Joe Jackson, the strict patriarch who took Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 out of the Gary, Indiana ghettos and made them internationally famous, died early Wednesday morning at the age of 89. Jackson had been battling terminal cancer in a Los Angeles hospital. Brian Oxman, a close friend of Jackson’s, confirmed Jackson’s death to Rolling Stone.
“We are deeply saddened by Mr. Jackson’s passing and extend our heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Katherine Jackson and the family,” John Branca and John McClain, co-executors of the Estate of Michael Jackson, said in a statement. “Joe was a strong man who acknowledged his own imperfections and heroically delivered his sons and daughters from the steel mills of Gary, Indiana to worldwide pop superstardom. Mr. Jackson’s contributions to the history of music are enormous. We had developed a warm relationship with Joe in recent years and will miss him tremendously.”
If not for Jackson, who worked as a craneman in a Gary steel mill, the Jackson 5 almost certainly wouldn’t have signed to Motown Records in the Sixties and made iconic hits such as “I Want You Back” and “ABC.” And if not for Jackson, who was still managing his son when “Off the Wall” came out in 1979, Michael Jackson may have never become the King of Pop. During the Thriller era, Michael would split with his father, eventually accusing him of severe childhood abuse, including beatings with iron cords. Jackson, who demanded that his nine children call him “Joseph,” later clarified in a television interview: “I whipped him with a switch and a belt. I never beat him — you beat somebody with a stick.” Several of his children, including Jermaine, Marlon and Janet, have credited their father’s strictness for keeping them focused and out of trouble.
Born in Dermott, Arkansas, Joseph Walter Jackson suffered his own physical abuse from both parents and teachers. He later moved to Oakland, California to follow his divorced father, but wound up in his mother’s hometown of East Chicago, near Gary. He met Katherine Jackson there and married her in 1949; their first child, Rebbie, was born in 1950. Early on in Northwest Indiana, Joe was in an amateur blues band called the Falcons. As the story goes, his son Tito pulled Joe’s guitar out of the closet and broke a string. After punishing Tito, Joe listened to him play and the family band was born.
Joe Jackson assembled the Jackson 5’s early rehearsals in the living room of their small home at 2300 Jackson Street in Gary, then schmoozed with local promoters, radio DJs, studio owners and record executives to try and get his kids exposure. The group soon signed with a small Gary record label, Steeltown; Jackson hawked their first single, “Big Boy,” out of his car on the streets of Gary. “The more we practiced, the better they got, and I knew that all the trouble I went to would be worth it — my children would be something huge! And I was right,” he wrote in his German-language 2004 memoir Die Jacksons. “Within three years, they were appearing in clubs, and by the end of the Sixties, they were earning so much that I could give up my jobs.”