Until the late 1960s, the most famous person connected with Gary, Indiana was the lawyer after whom it was named on its incorporation in 1906, Elbert Gary. A co-founder of the redoubtable US Steel corporation, his profile was such that another new town, Gary, Virginia, also took his name. But that was before the wider world heard about some young residents of the conurbation, some 25 miles from Chicago, which it did when the Jackson 5‘s first Motown single ‘I Want You Back’ was released on 7 October 1969.
The sibling group performed around Gary from the mid-1960s, and were working the chitlin circuit from 1967, then still known as Ripple & Waves Plus Michael. A contest victory at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre prompted then-Motown star Gladys Knight to become their early champion, but her efforts to win them a deal with the company were fruitless. Further dues were paid on the town’s Steeltown label, for whom the single ‘Big Boy’ (with vocals by a nine-year-old Michael) was a local success.
The catalysts for the group’s official arrival at Motown were the label’s routinely underrated Canadian soul outfit, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. In mid-1968, just as they were enjoying their own biggest crossover success with ‘Does Your Mama Know About Me,’ Taylor became convinced of their talents when they shared a bill at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. He arranged for another of the group’s performance to be filmed; The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 9 records that cameraman to be Motown songwriter Johnny Bristol. When Berry Gordy saw the tape, he gave Taylor the green light not only to sign them, but to take them into the studio.
Diana Ross‘ “discovery” of the J5 was a useful, if rather imaginative, promotional tool for both herself and the youthful sensations. But she, as well as Smokey Robinson and other Motown luminaries, were certainly smitten with the quintet, who spent some months in 1969 working on material for their debut album. In July, the ante was further upped by their appearance on the Miss Black America Pageant, a talent contest for teenage girls. Performing the Isley Brothers‘ ‘It’s Your Thing,’ the group went down a storm, both at the event and on its TV broadcast in late August. It was nearly time for their Motown record bow.
The ebullient ‘I Want You Back’ was the perfect vehicle, composed by the Motown writing team known as The Corporation, of whom Gordy himself was a member, along with Alphonso Mizell, Freddie Perren and Deke Richards. The song took a moment to build the momentum towards a Hot 100 chart entry on 15 November, at No. 90, but then it was unstoppable.
Three weeks later, the single was in the top 30, and on 31 January 1970, it spent a week at No. 1. That was the last of its four-week reign over the R&B chart, where it had taken over, rather poetically, from Ross’ final single with the Supremes, ‘Someday We’ll Be Together.’ The Jackson family were on the premises, and a spectacular run of four consecutive pop No. 1s had begun.
‘I Want You Back’ is on the new editions of the Jackson 5’s 1971 Greatest Hits album, which can be bought here.