As the Jackson Family buried its 89-year old patriarch Joe Jackson on July 2, and on the eve of the planned public memorial dedicated to his life, I began reflecting on his passing. Over my many decades as a Jackson Family fan, I always believed that Papa Joe was misunderstood as a father. Peering at the endless Ebony magazine covers the Jacksons frequently graced throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the elder could often be seen proudly towering behind his famous brood. Unlike his world-renowned children, back then he was an enigma. But visually, his intense gaze, housed by those recognizably arched eyebrows, conveyed a look that seemed to suggest, ‘Don’t mess with me, ‘cause I mean business.’
But where some only saw an abusive domineering dad, I recognized him as someone else; an African American man from a certain generation who loved his family and tried to do the very best by them.
In remembering the life of Joseph Walter Jackson, we should acknowledge the drive, tenacity and vision it took for a steel mill worker to deliver his professionally polished five young sons at Motown’s doorstep.
“I had to be that way because during those times, it was hard, and you have a lot of gangs there, you know in the area we were living,” Jackson told CNN in 2013. “I’m glad I was tough, because look what I came out with. I came out with some kids that everybody loved all over the world.”
It could also be argued that if Papa Joe didn’t implore his tough love approach and tactics to the musical education of his children, millions around the world may never have experienced the Jackson sound— and ultimately the soundtrack to their lives. The clan might still be in Gary, Indiana somewhere, if not living out Joe’s feared prophecy, just maybe inconspicuously and anonymously living life. What would your world have been like without the Jackson 5’s debut album? Michael Jackson’s Thriller (or my personal favorite, Off the Wall), Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation or any of the dazzling singles released in between? Thanks to Joe Jackson, you’ll never have to find out.
Joseph redirected his family’s path to Las Vegas in the 1970s, had them host a TV variety show and switched their record label. This was a pivotal and essential pilgrimage as they transitioned from boys (The Jackson 5)— to men (The Jacksons). It also marks a very fragile epoch in many celebrities’ careers— when they are most at risk of becoming forgotten casualties of oblivion.
Because they feel like our clan, love for the Jackson family extends far beyond the pair who’ve been kissed by the white heat of superstar status. Not only do true Jackson fans love their favorite siblings faithfully, most of Michael and Janet’s kin have found their own versions of fame outside the shadows of the dynamic sibling duo’s success. Today, the Jacksons (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon) continue to tour around the world performing the discography of family hits and LaToya Jackson, who is best known today as a celebrity reality TV star (Worst Cooks in America, Life with LaToya, The Apprentice) is a pioneer in her own right. Despite previously being a victim in an abusive marriage, LaToya was the first Jackson to extend the family business outside of music and acting by appearing twice as a cover model in Playboy.
Despite their criticism of his parenting style, both Janet and Michael (before his death) credited their dad Joseph with helping them to achieve success they could never have imagined for themselves. Not only did it catapult them to the highest stratospheres of their careers, but because of their father, generations can continue to discover nearly 50 years of entertainment crafted by the Jackson Family. It’s truly been a happening, and we’re equally appreciative that Joe Jackson took us along for the ride.