You Are Not Alone_Michael, Through a Brother’s Eyes (6 page)

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TITO’S PASSION FOR THE GUITAR COULDN’T
help itself.

As Jackie and I started learning songs from the radio, his talent blossomed through lessons at school. But when he was at home, he couldn’t practise. So, despite all warnings from Joseph, he borrowed our father’s guitar from the back of his closet. What he wouldn’t know couldn’t hurt him, right?

Whenever Joseph worked, Tito seized his moment. He started playing and we began making harmonies. On a couple of occasions, Mother walked in and found us out, but apart from a gasp that told us we were playing with fire, she turned a blind eye. She was
a lot
more lenient than our father. On one particular weekend, Tito started playing and we were singing some Four Tops’ song. He was sitting there, plucking away, and Jackie and I were crooning
when suddenly there was a twanging noise. Tito went white when he realised one of the strings had broken. ‘Oooh, you’re going to get it now!’ squealed Jackie, part excitement, part fear.

We’re all going to get it now
, I thought.

We put the broken treasure back in its rightful place and were sitting in our bedrooms when we heard his car pull up. The bomb was primed. Each loud footstep on the linoleum matched what was going on inside our ribcages. One … two … three … ‘WHO’S … BEEN MESSING … WITH MY GUITARRRR?’ He hollered so loud I think they heard him in California. When he pounded into our room, Michael and Marlon scarpered, leaving Jackie, Tito and me standing by the bunk-beds already whimpering over what we knew was coming next. Mother tried intervening, claiming it was all her fault, but Joseph wasn’t listening. We cried even louder when he told us we were all going to get it until one of us owned up.

‘It was me,’ Tito said, barely heard. ‘I was playing it –’ Joseph grabbed him ‘– but I know how to play. I KNOW HOW TO PLAY!’ he screamed.

I’ve read accounts that say Joseph clobbered him there and then, but that’s not what happened. Instead he stopped, scowled and said, ‘Play, then. Let me see what you can do!’ With a broken string, Tito started to play, and Jackie and I started to sing – even if our crying meant we could give only 50 per cent. ‘Doing The Jerk’ by the Larks became our plea for clemency and we started making harmonies, slightly off note, but it must have sounded good because Joseph visibly loosened. We kept on singing: we saw his head moving to the beat, and he did what would become a habit – he started lip-synching the lyrics, going through the motions with us. We became emboldened, stopped sniffling and pulled ourselves together. Our harmonies came good and we were snapping our fingers. Our audience’s eyes widened and narrowed in both victory and defeat. When we stopped playing, he didn’t say a word but we had been spared a major spanking and that was all that seemed to matter.

Two days later, Joseph arrived home from work with a red electric guitar for Tito and told him to start practising. He told Jackie and me to get ready for rehearsals. He told our mother that he was going ‘to support these boys.’ His focus switched from the Falcons to his sons. We had won his approval and he wanted to harness something we loved doing. It felt like recognition and it excited us. People have said that our father ‘made them sing’ or ‘forced those boys into entertainment’, but singing had come naturally to us and that passion was our choice. We had sung up a storm long before Joseph arrived with his rocket fuel. As a trio of brothers, we told ourselves that we were going to be the best group in Gary.

CHAPTER THREE
God’s Gift

MICHAEL SAT ON THE CARPET WITH
two empty, cardboard tubs of Quaker Oats sandwiched between his knees. He bound them together by sticking a pencil through their middle. This, he told everyone, was his set of bongos. Taking up his position as a spectator on the sidelines with Marlon, he was eager for rehearsals to start even though he wasn’t involved since he’d been deemed ‘too little’. But he had decided he was going to join in anyway and four fingers on each hand contributed his beat to whatever rhythm we played. He watched as a purposeful Joseph took Jackie, Tito and me by the shoulders and positioned us like chess pieces ‘on the stage’, which was our living room. Tito, on guitar, took centre position, with me to his right; the three of us stood around wondering what our next move was going to be.

In the kitchen, Mother stayed out of the way with Rebbie and La Toya, allowing us to do our thing. She knew what we’d soon find out: these sessions were not some dreamy pretence but a serious business in our father’s eyes. A single microphone was hooked into its stand in the middle of the room. No hairbrushes or
shampoo bottles for his sons. It was borrowed from the Falcons, a baton passed to the next generation. ‘You’ve got to learn how to use it, not be afraid of it, hold it, play it,’ said Joseph.

Play
the microphone? I think our faces said it all.

He put on a James Brown LP, turned it up loud, grabbed the mic, dipped left, dipped right, then threw it forward so it bounced right back.
That
was ‘playing’ the mic. ‘Hear that voice, Jermaine? Do it like that. Do it
just
like that.’ He played classic 45s and LPs so that we could study, over and over, one song at a time, how it was sung, and how it should be performed. I remember the repetitiveness of ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & the MGs, and James Brown’s version of ‘Night Train’. As Joseph encouraged us to move, we started doing the cow-step, snapping our fingers, and self-consciously shuffling around. He wasn’t impressed. ‘Boys, you can’t just sing and sway. You gotta
move
– put more feeling into it! Like this …’

He stepped in, with James Brown as his dance track, and started getting down, bobbing his head. We couldn’t help but giggle at his lack of grace. ‘I can see you laughing,’ he said, ‘but I don’t want
you
looking like amateurs.’

We went back to our ‘marks’, back to being choreographed. Back to the class where there was no motto above the door but if there had been, it would have read: ‘The Right Way Becomes Habit’.

In the meantime, there was always Joseph’s verbal handbook, which was seared into our memories. ‘You have to entertain. Be dynamic. Be different. Take it to the audience!’ We studied songs and learned moves for two, three, sometimes five hours a day for months on end. Whenever Joseph wasn’t working or sleeping, we practised. ‘Practice does not make perfect,’ he
always
said. ‘It makes consistency.’ Practice made us remember. And yet we seemed to forget regularly. ‘Let’s do it again … and again … and again, until we get it right,’ he said.

Meanwhile, Michael kept pounding those upturned oatmeal cartons. I lost count of how many he went through, but Joseph eventually found him a real set of second-hand bongos. And our
lessons kept coming. ‘Imagine the crowd … picture them … look out … feel them … and SMILE!’

We looked straight out of the window on to Jackson Street – always facing the light – and saw other kids running around playing tag-football or roller-skating. We heard fun and laughter. When school friends knocked on our door to ask if we wanted to play, Joseph refused. ‘No, they’re busy rehearsing,’ he said. This, in turn, built an endless curiosity about the goings-on inside our house for the rest of the 1960s. On a few occasions, children came up to the window to see what was happening, mushing their noses against the glass. I guess that was the start of living in a goldfish bowl. Some kids banged on the window and made fun of us.

‘You’re locked up! You’re locked up!’ they chanted, and ran away laughing.

Joseph drew the curtains. No one got anywhere in life from playing in the street. ‘Focus’, he said. ‘You’ll always face distractions,’ he added, ‘but it’s about keeping your minds on the job.’ If
he
could take time out to work hard between his shifts, so could we. That was the unspoken message.

As we continued, he recognised our talents. But entertainment wasn’t just about skill: it was
showmanship
, he said. We had to create ‘the Jackson mystique’. As for those dance moves, never, ever start counting them. ‘You must not do that. It can’t be one, two, three … kick. That’s dancing by numbers,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to know and feel what’s coming up next. Take OUT the numbers, bring IN the feeling!’

In those early days, Joseph was patient and took his time shaping us. He knew we were green, so he was forgiving. When he witnessed our gradual improvement, this pleased him and in turn, made us dig deeper. Impressing him and winning
his
respect mattered. Family members like Uncle Luther and Mama Martha came over, and Joseph asked us to sing. He noted their enthusiastic reactions, but it was never good enough. ‘You can give more. We can do better!’ At least Joseph was kicking our butts with something we loved doing. At least he was spending time with us,
unlike a lot of fathers in the neighbourhood. We felt driven, not pushed, guided into where we wanted to go.

‘Blood, sweat and tears, boys – if you wanna be the best, blood, sweat and tears,’ he said.

Tito had the guitar down, I was vocally strong, and Jackie’s forte was honed by the dance contests he’d won with Rebbie. He led the moves Joseph wanted, and we mirrored him until we were in sync. We were light on our feet so it soon came easy. Outside these sessions, I was encouraged to sing ballads: ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Moon River’ – Mother’s favourites. I mastered them by putting on the LP and writing out the lyrics. The tough part was holding my notes with the lungs of a kid but Joseph noticed my initial struggle.

‘You gotta sing from your stomach,’ said our vocal coach, choreographer and manager. ‘Imagine a balloon expanding as it sucked in air,’ he said. ‘That’s breathing in. Releasing that air is how you sing, hold and control a note. Think bagpipes.’ I compared my lungs to balloons and bagpipes for many years because knowing how to breathe – swelling the stomach – taught me how to sing.

‘Master the melody before the lyrics. Know where the key change is. Know where the notes are,’ he said. This was the strongest lesson inside 2300 Jackson Street: understanding our voice is the melody, and that the melody is everything. ‘You should be able to sing a song without music.’

Even our ‘ear’ was being trained.

We knew it was all starting to click together when none of us looked down at Jackie’s feet, or muttered a countdown under our breath. We just fell into it. Performing felt like the most natural thing in the world.

 

MAMA MARTHA WAS EVER-PRESENT IN OUR
childhood, always visiting from her house in Hammond, East Chicago, about 20 minutes away. She arrived with pound cake and a big smacker of a kiss, which, when planted on the cheek with vigour, made one of those squelching sounds of puckered lips on skin. A real grandmother’s ‘mwah’!

After we had put in endless practice as a trio, Joseph was keen to show his mother-in-law what his micro man-management had created. What we didn’t know was that Michael was also itching to get in on the action. As our all-female audience – Mother, Mama, Rebbie and La Toya (plus two-year-old Randy) – stood watching, Jackie, Tito and I lined up in formation, ready to do our father proud.

Michael was, as always, seated with his bongos on the floor. As we came out of the intro of some song I now forget, the girls started to clap with the rhythm and Michael stood. Then, sensing the song building, he started to sing spontaneously, coming in on a part. Distracted, I waved him away, trying to hush his mouth. As far as we were concerned, he was ruining our moment.

Before we knew it, Joseph had stopped the record.

‘He’s not supposed to be singing!’ I said, protesting.

Mama Martha jumped to his defence. ‘Leave him alone. Let the boy sing if he wants to sing! You want to sing, Michael?’

His face lit up. We stood to one side to let him have his moment in our grandmother’s sun and Joseph begrudgingly turned on the music as our little brother started to sing. What he produced was no ‘Jingle Bells’ at a Christmas window. It was one hundred times better because it was an invited rendition, not a forbidden carol. This was Michael, shy but confident and knowing exactly what to do: he played the mic, worked the floor and sang beautifully, and we were, like, ‘Damn – that’s good!’

I didn’t know where that voice came from.

‘Heaven,’ said Mother.

The wide-eyed look on Joseph’s face was a picture.

All that time on the sidelines, Michael had been memorising everything we were doing. And then Talent emerged from its hiding place.

As everyone applauded, he felt as big as his brothers, and that’s all a kid brother wants to feel.

Mama Martha and Mother nodded knowingly to one another, as if to say ‘Always knew that one had it in him’.

I don’t remember Joseph immediately installing him in the group because there were still reservations about his age: he had only just turned five on 29 August 1963. But a few weeks later that no longer mattered when Michael became the first brother to perform before a live audience – at a Parent Teacher Association gala at Garnett Elementary School. It was Michael’s first term there, and a set of grey, oblong blocks became his first stage.

The gymnasium was filled with wooden foldaway chairs and it felt like the whole community had turned out to see local kids perform. I was sitting with Mother and Papa Samuel, and we knew Michael’s class was due to sing and that he had been asked to do a solo. We sensed it was a big deal for him because he had left the house that morning in a blue shirt, buttoned up to the neck, and smart pants, not his usual T-shirt and jeans. His chosen song was ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical
The Sound of Music
(which would become one of his all-time favourite movies).

Michael hadn’t made a big fuss about this spot and I don’t remember him rehearsing his solo at home but that probably speaks of a quiet confidence first being displayed; a boy getting on with something in his own head until the moment of execution. Something he’d do throughout his life.

When it came to his spot, the woman teacher on the piano nodded and Michael stepped forward. Mother squeezed the purse on her lap with both hands and I didn’t know what I was going to do: die of embarrassment or claim him as my own.

I shouldn’t have worried.

He did everything our father had taught us to do – and then came the unexpected ‘wow’ moment: the high note at the end, which soared and echoed around the gymnasium with acoustic perfection. It was like God had reached down into one moment and said: ‘Kid, I’m going to give you a voice that is out of this world. Now use it!’

Michael was animated, wandering the stage with confidence. He didn’t follow the lead of the teacher, like most kids:
she
followed
him
. What amazed everyone was that he sang it so high. On that end note everyone stood and applauded. Even the teacher at the piano was up, clapping faster than I had ever seen anyone clap.

That’s my brother!
I thought.

Mother was in tears. And even Papa Samuel was choked.

Damn, Michael – you’ve even made Papa Samuel cry!

I suspect that was the very moment Michael’s soul locked into its purpose to entertain, upon feeling the buzz of applause and seeing the reaction
he
had created. I knew that I wanted to be alongside him, feeling the same thing.

After that day, our musical group became five. Michael was drafted in, and so too was Marlon. Not because he had demonstrated anything outstanding but because Mother wasn’t having him be the odd one out. ‘You’ll crush him if you don’t include him, Joe,’ she said.

Over the years, it has been written that I was somehow hurt or jealous over Michael’s inclusion but I was not: there was nothing to be jealous about. We were a group without a name that hadn’t even broken out of our living room, so there was no limelight to steal. There was nothing but enthusiastic harmony between brothers. We used to lie awake in our bunk-beds, imagining being stars. Our morning singing now took on purpose. As we climbed out of bed, one brother would sing, another would jump in, then another and before we knew it, we had a three-part harmony going.

There were notes I couldn’t hit and all of a sudden, Michael reached them with ease. That boy was like a bird. He found octaves that I didn’t know existed and our father was blown away. You could tell he viewed Michael as the unexpected bonus to his game plan. The only thing missing now was the right name.

 

I HAVE OFTEN WONDERED HOW MANY
names my parents went through before agreeing on the final nine. Not that it mattered in the end, because the choice of ‘Sigmund Esco’ for their first son morphed into ‘Jackie’ when Papa Samuel thought it easy to refer to
him as ‘Jackson boy’, then laziness shortened it some more. And ‘Tariano Adaryl’ became ‘Tito’ because it was easier for us all. I was forever curious as a child about how two people’s taste could go from the exotic-sounding ‘Jermaine LaJuane’ to ‘Michael Joe’. From somewhere, and especially after Michael’s death, a rumour began that his middle name was Joseph. Maybe this myth prefers the echo with our father’s name because the crossover reads better about a father and son who struggled to see eye to eye. ‘Joe’ was his middle name, as recorded on his birth certificate. His first name was almost ‘Ronald’, at the suggestion of Mama Martha, but Mother quickly quashed that one. In the light of history, ‘Ronald’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Michael was the seventh child with seven letters in his first name and ‘7’ was his favourite number. So, numerically, his name is ‘777’. That’s the Jackpot there. The Lucky 7s. A number that appears only once in the Bible. There’s a lot that can be read into a name. That’s the power of its sound and interpretation; the story it can tell, and the memories it can evoke. But ‘7’ was central to his identity. He wore jackets with ‘7’ sewn into the arm. When he doodled on paper, ‘7’ was tagged all over. And what the world never saw were his pencil sketches in later life for a furniture range he had in his head. He drew throne-like upholstered chairs with ‘7’ carved into the centre of the oak frame beneath the seat, set within an intricate, floral design.

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