Minus Michael: The other Jacksons’ solo work deserves another listen

Minus Michael: The other Jacksons’ solo work deserves another listen

The fifth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death arrived last month with a flurry of retrospective chin-stroking. Slate relied on the tried-and-tired, “Where were you when you heard MJ died?” approach. The Huffington Post ran a mawkish piece titled “Remembering Michael Jackson, Five Years After His Death,” presumably in honor of the first anniversary of The Huffington Post’s 2013 article “Remembering Michael Jackson 4 Years Later.” And People weighed in with a listicle of lofty claims about Jackson’s cultural legacy, every one of them overreaching at best, fallacious at worst. Whether bending over backward to out-hyperbolize their competition or pulling their hamstrings in the attempt to pull your heartstrings, these articles glance past a glaring fact: Jackson may have slept in a hyperbaric chamber, but he did not exist in a vacuum.

Jackson’s brothers and sisters, regardless of what they’ve accomplished musically, have become footnotes to his legend. That includes Janet, a superstar in her own right whose massive, singular contributions to R&B and pop are still eclipsed to a large degree by Michael. His other siblings—Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon (his bandmates in The Jackson 5); Randy (his bandmate in The Jacksons); and sisters Rebbie and La Toya—are all but disregarded, in spite of their respective, and at times downright respectable, solo careers.

Granted, they haven’t exactly helped their own cause. The mercifully short-lived reality show The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty debuted a mere seven months after Michael’s death, and it’s as miserable a piece of exploitation as television as ever spit up—more of a cartoon than even the animated Jackson 5 series of the ’70s. The Jacksons, from their infamously abusive patriarch Joe on down, have not always been a wonderful group of people as far as public perception is concerned. Most human beings on Earth, in fact, are not wonderful. But most people on Earth have not made music like the Jacksons.

The solo output of the non-Michael members of the Jackson family varies wildly in quality. Some of it’s great. Some of it’s crap. In that sense, it’s exactly like Michael’s solo output. Collectively, their lows are lower, and Michael’s highs are higher. History has proven that—but history has been written by the winner, and by Thriller. The truth is, many non-Michael, solo-Jackson gems have been left languishing in the dust of the past, not to mention the long shadows cast by Michael and the family’s own oversized drama.

Jermaine’s resume is the lengthiest of The Jacksons’ non-Michael siblings. He started releasing solo material in 1972, while The Jackson 5 was at its peak. But his skills as a bassist were finally pushed to the fore on his 1976 song “Bass Odyssey,” a propulsive and intricate mix of funk and jazz fusion. It was easily the most progressive piece of music any solo Jackson had released—that is, until Michael’s Off The Wall three years later. But even after Michael had reaffirmed his spot at the top of the Jackson hierarchy in the ’80s, Jermaine was on fire. He produced and dueted with Whitney Houston on her 1985 debut album. He had a string of hits, from sharp, nervy dance tracks like “Dynamite” and pillowy ballads like “Do What You Do.” While Michael was enlisting the likes of Paul McCartney and Eddie Van Halen as guests on his recordings, Jermaine drafted Devo. And Jermaine’s voice—smoother, sweeter, less virtuosic, more directly emotional than Michael’s—is a force all its own. Even when he let his bass do most of the talking.

The other former Jackson 5 members—Jackie, Marlon, and Tito—didn’t fare as well in their solo careers. Marlon and Tito barely have solo careers at all. Marlon’s 1987 single “Don’t Go” is a sculpted, immaculate example of ’80s R&B, though, even if Tito’s largest contribution to the Jackson family’s musical legacy outside of The Jackson 5 is giving birth to 3T (and becoming a punchline in relation to Michael). Jackie’s meager solo catalog bursts with unfulfilled promise. He only released two albums—1973’s Jackie Jackson and 1989’s Be The One—but they’re both solid and inspired. “Is It Him Or Me” is a muscular but tender-hearted plea for love that hits the sweet spot among classic Motown, Sly Stone-style funk, and the emerging lushness of disco. And on his 1989 single “Cruzin,” Jackie harnesses the brash, punchy tones of New Jack Swing with an ease that rivals Michael’s and Janet’s work in that subgenre on Dangerous and Rhythm Nation 1814.

Randy was too young to be an original member of The Jackson 5, but he joined the group when it changed its name to The Jacksons in 1975 (replacing Jermaine, who stayed at Motown while his brothers moved to Epic Records). He also barely registers as a solo artist; his lone non-Jacksons album came in 1989 after forming his own outfit, Randy & The Gypsys. As Jackie and Janet were doing that year, Randy dabbled in New Jack Swing—credibly and with a flair for melody and fluidity that borders on acid jazz, as heard on the Randy & The Gypsys’ single “Love You Honey.

The Jackson sisters were never allowed in any incarnation of The Jackson 5, but La Toya took to a solo career early, in 1980, and had a healthy run that lasted in earnest for 15 years. She never had a chart-topping, record-shattering hit, but her stylistic departure from her siblings’ collective identity—her voice is both steelier and silkier than any of her brothers—was a reinvigoration of the family’s musical legacy at the start of the ’80s, even as Michael was gearing up for universal domination. The sparse groove, fleshed out with touches of delicate flute and flamenco guitar, on her 1980 single “Night Time Lover” set it apart not only from The Jacksons, but from the rest of the disco pack.

Michael produced and co-wrote “Night Time Lover” with La Toya, but it only barely resembles what Michael was doing at the time—partly because Michael, according to La Toya’s memoir La Toya: Growing Up In The Jackson Family, tweaked the mix in a deliberate attempt to keep it from sounding too much like Off The Wall. He did her a favor. Once established as an artist who was willing to incorporate the sounds of other places and cultures, she worked calypso and dancehall reggae into her 1986 near-hit, “Heart Don’t Lie.” Not only is it a snappy pop anthem, it harkened back to the bubblegum spirit of early Jackson 5.

One of the best solo Jackson songs came from the family’s least-known sibling. Rebbie is the oldest of all the Jacksons brothers and sisters, and she’d resisted Joe’s wish for her to get into the music business by marrying at the age of 18, around the time The Jackson 5 was taking off in the late ’60s. Then, in 1984, the 34-year-old Rebbie made her debut as a recording artist with Centipede. The title track, like La Toya’s “Night Time Lover,” was a collaboration with Michael, and the aftereffect of Thriller is all over it. Still, “Centipede” is a monster of a club song that Rebbie brings to life like no other Jackson could: as dark, stark, and mysteriously sultry as any Vanity 6 classic.

No one could argue that Janet Jackson is in any way an overlooked artist. But the youngest Jackson of her generation, no matter how many millions she sells, has never been able to fully escape the gravitational pull of Michael. Her self-titled solo debut came out in 1982, the same year as Thriller, and from there it seemed her and Michael were in an unspoken pop arms race. But where Michael’s output slowed to a crawl after Thriller, Janet’s hit high gear. With something to prove, and a platform from which to prove it, she turned her third album, 1986’s Control, into a statement of innovation and identity that rivals Thriller. But even her early albums showed plenty of pop savvy—a quality that blossomed with 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814, which should be mentioned in any serious list of great concept albums in pop history. Janet has the sales and success, but her formidable discography is lucky to get 1 percent of the fawning regard and glowing retrospectives of Michael’s.

Michael Jackson deserves every bit of acclaim he’s ever gotten. (Except when that acclaim borders on the hysterical, hollow, or plain lazy.) And his rise from R&B star to pop royalty certainly gave his siblings certain opportunities they might not have otherwise enjoyed as solo artists. But it’s easy to forget—in all the bickering, backstabbing, and exploitation that follows the Jacksons like a dark cloud—that part of Michael’s appeal was his family. That persona of the cute little kid singing and dancing with his brothers is what anchored his public image as he grew more isolated and eccentric in the ’90s and ’00s. And the knowledge that he’d contributed in many ways to his brothers’ and sisters’ solo success—or in many cases, their failed stabs at solo success—helped humanize him throughout his career and life.

Mostly, though, the underappreciated solo work of the Jacksons is an ironic statement about fame. Michael’s immense rising tide lifted all boats, but it tended to drown them out as well. The anniversary of his death will continued to be celebrated long after anything fresh or relevant is left to say about his music. Hopefully at some point, history at large will realize that the other Jacksons’ solo work is as much a part of his legacy as it is their own—not to mention a rich, fascinating alternate timeline of pop written by artists who didn’t quite lose, but who certainly didn’t win.

More For Our Consideration