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Joe Jackson's complicated legacy: Genius entertainment architect vs. eccentric abuser

Wendy Geller
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Joseph “Joe” Jackson, who died Wednesday, June 27, 2018, at 89, leaves a complicated legacy that is nearly impossible for anyone — least of all his own family — to neatly reconcile. On one hand, his reputation looms large as one of the most famously abusive stage dads, who exacted perfection from his sons in the Jackson 5, both physically and mentally. On the other hand, he stands out as an innovator who launched a musical dynasty, raising his family from blue-collar to iconic status.

Fans have long weighed the shining results of the patriarch’s strategies with the disturbing details his children have confessed (if, themselves, with mixed emotions).

“If you messed up, you got hit, sometimes with a switch, sometimes with a belt,” Michael Jackson famously wrote in his autobiography. “Dad would make me so mad at him that I’d try to get back at him and get beaten all the more.”

Michael Jackson, left, and his father, Joe Jackson, wave to fans in Santa Maria, Calif., in 2005.  (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Joe Jackson admitted that he came down physically on his children, but as he told CNN’s Piers Morgan in 2013, he felt it was something he had to do. “I had to be like that way because during those times, it was hard, and you have a lot of gangs there, you know, in the area where we were living,” he noted. “This was Gary, Indiana, and I had to make sure that they didn’t get in any type of trouble.”

Son Jackie Jackson corroborated this, saying in the book The Jacksons: Legacy:  ” Gary wasn’t the safest place to live. There were gangs and Dad had six boys. He wanted to make sure we didn’t get into drugs, so he kept us busy.” 

Perhaps the best place to start in examining this particular dichotomy is Joe Jackson’s own early life, in which he was twice disappointed by his own lofty ambitions — first training as a professional boxer and then tending to a short stint playing guitar in a blues band. Family life soon took over, and he was forced to support his growing clan in a far less glamorous steel plant job.

However, like many who are thwarted in their own paths, Joe Jackson looked to his children to fulfill his dreams. He had a keen eye for talent, recognized it early in his own kids, and seized upon it with a rare furor, tirelessly supervising their grooming and management, and playing the exhausting role of a show parent bringing his children’s unique gifts to the attention of the top brass.

His methods, although held in question all these years, undeniably produced results. In 1968, the group auditioned in Detroit for Motown Records, and the grainy footage that survived shows the supernatural magnetism of Michael Jackson — then only 9 years old.

Jackson’s heavy hand showed up (favorably) in more than just the boys’ musical talent. As Motown attorney Ralph Seltzer, who was instrumental in signing the group to the legendary label, told the Detroit Free Press in 2009: “They were extremely well-mannered. People would come in and say, ‘Ralph, who are those kids out in the hall? They don’t run up and down, or bother anybody, or wrestle with each other. They’re just sitting there being good.'”

The Jackson 5 easily won over the iconic label, went on to cut two dozen Top 40 hits for it, and served as a vibrant bridge between Motown’s earliest acts and a new, more pop-oriented generation— one that would eventually, and effortlessly, welcome Michael Jackson as a solo superstar, as well as his younger sister Janet Jackson. 

Despite his considerable hand in engineering this dynasty, Joe Jackson never completely rectified himself in the public eye. In addition to his well-documented complications with his children, he maintained an unorthodox relationship with his wife, Katherine Jackson, as well — one that included infidelity, a child out of wedlock, and mixed reports of separation (the pair have never divorced).

Still, one solid thing can be noted about Joseph Jackson’s legacy in the midst of his difficult-to-nail-down resume. His family (and the entire world) may have had mixed feelings about him, but he was undeniably loved.

As his grandson Taj Jackson (son of Tito Jackson) tweeted on Wednesday:


Rest in peace, father of entertainment giants.

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