Photo: James Watkins
Tito Jackson On His New Blues Album 'Under Your Spell' & His Better-Late-Than-Never Solo Career
"If Tito wasn't in the Jackson 5, would we really miss him?"
Charles Barkley broached this jarring rhetorical question about singer/songwriter Tito Jackson, the third child in the sibling superstar band. (The NBA analyst prefaced it by comparing them to the Miami Heat, with Michael as their all-star shooting guard Dwyane Wade.) "That really rung a bell with me," Tito tells GRAMMY.com. "I said to myself, 'They don't see the contribution you bring to the group because you don't have any records out.'"
Indeed, unlike his brothers—Michael, Marlon, Jermaine, Randy, and Jackie—Tito hadn't yet released a solo album. He made this right in 2016 with Tito Time, an R&B/pop album with contributions from Big Daddy Kane, Jocelyn Brown and 3T. For its follow-up, though, he decided to dig deeper into the sounds that formed him and bring his unconventional career full circle—with a little help from Stevie Wonder, George Benson and Joe Bonamassa.
That album is Under Your Spell, which was released Aug. 6. Earthy, upbeat and feel-good—with elements of funk and R&B throughout—it's the product of a man with a one-of-a-kind legacy and nothing to prove. But as originals like "Wheels Keep Turning," "Love One Another" and "That Kind of Love" attest—to say nothing of B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby"—it just feels good for him to sing the blues, simple as that. And thanks to his rock-solid, unpretentious delivery, his joy becomes our joy too.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Tito Jackson about how the blues runs in his famous family, where the American form fits into the modern music landscape and the realizations that led to his better-late-than-never solo career.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Under Your Spell is framed as a return to your blues roots. What's your foundation in this artform? How did you grow from that soil, so to speak?
When I was really, really young—I'm saying around five—my parents always listened to Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, B.B. King and all these other blues players. I basically fell in love because my father and his brother, Uncle Luther, used to jam every weekend with their guitars. They'd play all these blues songs that are classics today. Basically, I would just sit there and stare at them because I loved the music. You know, I'm a young man wanting to be my dad and that whole thing.
He would always say, "When I go to work, don't touch my guitar." And me being a kid, that's like hearing the opposite. I'd been watching their fingering and all these other things and I wanted to try them. My mother would let me play the guitar and tell me "Put it away! Your dad will be home within the hour." So I put it away and she never said a word to him, until one day I broke the little E string.
He got really upset at me and gave me a spanking and all that. Then, he put it in my lap and said, "Show me what you know." I was playing the little things I knew and my mom said, "He's really trying to play this thing! He's not playing with it; he really wants to play it." So, surprisingly, my father gave me the guitar. I think it's called an Airline.
He told me, "I want you to learn every song you like on the radio." And, of course, at that time, it was the Temptations, the Motown sound, the Isley Brothers, James Brown. I would be learning these songs and my brothers started singing backup with me. We had a little trio: My older brother and my younger brother. Michael and Marlon were just babies—they were playing with toys on the floor still. We were four or five years older and said, "You're too young."
We heard Michael singing ballads at school. We rushed him into the group after that and Marlon too. But at that time, we did do blues at our show. We did a lot of B.B. King and Bill Doggett and Johnnie Taylor and other artists. By the time we reached Motown, the only time I got to play the blues was when there was a mishap on stage, like when a microphone went dead. They'd holler, "Tito, play some blues!" and that's when I would get my little shot. It only happened a few times.
After those occasional rendezvouses, when would you cross paths with the blues again?
From that time, we had done a whole lot of things with our career and we decided to take a break in 1985, '86, something like that. I hadn't played new music in a long time, so I grabbed some friends of mine since I was living in Oxnard, California, which is a much smaller town than Los Angeles or Calabasas. These guys were musicians, but they were secondary musicians because they had main jobs. They were longshoremen. One owned an auto body shop. The other one was a mechanic. Things like that.
They couldn't leave their jobs to go on the road, but I was very shy at the time. One of the guys owned a nightclub called Roadhouse in Oxnard. We rehearsed there and some of the guys who worked in the fields would come in there and play pool. They didn't care about blues or anything. We'd just be there rehearsing and singing and that whole thing.
Then, I started going to [play] church benefits and weddings and grew from there to do a few club dates and had a small tour in America. That grew to the cruises and then I started playing in other parts of the world—Europe and Japan and Spain and Brazil. From there, it just grew and grew until I'm at where I'm at today with the music.
What compelled you to become a solo artist like your brothers?
My brothers did solo records back in the day and I never did anything, since we moved companies from Motown to Sony. It's Sony today; it was Columbia back then. We were on the Epic Records label. But on Motown, they did records for Michael, Jermaine and Jackie. Then, later, Marlon did one. I believe it was on RCA or Capitol. But I never did anything because I had three sons and I wanted to make sure they were straight. Chasing the Jackson 5's career and having a wife and kids was never for me.
It got to a point where I said to myself, "What's the point of having a record? You're already in the Hall of Fame. You have a star on the Walk of Fame. You've played for the Queen of England and kings and of things of that nature. What do you really have to prove?" But looking back on saying that, every sibling in my family—even my kids—have had records out there. I was the only one out of that original generation that didn't do anything.
So, I didn't want to be that trivia question: "Which Jackson never had a record out or did anything on his own?" I decided I would do a record, which I did. My first album, called [2016's] Tito Time, is more in the vein of R&B, pop and that type of thing. Basically, just trying to do something for my fanbase: "Get it Baby" and "One Way Street." But I always said that if I wanted to do an album, it would be a blues album. My heart was with the blues.
What made me really do it was for two reasons. One being there was a survey online saying, "Will Tito ever do a record?" The needle was slightly pointed toward "Yes," but what really made me do something was Charles Barkley, the basketball player. One time, it was the Miami Heat playing in the playoff final game. He said, "The Heat played like the Jackson 5," [Dwyane] Wade being like Michael. He said, "Tell me something. If Tito wasn't in the Jackson 5, would we really miss him?"
That really rung a bell with me. I said to myself, "They don't see the contribution you bring to the group because you don't have any records out and you haven't sung any songs." I said, "I'd better do this record so they know what I have, or what I can do." So that's when I decided to do that.
What was it like collaborating with Stevie Wonder and some of your other colleagues for Under Your Spell? What was the rapport like?
Stevie was great. I've recorded with Stevie before on some of his projects. He's always great to work with. The guy's so talented. You don't have to coach him at all. He just gets right into it. Just his harmonica rhythms are Stevie, you know?
Now, with George Benson, we were working together about five or six years ago in Las Vegas. Of course, we had conversations: "Hey man, let's do something one day," whatever, which never comes. I was on the road in the B.B. King with [his] blues band, and it just so happened that the road manager knew George Benson and had mentioned that I was out there with him and this and that. We were headed up to Nevada and he wanted us to stop by.
Meanwhile, B.B. King's daughter, Claudette King, and I were talking about doing a tribute to B.B. King. We had decided we were going to do this song, "Rock Me, Baby." The sax player had it cut and then when we went up to Arizona, we played it to George. He volunteered to perform on it and that's how that came.
Now with Joe Bonamassa, I didn't know him at all. That's through [songwriter, guitarist and producer] Mike Zito. But I did want him on my album because he's probably one of the hottest—if not the hottest—out there.
Tito Jackson. Photo: Laura Carbone
I feel like blues music is pushed to the fringes of the mainstream these days. How do we bring it back into the center of the conversation, since all American music arguably comes from the blues?
That's basically what I was trying to do with this song, "Love One Another," and this complete album. I didn't want to do the traditional, slow "My baby left me" blues kind of thing. I wanted it to be danceable. I wanted it to be an album you can put on in your car while you're driving and enjoy it or at a barbecue or family gathering or whatever. I tried to give the blues a little bit of wiredness by adding people like Eddie Lavert or Stevie Wonder. These guys are from the pop music rank.
That attracts attention to the music, to the genre, which needs customers. It needs listeners. I've been listening to blues radio for quite some time, but some of the stations—I'm not talking about internet radio, but radio radio—I notice some of the music they play, they don't include up-to-date blues. They play six or seven really old folk-blues probably from when your great-grandfather was a kid.
I think they should do it the other way around. Look at what is R&B music or rock music. It all has the blues—a slight change to it as time goes on. Blues just bends its wills. I think the more blues players try to think outside the box, [the more] they can create something that makes it more appealing to the listener. Just doing I-IV-V chords with basic time gets a little boring.
How would you pitch the blues to a young person? What comes to my mind is the universal emotion. Our fundamental human problems haven't changed much since the turn of the century.
Exactly, but what's even more important, I think, is trying to get some of these popular artists in collaboration. What if Bruno Mars did a blues tune with somebody? Or put a blues-element type of feel tune on his album? That type of thing. That's what I think we need to go with, because kids are followers, basically. Anything he'd do, his fanbase is going to like it.
I think that's one of the ways. Not only him, but a lot of popular artists. Your Snoop Doggs, your Drakes. It'd be nice to have Taylor Swift singing "At Last" by Etta James or something like that, you know? It doesn't have to be the single. Just have it on the album. That's called giving blues a chance.
"I think it's important to keep on singing a song as long as there's a song to sing." - Tito Jackson
When you look back on the arc of your life and career, what emotions bubble up in your mind?
I'm proud of my career. I wish I had the head I have now about my career when I was much younger. I could have done a lot more when I was younger. But I'm proud of my accomplishments—the records that we hold as well as the inductees and all of these other things. Like I said, what else do I have to prove? And I'm proud that I did this blues album and I plan to do more.
It's just been great, you know? The brothers don't record like we used to, but I think it's important to keep on singing a song as long as there's a song to sing.