Gordon Keith (producer)

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Gordon Keith was the first person to sign a recording contract with Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 and actually record, produce, and release their records.[1] Most notable of the four Jackson Five tracks he produced for his Steeltown Records label of Gary, Indiana, is Big Boy. It sold regionally in the Chicago-Gary area in early 1968. It was recorded in Chicago in November 1967 which, as the home of the vibrant Chicago Soul sound of the time, had many fine session musicians, songwriters, and production studios. Keith signed the Jacksons to a management and recording contract in November 1967 at a time when, oddly, not one of the very numerous labels in the region would take them on.

The quality and potential heard in the Big Boy recording were such that Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records sought out Gordon Keith to make a deal with him to distribute it on ATCO, and ATCO distributions of this Steeltown recording are still in existence, as are the preceding version on Steeltown alone. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum owns a copy of one of the Steeltown Recordings produced by Mr. Keith, We Don’t Have To Be Over 21 (To Fall in Love) and this 45 was on display there in 2010.

Gordon Keith was a vocalist himself and he and four partners formed Steeltown Records to record themselves and to sign and record local talent in and around Gary, Indiana.[2] The quality of the music and dance scene in East Chicago and Gary was very high. Vivian Carter, founder of VeeJay Records, and The Spaniels, a prominent doowop group, are examples of Gary's musical culture. Keith states that each partner discovered, signed, and took the responsibility and any profit for any group each of them signed, using Steeltown as an umbrella to promote name recognition. Keith points out that he himself went solo as a vocalist because he wearied of the lack of discipline and commitment of so many of the young vocalists he sang doowop with. Therefore he was looking not only for talent, but talent with a disciplined, professional attitude and commitment.

Discovers Jackson Five[edit]

Keith kept seeing placards around Gary advertising performances by a young group called The Jackson Five Plus Johnny. [3] He was intrigued by what the frequency and regularity of these signs implied about the high level of their commitment to their music.

Keith wanted to talk to The Jackson Five. He was able to get the Jackson family phone number from local musicians the Sherl Brothers who, like The Jackson Five, were taking lessons from local music teacher Shirley Cartman. He called Joe Jackson and was invited over to the house on 2300 Jackson to meet and see the boys perform. As Keith recalls: “They set up right in the living room. The furniture was pushed back. They and their equipment took up pretty much the whole room. The whole family was there; Janet was a babe in arms. They were getting ready and there was a thick chord stretched between two of the amps Michael was near. It came up to his chest. From right where he was standing, without a running start, he jumped straight up from a flat-footed position right over this chord to clear it. He had all my attention from there on. I knew I was looking at a boy who was superhuman. When they sang, Michael sang like an angel. Jermaine also had a great voice. Jackie could carry a tune. Marlon could really dance. But when Michael danced, all while singing, he blew away James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Fred Astaire and anyone else you can name. They sang some James Brown, “Cold Sweat”, Jackie Wilson, “Doggin Around”, some Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, “My Girl” and “Just My Imagination”. Well, I was flabbergasted. Knocked out. Blown away. Speechless.”[4]

Signs Jackson Five[edit]

This audition was in early November 1967. Michael was just over nine years old. By the end of November Gordon Keith had done what no one else had managed to do, although every record company in the area was aware of The Jackson Five. He signed them to a recording and management contract. Although he famously had a recording studio in the basement of his house, Keith took them into a studio in the South Side of Chicago to produce the release recording session because of its sound and because he wanted to use harmonizing vocalists and musicians of the caliber more plentiful there. The masterpiece of these sessions is Big Boy, written by Chicago musician Ed Silver. This song received substantial local radio play, and Big Boy was the first time Michael Jackson heard himself on the radio, and The Jackson Five all heard themselves. (In a Motown produced miniseries about their lives, the first song was identified as Kansas City, which was recorded much later.) Big Boy features a prominent lead by Michael, poignant lyrics in light of his life course, formidable vocal harmonies and, as Michael Jackson said, "a killer bass line".[5] It showcased the more soulful sound of Michael’s early style, very different from the more nasal, pop sound of Motown.

In order to accomplish all this, Gordon Keith had as a matter of honor to obtain releases from others who were trying to work with the Jacksons at the time. Powerful, now legendary, local disc jockeys for Chicago’s fabled black AM radio station WVON, Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones told Keith they had spent $40,000 on the Jacksons and still could not get them a record deal. There were dozens of record labels in Chicago at the time, and Motown also returned tapes sent to them by Joe Jackson to him without comment,[6] The disc jockeys told Keith to take them if he thought he could get anywhere. Keith then spoke to the Leaner Brothers, who owned prominent local record label One-Derful. They likewise released the Jacksons to him. Interestingly, they told Keith they had not recorded the Jacksons. It was a One-Derful artist who had written Big Boy. Keith’s relating of this story to a local journalist led to the recent discovery by the Leaners’ children of a master recording in the One-Derful archives of a Jackson Five recording of Big Boy, predating the Steeltown recording by a few months.[7] This version has not yet been heard. It is worth noting that a young singing group of siblings, the Five Stairsteps, were contemporaries of the Jacksons and were then being produced in Chicago by the late Curtis Mayfield. They ultimately had only one major hit but may have been part of the reason the Jacksons couldn’t get signed in Chicago, just as Berry Gordy did not yet want the trouble of working with minors he was experiencing with Stevie Wonder over in Detroit.[8]

Keith was with the Jacksons at the famed Apollo Theater performances in the spring of 1968. Triumph for The Jackson Five proved heartbreak for Gordon Keith. Keith reports he overheard Joe Jackson discussing future plans with Richard Arons that did not include him. When he confronted Joe Jackson about this apparent intent to breach their contract and betray his trust, Joe reportedly replied that he was “just trying to make it”. Mr. Keith left the theater and took a long walk down 125th Street. When he saw how badly off many of the people there were, he decided life could be worse and returned to Gary, Indiana to work with his other artists on Steeltown.


  1. ^ J. Randy Taraborrelli, Michael Jackson, The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story 1958-2009, Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., 2009. Krohn, Katherine, Michael Jackson, Ultimate Music Legend, Lerner Publishing Group, 2010. Cashmore, Ernest, The Black Culture Industry, 1997
  2. ^ http://www.midwest45s.org/IndianaSoulPage.html
  3. ^ The Jackson Five & Johnny [1]
  4. ^ Interviews with this author, 2009-2010, source of all attributions to Gordon Keith.
  5. ^ Jackson, Michael, Moonwalk, Doubleday, 1988
  6. ^ Grant, Adrian, Michael Jackson, The Visual Documentary, Omnibus, numerous eds.
  7. ^ Austen, Jake, “The Jackson Find”, Chicago Reader, 2009 http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-jackson-find/Content?oid=1191672
  8. ^ Interview with Berry Gordy, Time Magazine, 2009 http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1907409_1907413_1907559,00.html