West Grand Blog


Jackson 5: 'Back' to the Future



What may have been the most expensive Motown 45 ever made is still producing a return on the investment.

      The British recording industry trade body, known as the BPI, has compiled a portfolio of information about the 15,000 most-streamed tracks of 2017. The analysis draws on data from the Official Charts Company (OCC); it covers audio streams from all the main services, including Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer, but excludes video streaming.

      Predictably, the top 10 were all released last year, but more than half of the 15,000 tracks pre-date 2016. From that period, more than 300 recordings were each streamed at least 10 million times by listeners in the U.K. – including “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5.

      Moreover, this was the single most popular piece of music from 1969 (the year of release is assigned by the OCC and BPI to each of the 15,000 tracks). “I Want You Back” was streamed 12.6 million times in Britain last year, making it more in demand than, say, “Get Back” by the Beatles, “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones, or “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. All of those topped the U.K. charts at the time; “I Want You Back” reached number 2.

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      Late last year, in an interview with the Jacksons published in British music magazine Uncut, Jackie Jackson repeated the claim that the single cost more to make than any previous Motown 45. In Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness, author J. Randy Taraborrelli estimated the price tag to be around $10,000. “At that time,” he wrote, “the cost of a Motown single was averaging between $2,000 and $3,000.”

      The late Freddie Perren, a member of the team which created “I Want You Back,” once confirmed to me that it required weeks in the studio, not to mention the time spent writing the song in the first place. He spoke about its origins as “I Wanna Be Free,” and about the advice he received from Motown songwriter/producer Deke Richards. “[Deke] said, ‘There’s one way to really get into things fast: find someone who’s cold and write a hit on them.’ Gladys Knight at the time was cold, so we wrote this song. It just started out kind of like a track that sounded really good, so we started moulding it for Gladys.

      “Berry Gordy was part of it,” continued Perren. “He was like our advisor, he would sing little ideas on the tape recorder and everything.” The Motown founder felt the song could be recast into something suitable for the newly-signed Jackson 5 instead of Knight, but when he heard the first version of “I Want You Back,” he got more involved. “There were certain things he would adjust,” explained Perren. “He would say, ‘Yeah, it’s good, but it still needs to have this,’ and, ‘I don’t get the feeling that it’s really sincere in this part,’ and, ‘Can you do something with that part?’”


      Jackie Jackson recalled as much for Fred Bronson, author of The Jacksons: Legacy. “They kept changing it here and there for the better,” he said. “We told them it was great, but the next day Freddie and Fonce [Mizell] added more things to it. They wanted to make it perfect.” That was the music-making process: time-consuming and, as such, expensive. But the quantifiable costs usually came in the studio, recording the instrumental tracks and the vocals. Jermaine Jackson has said it took the Jackson 5 three weeks to finish their parts for “I Want You Back.” Jackie contended that they took four.

      Because this particular recording was done not in Detroit, but at the Sound Factory in Los Angeles, Motown used some of the city’s top-rated, in-demand session musicians. Among them: guitarists David T. Walker, Don Peake and Louie Shelton, and Wilton Felder on bass and Joe Sample on piano, both from the Crusaders. As for the vocals, Deke Richards told Taraborrelli that he must have cut them two dozen times. “I had no idea that recording could be such work. I remember falling asleep at the mike. I wondered if it would ever be finished.”


      Some portion of the cost – whether $10,000 or not – of alchemising “I Want You Back” would have been set against Jackson 5 royalties, although its commercial success rendered that a moot point. The brothers would not likely have known about such recoupment until years later, nor been aware that working faster might have cost them less. It reminds me of what Bertha Barbee of the Velvelettes told Goldmine magazine in 1986 about recording “Needle In A Haystack.” She thought it took about 17 takes. “We found out how much it was costing us against our royalties, about $4,000 per dub that we did. It was a very large sum of money, and that was put on our account as a debt. Once we realised that, you should have seen how quickly we learned tunes.”

      “I Want You Back” recouped its costs through physical sales in the last century, and continues to reward the Jacksons, its songwriters and producers (relevant contracts permitting) digitally in this century. With the siblings from Gary, Indiana, the creators were Perren, Richards, Mizell and Gordy, collectively known as The Corporation.


      Streaming services pay record companies, which submit their contracted percentages to the artists, and so-called mechanical and performance royalties to music publishers for onward disbursement to songwriters. That “I Want You Back” was the most popular 1969 track streamed in the U.K. last year is no small achievement, given that many of those services’ listeners would not even have been alive when the Jackson 5 were toiling in the Sound Factory.

      All this is also a reminder of Britain’s enduring love affair with Hitsville U.S.A. – a fact reinforced by additional Official Charts Co. data provided to BPI members. Last year, according to this information, five other Motown acts had the most popular tracks in the U.K. from their respective years of release: the Temptations (1964’s “My Girl,” with 8.9 million streams), the Four Tops (1965’s “I Can’t Help Myself,” 5.1 million), Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1967’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” 11 million), and Stevie Wonder (1970’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” 8.3 million, and 1972’s “Superstition,” 15.6 million).

      To repeat: in 2017, no other track from each of those years was streamed more. “I Want You Back”? That’s a song title and an instruction to the past.


Music notes: hardly necessary, since the point of the above is the digital availability and popularity of “I Want You Back,” among other Motown masterpieces. Pick the service of your choice, and listen. For the Jackson 5, you can stream more than a dozen of their Motown albums. Another package, 2012’s Come And Get It: The Rare Pearls, including colourful liner notes by Deke Richards, appears to have been made available only in physical form. The same applies to 2009’s I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters.

Adam WhiteComment