Song: "I Want You Back"
Album: I Want You Back (single)
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In every group, there must be one member that stands out from the rest as a leader, or at least a focal point of the band. While in some cases it is due to a unique appearance or high level of skill, in nearly every case, this duty falls on the bands' primary singer or lead guitar player. Most of the time, it takes a few albums for this role to properly develop, but there are a handful of cases in history where from the moment the band in question first recorded, the "star" of the group was completely clear. Though in many ways they marked the "end" of the "Motown era," there are few groups in history that can be seen as a true phenomena in the same light as The Jackson 5. Truly coming out of nowhere and turning into international superstars overnight, the group brought an irresistible pop sound to Motown Records the likes of which had never been heard. Coming into their own as merchandising of musical acts was beginning to take hold, few groups were more perfect for this treatment, as their appearance and sound made them one of the first true "bubblegum" groups, and many of their sounds have easily endured over the decades. Having a number of hit singles to their name, the group kept their sounds upbeat and high energy, the groups' songs in many ways eclipsed their label, and most people are unaware that they were on the roster at Motown. Though a number of their songs have become standards over the decades, it is truly amazing to consider the achievement of The Jackson 5 on their debut single, 1969's, "I Want You Back."
Though there are many memorable musical openings, few bring an instant smile and feeling of joy as one gets from the piano slide that leads into the guitar riff that kicks off "I Want You Back." It is this guitar work that holds the song together, bringing an almost ska-like rhythm to the song, and injecting "I Want You Back" with a fantastic amount of funky feeling. Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about "I Want You Back" is that most believe that it was the members of The Jackson 5 that played the instruments. This could not be further from the truth, as the guitar work was actually recorded by three different players: David T. Walker, Louis Shelton and Don Peake. The bass-work was done by Wilton Felder, who is perhaps best known for his role as part of the jazz-fusion group, The Crusaders. The drums were performed by Gene Pello, and there are a number of other musicians who contributed to the fantastic sound and mood that makes "I Want You Back" so memorable. Furthermore, this song represents the first song written and produced by the group calling themselves The Corporation, which was in fact Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Alphonozo Mizell, and Deke Richards. This team would have a number of other successes, but none of them equal to "I Want You Back." Each musician on the song performs brilliantly, and few songs in history can compare to the amazing combination of a smooth, soulful funk and positive mood that overflows throughout "I Want You Back."
While all five Jackson brothers sing superbly throughout "I Want You Back," from almost the instant the vocals begin, it is clear that the focus of the group is on Michael Jackson. Recording this song at only eleven years of age, there is an innocence and honesty in his voice that continues to resonate all these decades later. In many ways epitomizing the strong, soulful sound that defined Motown Records, Michael could clearly hold his own with singers many times his age, and yet it was surely his youth that enabled the group to gain such a massive fanbase. While he sings brilliantly during the verses, it is the first time he transitions into the choruses that the true power of his voice becomes apparent, as the small yell remains one of the most perfect vocal moments in recorded history. The sensational vocal work of Michael Jackson here is further aided by the fact that the lyrics which he is singing can be seen as age appropriate, though one must slightly overlook the fact that he was the youngest of all his brothers. Unquestionably one of the most simple, yet moving lyrics of a missed opportunity at love, the words can be heard from the mouth of a teenager just as easily as a middle-aged person lamenting this missed chance. It is this ability to speak to people across so many age groups that brought the song such a quick success, and more than forty years later, the vocal performance of Michael Jackson remains completely unrivaled.
Truth be told, "I Want You Back" was originally offered to Gladys Knight & The Pips, and then to Diana Ross, one can make the case that this song was "destined" for The Jackson 5. How the song actually ended up in the hands of Berry Gordy's newly signed group remains largely debatable, but the fact of the matter is, upon its release, "I Want You Back" shot to the top of both the r&b and pop charts, turning the five brothers into international superstars. The song would mark the first of four consecutive number one singles for the group, and it remains their signature song, as well as one of the most famous in the history of Motown Records. "I Want You Back" was also significant as it was the first song The Jackson 5 recorded in Motown's Los Angeles studio, having recorded a handful of tracks in the legendary Hitsville studio in Detroit. In many ways, one can feel the brighter, warmer energy of this environment on the track, and the fact that "I Want You Back" remains just as uplifting and irresistible all these decades later serves as a testament to the fantastic musicianship and truly special moment in history it represents. It is almost unfathomable to consider that Michael Jackson was only eleven when he delivered this performance, and it remains one of the finest moments of his entire career. Bringing an unforgettable musical arrangement and one of the most stunning vocal performances in the entire history of recorded music, there is simply no other song that can compare to the sound and mood of The Jackson 5's 1969 debut single, "I Want You Back."