Why does an artist who’s sold millions of records in the the worlds of R&B and pop turn his sights on the blues? For some, the move comes after finally realizing that the music we love are – like Willie Dixon said so succinctly– “the roots and everything else is the fruits.” For others, it’s simply a side-road trip, a temporary diversion from their comfort zones.
But not Tito Jackson!
At age 67 and after a star-studded, platinum- and gold-plated history with The Jacksons and Jackson 5, the Rock-‘n’-Roll Hall of Famer is about to shock his legion of fans and turn the world on its collective ear with the release his first-ever blues CD. And as Blues Blast learned recently in an intimate interview, Tito’s truly coming home to his first love — the blues – and not venturing into territory unknown.
As strange as that might seem to just about anyone outside his immediate family, Tito grew up to the backbeat of the blues. The third child of Joe and Katherine Jackson, he came into the world on Oct. 15, 1953, in Gary, Ind., which – like Chicago and Calumet City, Ill., a few miles to the west – is steeped in the tradition of the music.
“My father, my mother,” Jackson says, “they played a lot of blues at barbeques, family gatherings and things like that. They played a lot of Jimmy Reed (who lived in the city), Muddy Waters, Albert Collins. You name it, they played ‘em all!
“And any time we’d go over to other families, they’d be playin’ blues, too. So we were a ‘blues family,’ yeah!”
Born in Fountain Hill, Ark., Tito’s dad grew up in neighboring East Chicago, Ind., after his parents’ divorce. A Golden Gloves boxer who dreamed about career as a pro, he raised nine kids by working different jobs at Inland Steel Corp. But he also spent his nights and weekends playing blues guitar, too.
In the early ‘50s, Joe formed a short-lived band named The Falcons, which featured high school student Thornton “Pookie” Hudson on vocals. Desperate to secure a recording contract, they tried everything they could, but failed. They disbanded when Hudson founded a separate group, The Spaniels, a doo-wop ensemble that’s credited with being the first R&B stars ever to emerge from the Midwest thanks to a string of hits on Vee-Jay, most prominently “Baby It’s You” and “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight.”
Now a familiar sight thanks his trademark bowler hat, sunglasses and burly physical demeanor, Tito’s a gentle man who’s far more down-to-earth than you might imagine after all of his and his family’s success. Brother Michael described him succinctly: “Tito is very quiet and soft, but can be really strong when necessary. He’s always there when we need him, and manages to project an inner calm which is vital within a family unit.”
That calmness runs like a river as Jackson talks today.
Tito started playing guitar at age ten after his dad caught him in the act fooling around with his ax and breaking a string in the process. “It was the blues that got me interested in the guitar,” he says.
And, fortunately, instead of being admonished him for his indiscretion, Joe bought him his own six-string a short while later instead.
The household broke into song often, and Joe quickly realized that sons Jackie, Jermaine and Tito had a special talent a few months after the guitar incident. He created the first iteration of the family band, The Jackson Brothers, shortly thereafter, which evolved into The Jackson 5 when which seven-year-old Michael took over as the front man two years later.
“Back in the early days, when we used to play the High Chaparral and Pepper’s Lounge (two legendary showrooms on Chicago’s South Side), we had blues in our act,” Tito remembers, “usually three or four blues songs every night.
“I remember that we played in Peoria, Ill., a few times and opened for Johnnie Taylor (the man who made ‘Who’s Makin’ Love (to Your Old Lady,’ ‘Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone’ and ‘Disco Lady’ Billboard R&B chart No. 1 hits). We were right in the middle of that sweet R&B music, blues and that whole thing! We did that for many years.
“Then we started doin’ the Jackson 5 thing and Motown, and that’s a whole different thing altogether.”
After winning several local talent shows, they captured top honors at amateur night competition at the Apollo Theater in New York in 1967, and their career exploded. Joe got them inked to Steeltown Records in Gary later that year. Their single — “Big Boy” – was released in 1967 and proved so successful that it caught the ear of Berry Gordy, who signed the boys to Motown.
Despite their proximity to the Windy City and the fact that Reed, Big Daddy Kinsey, harmonica player Middle Walter – yes, there was one, and he was great, too! — and artists lived nearby, the only bluesman Tito met during his childhood was B.B. King, and that was only during a fleeting encounter.
“I got to know him a little better in his older age,” Jackson remembers. “He came to my neighborhood one time, The Country Club nightclub, where he played every year. I went to the club, and a friend was there with his guitar. I said: ‘Hey, man! Why you here with your guitar?’
“He said: ‘You don’t know?’ I said: ‘I don’t know what?’ He said: ‘There’s a part of B.B.’s show where he calls anybody up on stage that’s got a guitar to come up and play with him.’
“I didn’t live too far from that place, so I ran home and got mine. I came back, and wouldn’t you know it…that section of the show was over!
“Two years later, B.B.’s back in town and I’m gonna bring my mother and my guitar and everything. I sit in the audience with it and wait for that part in the show to be called up – and it never happened.”
King had eliminated that section of his performance from his regular routine. But Jackson did get to go backstage and chat with him in his dressing room at the end of the night. “He signed my guitar,” Tito remembers fondly. “It was the very first guitar that Berry Gordy had bought me and the same one I played on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“I wanted that guitar because that’s what B.B. played back then – a Gibson 345 Stereo. I still cherish it today. And every time I’m down in Indianola, Miss., I always make it a point to visit him and his museum.”
Tito established himself as a top-flight guitarist himself during Jackson 5 performances, but Joe never allowed him to play on any of their records – or allow any of the boys to write their own material — until they jumped from Motown to CBS in 1976.
The final version of the family band, The Jacksons, also included Randy, Jackie and Marlon in different lineups when everyone began to go their separate ways in 1984 after their Victory Tour, the only time when all six brothers were on stage simultaneously. Their last visit to the studio came in 1989 with the release of 2300 Jackson Street, an album that used their former home address as the title.
In the years since, Tito has remained pretty much out of sight from the public eye, but he’s remained busy behind the scenes as a session guitarist, producer and family man, raising his own three sons – Taj, Taryll and TJ – and brother Michael’s children, too, following his untimely death in 2009.
When his boys launched a career in R&B as the group 3T, Tito followed in his father’s footsteps and became their manager – also to great success. In fact, their debut CD, Brotherhood, sold more than 3 million copies.
But the itch to perform again simply proved too strong to resist, he says, noting: “I decided to take a little break after the Victory Tour, but the break lasted so-o- long, I couldn’t take it anymore!
“I wanted to play some music, and I wanted to be on stage again. I’d been playin’ the Jackson 5 stuff for all my life practically, but the blues had been the main music in my family. I just wanted to jam, but I couldn’t get no pros to do that kinda thing.
“I was livin’ in Oxnard, Calif., then (a couple of hours northwest of Los Angeles). It’s not a huge city like L.A. So I started a little blues band with some of my buddies. Music was their secondary job though…you know…the kinda guys that play the drums on the weekend and have regular jobs durin’ the week.
“I could only do so much with these guys because I didn’t want to pull them from jobs and take them all away from the benefits they’d been building up for 15-20 years…you know how the music business is! They just weren’t able to continue with me.
“At the time, I was doin’ a lot of weddings, church benefits and basically rehearsin’ durin’ the afternoons in my buddy’s club — a location where all the people who worked in the vegetable fields would come in for a few beers and play pool after a hard day. He had three or four tables, and they didn’t give a damn about blues. They wanted mariachi music!
“That was a good time for me to practice, to be in front of people (as a bluesman) for the first time – even though they wasn’t payin’ attention,” Tito says. “I was more or less gettin’ myself prepared because I’d never been on a stage before without my brothers.
“It took six months or so, but I was buildin’ a show and that whole thing. After that, I started movin’ around the country, got (booked on) a cruise and other shows, gigs overseas in Japan and France. The next thing I know, I was on the American Blues Tour in Europe and then a few others. It just grew from that point.”
For a while in 2003, Jackson played in a blues group that included guitarist Angelo Earle, best known for his work with Al Green, Bobby Rush and The Bar-Kays, among others. Later on, he served as a judge on BBC-TV’s Just the Two of Us celebrity singing competition – replacing Lulu in the lineup — and then as executive producer of The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty, the reality series released after Michael’s death. He’s also collaborated with dozens of other artists, including Philadelphia music kingpins Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, L.A. Reid and Babyface, and Howard Hewitt, too.
The one thing that was missing in his life was an album under his own name.
“I said to myself: ‘I’m doin’ all this, but I have no music (songs of his own),’” Tito admits. He wanted to record, but was torn between R&B and the blues. So he consulted with his family.
“To make a long story short,” he says, “I said I can always do blues because blues is a music that really doesn’t have an age. The older you are, probably, the more acceptable it is. But I decided: ‘I’m gonna do this “Jackson” album first.’”
Released in 2016 as a CD in Japan and distributed through iTunes in the U.S., it was entitled Tito Time, and deeply imbued with the Jacksons’ trademark sound. Tito became the last of his siblings to score a hit single when “Get It Baby” — which featured hip-hop legend Big Daddy Kane — hit the Billboard R&B charts and created a temporary dance craze.
“Michael was the one who inspired me to continue,” Tito insists. “I had done a few songs, and my sons had done a couple of tracks and played ‘em for him. They were good. And he said it’d be good for me to keep goin’ and finish the project. But at the back of my mind, I wanted to do a blues album. My love really sits with that genre of music.”
Prior to COVID-19, he’d already been touring and recording with the B.B. King Blues Band. “Actually, COVID worked in my favor as far as being able to do the blues album,” he says. “I started working on it in October or November 2019, and because of COVID, I was able to catch friends at home to ask them if they’d collaborate.
“There were no shows or anything else, so people had time. And, fortunately, I’m a homebody, too. I’m used to bein’ home all the time. Before COVID-19, there were times when I wouldn’t leave my house for a week or two…just workin’ on music or bein’ around the house.”
Entitled Under Your Spell, it will be released on Mike Zito’s Gulf Coast Records in association with Hillside Global on Aug. 6, and features a lineup that includes Bobby Rush, Stevie Wonder, Kenny and Darnell Neal, George Benson, Joe Bonamassa, Eddie Levert, Grady Champion, the B.B. King band and Tito’s brother Marlon, too, among others – almost all of whom contributed to the project remotely.
From the opening bars, listeners will know instantaneously where the music’s coming from because it has the rich, layered production values fans have loved from the Jacksons since the mid-‘60s. But it has a deep blue feel that captures the colors of soul-blues and Southern soul that emanates from Chicago, Memphis and Mississippi. Never overpowering, it lays down a deep groove that will have you rocking from beginning to end.
“Kenny’s a great person to work for and work with,” Jackson says. “He’s a great personality and fabulous musician. It worked out great that he was able to bring things together the way he did with his family and the others.”
Most of other songs were written by Tito in partnership with Michael K. Jackson – not a family member, but another artist with strong R&B credentials as a member of the new jack swing group, Portrait, who scored big with the tune “Here We Go Again!” in 1995 and as someone with strong behind-the-scenes cred.
“Back then, he worked as ‘Kurt,’” Tito points out, “because they had another Michael in the group and when someone said the name, they both turned around.”
One of Jackson’s favorite numbers in the set is a completely reimagined cover of B.B.’s “Rock Me Baby.” Recorded prior to COVID, it features the King and one of his daughters, Claudette.
“She kills it!” Jackson insists.
The only other tune he didn’t write is special for another reason, Tito says. It’s a duet with Levert entitled “All in the Family Blues,” and one of the first blues songs ever penned by Gamble and Huff, who pioneered what’s known as the Philly Sound. “I called Kenny because Eddie had said he’d love to do a song with me.
“But I thought to myself: ‘What song am I gonna do? How the hell am I gonna write a melody for Eddie Levert, of all people?’ So I called Kenny and asked if he had anything. A week later, he sent me the perfect song,” driving home the message that everyone in a family has to work together to overcome life’s hurdles, to keep everyone happy and for everyone to succeed. “It’s really unique,” he adds, “because I don’t remember Gamble and Huff doin’ any straight blues.”
The song “Love One Another” – which was released as a single a few weeks ago – also is special. “I mixed blues artists with pop artists on that one (including Neal, Benson, Bonamassa, Rush, Levert and Marlon),” Tito says. “It also delivers a message, and it came out great!
“What I’m tryin’ to do with that one is to invite some listeners of other genres back to the blues,” he says. “What the blues world needs is another crossover album like The Thrill Is Gone. Hopefully, it’s that one! The blues deserve a chance, and I tried to make a record that folks will play at barbecues and family gatherings and have a good time when they do.”
Tito will be touring soon along with Mike Zito’s Big Band, and they’re also booked for the fall Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. Check out his new CD and where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.titojackson.com