family and put the guitar in my lap. He said “Show me what you know.” I was still crying, but I started playing. He looked over at my mother with this expression on his face—I remember it like yesterday—and he said “Kate, this boy can play some, huh?” She said “Joe, I told you. He’s not playing with your guitar like a kid, he’s really playing it.”
That’s when my father gave me the guitar. He said, “I’m going to give you this guitar, but I want you to learn every song you like on the radio.” So, I started learning Motown stuff, Isley Brothers, The Temptations, and so on. I would sit in my room and play to these songs when they came on the radio since we didn’t always have the records. My brothers and I would basically try to do three-part harmony stuff. It was my younger brother, Jermaine, who’s a year younger, and my older brother Jackie, who’s a couple years older than me. It was just the three of us. Michael and Marlon were just babies. They were still playing with their toy cars, rolling them around on the ground, going “Vroom vroom.” We’d yell at them “Get out of here, we’re trying to sing!” They’d beg, “Can we sing with you?” But we’d say “No, you’re too young.” Then, we heard Michael sing at school for some kind of school fair and our mouths flew open. We rushed him home and said, “You’re in the group!” My other brother, Marlon, said “Me too?” and we said, “You too, Marlon.” So, we started singing as five brothers, but we were amateurs. We were putting the band together, but we really didn’t know what we were doing. We actually learned how to sing three-part harmony from watching The Three Stooges—it was that “Hello, hello, hello.”
AS: The Three Stooges! That’s amazing. When did things start to coalesce into a band proper?
TJ: Yeah, we used to wait for that part and we’d sing it with them as brothers. That was it though, that was our singing experience.
Other than that, we would listen to records and try to learn how to mimic the sounds that we heard… and it was horrible. Of course, my father would be trying to sleep because he’d have to go to work for a midnight shift or he just got home from working all night. He would come in and we’d be making noise, trying to sing but not really sounding perfect, you know? It sounded okay, we were improving, but he wasn’t hearing that. He just wanted some sleep. Eventually, my mother said to him, “Joe, I think you should listen to them.” He said, “Kate, them boys ain’t got no talent, them boys can’t sing.” She said, “No, Joe, seriously, listen to them.” He finally gave us an audition and his mouth was left wide open. His next paycheck, he bought us amps, mics, guitars, and all kinds of stuff.
After that, he put us on a schedule. He would coach us and rehearse us. When we got home from school, five mics and the amps would be ready on standby. We’d come in, drop our books, maybe take a bathroom break, and then we’d rehearse. We got really decent. We had shows in Chicago where we’d rehearse for a couple hours and then drive up there because it was only around 40 minutes away from Gary. We’d do the show—like, three or four sets with 15-minute breaks—and then get home at around 2:30 in the morning. Then we’d do the same thing the following day.
That’s how it was. We carried all of our equipment inside this Volkswagen bus. We took the seats out, so we’d have to sit on the amps and find little corners if we wanted to sleep. It was 2 in the morning… if you’re a kid and you’re coming home at 2 in the morning, that’s devastating to you, you know? So, we paid some dues, maybe around eight years of them.
Then, we started doing shows on the East Coast and things like that. We ended up playing a show with Etta James billed… and that was the time we had a choice: we could either go on David Frost, Dick Cavett, one of those types of shows, or we could accept an invitation we had to go audition for Motown and see if Berry Gordy would have us on the label. I wanted to go on the TV show because I thought that then, every company in the nation would get to see us. But the brothers were set on Motown because we had been doing Motown songs—like The Temptations and Four Tops—for our show. So, we wound up at Motown that night and the rest is history.
AS: Your guitar playing is what led to the band’s birth in a sense, but once y’all ended up at Motown, you were only able to play at the live shows, not on the records. What was your relationship with the guitar like through that time? Did you yearn for more creative control?
TJ: Yeah, I played on the live performances but never played on the Jackson 5 records. Then there was this whole other thing where, after we had some success with Motown, Berry Gordy decided that he wanted each of us to do an album separately. He started off with Michael, then Jermaine, then Jackie… then he stopped. Around that time, I was already starting my album—I had recorded part of a song or something like that. But we left the company and moved to Epic because we wanted to write songs. We had some songs that we had written and we wanted to get into the studio to make, but Motown felt that they had those great writers—“How can you beat the Motown staff writers? There’s success there, why recreate the wheel?” So, that’s one of the reasons why we’re not on Motown because they reneged on that… and they probably reneged on a few other contractual things too that I’m not aware of because I was young.
So, we went to Epic and they gave us the opportunity to write two songs with the first contract. Then we did another album and we got three songs—I’m not sure those songs were great, but by the time we got to the third album, they gave us the complete album. That ended up being the biggest album of all. That’s the one that had “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” on it. Ever since, we’ve been writing and creating music. I was one of the only members of the band who used to carry an 8-track around and all that old stuff. I would write songs, with just music mainly. Even with the Jackson songs—I’m not going to take credit for creating the arrangements or anything, but I started a lot of grooves and songs. I laid down the basics of “Destiny” and “That’s What You Get (For Being Polite),” songs like that.
AS: What led you to finally getting to make your solo music in the late-2010s?
TJ: Well, I got married a week out of high school and had my first kid at 20 years old, then I had my second kid a few years later. I had these boys, man, so when the Jacksons were coming out with solo records, I was just busy as hell. My family needed me, and I just don’t see how they all did that. I was so busy with the Jacksons (because we were still making records as a group) and being a father.
Eventually, I raised my kids and everybody in my family had made a record… even my kids! Then I saw somewhere that people were speculating if I would ever do a record. Eventually, it was Charles Barkley though—he was speaking about some players, and I saw this online after, and they said “If Tito wasn’t in the Jackson 5, would we really miss him?” That made me say “Okay, that’s what I get for being quiet and not rushing to answer questions.” Then I said, “Well, I gotta show this guy—I might be last, but not least.”
I knew my fan base was pop and R&B, not blues—there are some blues, but it’s not blues. So, I thought that if I was going to make records, I’d do a pop album first and a blues record second. That’s when I recorded Tito Time and all that stuff. Now, I’ve got the blues record.
AS: This album really is a phenomenal piece of “bluesmanship,” the writing, the performances, and the arrangements are all masterful. One of the highlights is the B.B. King cover, “Rock Me Baby,” with George Benson and Claudette King. What’s the story of how that one came together?
TJ: I was performing as a feature with the B.B. King Blues Band along with his daughter Claudette, and the stage manager was friends with George Benson. Well, I had worked with George Benson maybe two years prior to that, and we had short conversations, “Let’s do something,” and “Yeah, man, give me a call.” But you know musician stuff—it never happens. But when we were in Memphis or someplace like that, we stopped by George’s place to say hi and talk about him being on this recording.
By the time we went by there, the track was basically already done. The sax player had arranged the basic track, no guitar stuff, but the rhythm tracks. We hung out with George for a day or so and eventually asked him to contribute to this B.B. song that I was recording with Claudette. He said “Yeah,” so we went into the studio and did it all together. For the lead vocals, I was in one vocal booth, Claudette was in another and George Benson was out in the main room playing the lead guitar. That’s pretty much how that went.
AS: That must’ve been a really rewarding experience to be able to bounce off each other live in the studio like that.
TJ: Oh it was great. George is such a clever player, he’s just phenomenal. He’s easy to play with and easy to talk to too. And he’s a Jehovah’s Witness, like my mom, so he wouldn’t sing on the song because of what it means, you know? But he said, “I’ll play on it though!”
AS: Another highlight on the record is “Love One Another,” which features an amazing harmonica part compliments of Stevie Wonder. How did that tune come together?
TJ: I actually completed the album without this track. But, my producer and I were working one day and I turned to him and said “I think we should have a song on here that speaks about today’s issues, some kind of universal song that people can relate to.” Telling people to care about each other and stop all this B.S. that’s going on. Mike came back with this idea—we got together and he had written the hook. We got back together again, finished it, and recorded it. It had a guitar line on it and stuff, but I kept thinking that it needed something else, maybe a wah-wah or something. I got Marlon on the song too and listening to it together we came up with the answer: “Stevie Wonder.”
So, I called him up and he said “Okay, let me hear the song.” At first, I wanted him to sing on it and play. He listened to it a few days later and called me saying “I’ll play on it but I don’t think I’ll sing on it.” I said, “Okay, that’s cool.” I’m not going to pressure Stevie Wonder, you know? And man… it took a while to get the song back. It made my album late! But when I got it back, it was absolutely worth every minute I waited. When Stevie Wonder plays the harmonica, you know it’s him. From the tone to the melody, you know it’s Stevie. It was magic. He puts the ribbon on the package.
AS: How does it feel now to finally be sharing a full record of great blues music?
TJ: I’m so excited about the blues record. I think about some people from the business like Mick Jagger or Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., B.B. King, Tony Bennett… they go on the road and entertain until they can’t do it anymore. That’s what I see this project as, that’s what I see my life as fulfilling. Some of my brothers are singer-dancers, where I’m more or less a singer-musician. I wasn’t one of the three brothers in the middle—Michael, Marlon, and Jackie. So, I see myself growing my blues, fertilizing my audience with this seed, and letting it grow.
Tito Jackson’s new record Under Your Spell is out now—watch the music video for “Love One Another”—featuring Tito’s mother, Katherine, among many more—below: