Gordon Keith (producer)
Gordon Keith was the first person to sign a recording contract with the Jackson 5 including Michael Jackson and release their records. Most notable of the four Jackson Five tracks he produced for the Steeltown Records label he co-owned in Gary, Indiana, is the single "Big Boy", sung by Michael Jackson. It sold regionally in the Chicago-Gary area in early 1968. It was recorded in November 1967 on the South Side of Chicago, 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 on November 21, 1967, at a time when, oddly, not one of the 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 Keith to make a contract 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 of "Big Boy"/"You Changed", which was produced by Keith, and this 45 record was on display there in 2010.
Keith from Gary, was a vocalist himself. He and four partners founded Steeltown Records with each able to manage, record, and sign local talent themselves in and around Gary, Indiana. The quality of the music and dance scene in East Chicago, Indiana and elsewhere in and around Gary was very high. Vivian Carter, founder of VeeJay Records, and The Spaniels, a prominent Doo-wop group, are examples of Gary's musical culture. Keith states that each partner individually discovered, signed, and took the responsibility and any profit for each signed individual or group, using Steeltown as an umbrella to promote name recognition. Keith points out that he had 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 doo-wop songs with. Therefore he was looking not only for talent, but talent with a disciplined professional attitude and commitment.
Discovers Jackson Five
Keith kept seeing placards around Gary advertising performances by a young group called 'The Jackson Five Plus Johnny' (Johnny Jackson on drums). 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 with 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, the father of The Jackson Five, and was invited over to the Jackson home on 2300 Jackson Street (named after President Andrew Jackson) in Gary 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.”
Signs Jackson Five
Michael Jackson was just over nine years old when 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 had a recording studio in the basement of his house, Keith took them to a studio he was familiar with on 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 Eddie Silvers. This song received substantial local radio play, and "Big Boy" was the first time Michael Jackson, and his brothers heard themselves on the radio. In a Motown produced miniseries of a TV movie about the Jackson family shown in 1992, the First Jackson Five song was identified as "Kansas City", which was actually recorded later.) "Big Boy" featured 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". 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, 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, E. Rodney Jones and Pervis Spann, 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, 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 (1962-1969). They likewise released the Jacksons to him. Interestingly, they told Keith they had not recorded the Jacksons. It was an One-Derful artist, Eddie Silvers, who had first written "Big Boy" ("I'm a Big Boy Now"). Keith’s relating of this story to a local journalist led to the 2009 discovery by the Leaners’ children of a master recording in the One-Derful archives of a Jackson Five recording of "Big Boy" ("I'm A Big Boy Now") on July 13, 1967, predating Keith's Steeltown recording of "Big Boy": 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 Jackson Five group could not get signed in Chicago, just as Berry Gordy (Motown owner) did not yet want the trouble of working with minors which he was experiencing with Stevie Wonder over in Detroit.
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- Interviews with this author, 2009-2010, source of all attributions to Gordon Keith.
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- "Berry Gordy - Michael Jackson 1958 - 2009". TIME. 2009-06-26. Retrieved 2015-11-22.