How the Jackson 5 kick off the teen idol movement
YouTube/The Ed Sullivan Show

The Jackson 5 were very knowledgable in their ABCs. They were also excellent at making hits as they were arguably music’s first true teen idol sensations. Between 1969 until their permanent sabbatical in 1989, they were the kings of the pop universe.

As what should be universally known by now, the Jackson 5 were made up of the Jackson brothers: Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael. After hearing Tito play his his guitar after being threatened punishment for nearly breaking it, Joe Jackson bought Tito his own guitar, and together with Jackie and Jermaine, the boys formed “The Jackson Brothers” in 1964. Michael (who was just six at the time) played the congas and friends Reynaud Jones and Milford Hite played the keyboards and drums. Marlon joined later on, playing the tambourine.

Jones and Hite eventually left The Brothers, leaving the Jacksons to soldier on, which was just fine with their father. In 1967, they won a singing contest at the Apollo which featured Michael, who was now eight-years-old, singing lead. The performance attracted the interest of Gladys Knight, who sent their demo to Berry Gordy, the head honcho of Motown Records, who at the time was looking for a fresh new act to revitalize the label.

Gordy initially wasn’t impressed and rejected the group. Joe and his sons were able to shake off the disappointment and signed a deal with Steeltown Records in late- '67. Now known as “The Jackson 5,” the group recorded two singles, “(I’m A) Big Boy” and “We Don’t Have to Be Over 21.” To get extra exposure, Joe had his sons perform at strip clubs to earn extra income.

Heading into 1968, things weren’t looking so good for the Jackson 5. They were on a small label and they were performing at adult bars, and it looked like their music career would be a bust. But during a week-long run at the Regal Theater as the opening act for Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, Taylor was impressed by the group’s performance, so impressed, that he sent them to Motown to record another demo to try and get Gordy to reconsider his earlier decision to reject them.

The second time was indeed a charm, and Gordy signed the Jackson 5 to a deal in early 1969. With the Supremes heading towards a break-up and Gordy just having lost his star writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, it was imperative that the Jackson 5 breathe new life into the label, and they were being groomed from day one to be superstars.

Their first single would be “I Want Your Back,” which was written by The Corporation (the writing team that replaced Holland-Dozier-Holland), and in 1970, “I Want You Back” topped the Hot 100, which was the shot in the arm Motown needed. What followed was a fandom and success the likes music hadn’t seen at the time, ever.

“ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and the timeless classic “I’ll Be There” all followed “I Want You Back” to the top of the charts, which made them the first act in music history to have their first four singles top the Hot 100. Motown put the Jackson 5 on a rigorous recording schedule, which resulted in the label issuing four albums from the group in just one year, and by 1971, they replaced the Supremes as Motown’s all-time best-selling group.

Looking to capitalize even further on their hot success, Motown’s marketing team went head first into “Jacksonmania,” and the young fans ate up every piece of merchandise and watched every Jackson 5 Saturday morning cartoon episode. Motown also launched Michael’s solo career to further capitalize on their success, and in 1971, Michael’s debut single, “Got to Be There,” became a smash. Jermaine wasn’t far behind, as his doo-wop solo debut, “Daddy’s Home,” also became a huge hit.

But Jermaine and Michael’s booming solo success had a negative effect on the group as a whole. By 1972, “Jacksonmania” was beginning to grow cold. Their album sales tanked, and The Corporation, which had written most of their hit songs, broke up and left Motown. Also hindering the group was Joe’s growing suspicion that Motown was focusing too much on Michael and Jermain’s solo careers and was not producing hits for the group as a whole.

In 1975, with the brothers now grown up, they opted out of their contracts with Motown, desiring to assert more creative control over their sound. But there was another issue that led to the brothers opting out of their contracts – royalties.

Learning that Motown was cheating the group out of royalty payments (they were only making 2.8 percent out of all sales), Joe negotiated a new, lucrative deal with Epic Records, which offered to pay the group 20% per unit sold, over 18% more than what they were making with Motown. That was all it took for Joe to sign on the dotted line in 1975, and Gordy was furious.

Using the marriage to his daughter as leverage, Jermaine was forced to stay with Motown, and he was replaced by Randy Jackson. Gordy also launched a lawsuit against the group, citing breach of contract, which held up their deal with Epic for a year. Grody eventually dropped the lawsuit as long as they agreed to change their name, which Motown legally owned.

So, in 1976, the “Jackson 5” became “The Jacksons,” and they tailored their sound to fit the growing disco movement. Epic gave them full creative control over their material, something the group never enjoyed at Motown, and their self-titled Epic debut continued their commercial slide. But they rebounded in 1978 with the fantastic Destiny LP that produced the funky “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).”

The group had more hits between 1978 and 1981, but the brothers would find themselves overshadowed by Michael’s growing star power, which grew to epic proportions thanks to 1982’s Thriller LP, which is the second best-selling album of all-time. After trying to solider on, the remaining brothers simply couldn’t gain traction thanks to being completely overshadowed by Michael and baby sister Janet, who herself obtained superstar status by the late-‘80s, and in 1989, the group went on permanent hiatus.

It’s easy to make the argument that the Jackson 5 pointed the way for a lot of teen acts to follow, and without their success, there’s no telling where teen pop would be at today. Their success was as easy as ABC, and the brothers made it a whole lot easier for future teen sensations like Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber to break it big on the charts.