How Joe Jackson Made—and Broke—Michael Jackson
The callous stage dad, who ruled over his immensely talented brood with an iron fist, passed away this week at the age of 89.
Joseph Jackson died June 26, 2018, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 89.
The patriarch of the most celebrated family in music, Joseph’s legacy has always been uncomfortable. The phenomenon of The Jackson 5, the staggering heights achieved by Michael Jackson and the iconic success of Janet Jackson—none of it would have been possible without the vision of a frustrated steel worker who saw star potential in his kids. But the way that Jackson built his children into music royalty cost them so much of their emotional and psychological well-being—with Michael being the most significant example of what it means to be the pop-star child of Joe Jackson: preternaturally gifted, supremely successful, and tragically tortured.
His relationship with his children was that of a domineering dictator. He drove the work ethic of the young Jackson 5 with intense practices while also serving as their business adviser and manager. In the early days, that meant Joe landing them a deal with Motown—but also led to Joe having the prescience to fight to leave the label after things took a turn in 1975.
His hand in their careers was always obvious, but it was also clear that his children wanted desperately to feel some semblance of warmth, love, or compassion from their father.
“I love my father but I don’t know him,” Michael Jackson told Oprah Winfrey during his famous 1993 interview. Janet echoed Michael’s sentiments. She told Piers Morgan in 2011: “I think my father means well... and wants nothing but the best for his kids... but that is not necessarily the right way,” and “I wish our relationship was different, but I know that he loves me.”
It’s not an uncommon refrain among those raised by “The Greatest Generation” that their parents were hard-driving and/or emotionally distant. Nurturing seemed to be in short supply for those that had been shaped by the Great Depression, Jim Crow, and WWII. Joseph’s early years were spent in consistent transition: a 1930s childhood in the small town of Fountain Hill in Ashley County, Arkansas, before he moved to Oakland at age 12 following his parents’ divorce. Joe lived with his father, Samuel J. Jackson, until he was 18, when he moved to East Chicago, Indiana, to live with his mother, Crystal Lee King, and four younger siblings. The young man had serious aspirations as a boxer, but marriage to young Katherine Scruse in 1949 and the birth of eldest daughter, Maureen “Rebbie” Jackson, in 1950 led to Joe getting a job as a crane operator at a steel mill.
He’d play in a band called The Falcons with his brother Luther, but they didn’t go very far. The birth of seven more kids between 1951 and 1961 meant that Joe was fighting just to keep things afloat—all on a worker’s salary in the toughest part of a hardscrabble town. In later years, the harshness of that reality would be Joseph’s standard justification for how hard he drove his children.
“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,” Jackson told Piers Morgan in 2013. “This was Gary, Indiana. And I had to make sure that they didn’t get in any type of trouble, and things of that sort.”
“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. And they treated everybody right.”
Joseph was of a generation that had its dignity regularly trampled by the daily systemic tyranny and cultural ignominy of racism. Gary wasn’t the Deep South, but there was a strong culture of bigotry and African Americans had been politically and economically shut out since the Great Migration. Joseph’s failings as a musician coupled with the go-nowhere prospects of his current conditions made him single-minded in his focus and in his frustration. He projected that frustration onto his children, both in why he wanted loftier heights for his kids and in how he went about pushing towards them. “Black people can’t fail,” Atlanta’s loquacious stoner Darius said so succinctly in the second season’s finale. And that adage was even more apt in the blue-collar 1950s of Gary, Indiana.
In Joe and Katherine’s 2010 interview with Oprah, the conversation turned to Joe Jackson beating their kids. From depictions in the Jacksons’ 1992 TV movie to the countless revealing interviews with Michael, Joseph has been characterized as everything from brutal disciplinarian to outright sadistic abuser. Bringing up Joseph’s history, Winfrey reflected on how common the practice of parents beating their kids has been.
“I was beaten as a kid because that was the culture, that was the way we were raised,” Oprah said at the time. “You might as well admit it, that’s the way black people raised their children,” Katherine said to Joseph, before admitting to Oprah, “He used a strap. Yes, he did use a strap.”
“One of the reasons particularly old-school black parents took such strength with this is because one little mess-up outside could get you arrested or killed, as it did Emmett Till,” Whoopi Goldberg said on The View following that interview. “Their attitude was, ‘You’re representing me, you’re representing black people.’”
The conversation surrounding corporal punishment tends to be framed as one specifically controversial for black people. But it’s still permitted in 19 states and has been used fairly regularly in some areas—particularly throughout states in the South and Midwest. According to a 2014 Children’s Defense Fund report, 838 children were hit on average each day in American public schools, based on a 180-day school year. We can be overeager to reduce the dialogue surrounding hitting kids to one of black pathology in lieu of greater American social mores and ideas surrounding discipline. Of course, the idea that it’s the most effective way to discipline has long been in dispute. And black kids seem to be the ones on whom this theory is most practiced. According to that aforementioned 2014 study, black kids are disproportionately subject to corporal punishment in school. What Joe Jackson represents does denote a culture, but that culture is American and the exemplars of it are often white and in positions of authority.
However, we can understand the racial and social particulars that are intrinsic to the corporal punishment debate while also recognizing how a father simply can damage his children. Joe Jackson made his children stars as he made them miserable—and as they made him rich. And he enjoyed the spoils of being a stage dad whose sons routinely attracted a large female following.
There were stories of Joseph seeking out Jackson groupies, and supporting mistresses around the country. Joseph regularly cheated and Katherine filed for divorce at least twice in the 1970s and ’80s before ultimately reconsidering. The couple would finally live in estrangement in the last decade or so of his life. Joseph fathered a daughter, Joh’Vonnie, during a long-term affair that Joe had with Cheryle Terrell. Joh’Vonnie was born during the Jackson 5’s Motown tenure and kept from public knowledge for decades, despite living only five miles away from the Jackson’s Encino home. He visited Joh’Vonnie regularly, and showered her with gifts—a stark contrast to how he behaved with his famous children. To them, he was emotionally detached. His kids—particularly Janet—often complained in interviews about being made to call him “Joseph,” as opposed to “Dad” or “Daddy,” when they were growing up.
“You had all those kids running hollering around,” Jackson said in that Piers Morgan interview. “They’re hollering, ‘Dad, Dad, Dad,’ you know? And it gets to be—it sounds kind of funny to me. But I didn’t care too much about what they called me, just as long as they [were] able to listen to me and what I had to tell them, you know, in order to make their lives successful. This was the main thing.”
Just before his death in 2009, Michael sat down with controversial Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for recorded conversations that were to be published in a book. During the more than 30 hours of conversation, they discussed Jackson’s childhood and his father. Michael admitted again that he felt he’d been abused and exploited.
“I hate to repeat it,” Michael said during those 2009 interviews. “But one day he said—and God bless my father because he did some wonderful things and he was brilliant, he was a genius—but one day he said, ‘If you guys ever stop singing, I will drop you like a hot potato.’ It hurt me. You would think he would think, ‘These kids have a heart and feelings.’ Wouldn’t he think that would hurt us? If I said something like that to Prince and Paris, that would hurt. You don’t say something like that to children and I never forgot it. It affects my relationship with him today.”
“I always said if I ever have kids I will never behave like this way. I won’t touch a hair on their heads. Because people always say the abused abuse and it is not true. It is not true. I am totally the opposite. The worst I do is I make them stand in the corner for a little bit and that’s it and that’s my time-out for them.”
Joseph was by his son’s side during Michael’s 2005 trial on child-molestation charges, but upon Michael’s death four years later, it was discovered that Michael left Joseph out of his will. There were reports from family insiders detailing how little contact Joseph had with the Jackson clan following his estrangement from Katherine. The distance seemed to be confirmed when Joseph wrote about his recovery from debilitating strokes in 2014.
“When I suffered four strokes last year and was in the hospital recovering, only two people in my family traveled all the way to see me,” Joe wrote in a post on his website at the time. “My granddaughter Brandi [Jackie Jackson’s daughter] and my baby girl, Janet. She sat right next to me as I lay in bed, and she spent time with me. We were talking a lot together and it meant a lot to me.”
Admitting that he’d “never” told her so, he wrote: “I am proud of Janet.”
Upon receiving the Radio Disney Music Awards Impact Award, Janet paid tribute to her terminally ill father.
“My mother nourished me with the most extravagant love imaginable,” she said during her acceptance speech. “My father, my incredible father drove me to be the best I can. My siblings set an incredibly high standard, a high bar for artistic excellence.”
In regards to Joe Jackson’s legacy, there are two undeniable truths: Joe Jackson was the catalyst for the remarkable success of the Jackson family, and he was also responsible for doing irrevocable damage to that family. We can’t pretend that he’s just a victim of his time—he was a calculating bully. His children’s scars are real and they have stayed with them. He was also a man who wanted something more for his family. He achieved that. That’s nothing to gloss over. We should recognize that vision. And we must acknowledge his role in building an entertainment empire. But I hope we also acknowledge that to make the King of Pop, he didn’t have to break Michael Jackson.