The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Jackson Family

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At the end of the 1950s, a little-known songwriter decided to capitalize on the Black talent he was surrounded by in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, by forming a record label.

By the end of the 1960s, Berry Gordy's dream of making Black music for a Black and white audience had more than come true. Gordy's record label, Motown, featured some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and many more. Motown helped shape not only Black music but all popular music, with the shock waves of Motown's legacy felt even today. By the decade's end, Gordy would cement the legacy of his company by discovering and producing a musician who would be, arguably, the most important of the latter half of the 20th century and beyond.

If there was a family in music that is comparable to the Kennedys in politics, it would be the Jacksons. Joseph Jackson groomed his sons into one of the most popular acts of the 1970s: the Jackson 5. The original lineup consisted of Jackie, Marlon, Tito, Jermaine, and a young Michael Jackson, with their father serving as their manager. After their time as a child group passed, Michael would become "The King of Pop" and a cultural icon. Like the Kennedys however, the Jacksons had many real-life secrets and tragedies that followed alongside their unprecedented success.

Growing up around gangs in Gary

According to Biography, Katherine Scruse was just 17 when she met Joseph Jackson, who was two years her senior. In 1949, after a two-year courtship, the couple were married. Joseph and Katherine raised nine children in Gary, Indiana. (A tenth, Brandon Jackson, died shortly after his birth.) Joseph had been a successful Golden Gloves boxer, on his way to the professionals, when he met Katherine. After they married and Katherine gave birth to their first child, Maureen "Rebbie" Jackson, in 1950, he gave up fighting and took a job as a crane operator at U.S. Steel. In the mid-1950s, he and his brother, Luther, would form a band named the Falcons, hoping that music would be his way up the social ladder, but the group split after a few years. 

Katherine and Joseph moved into a two-bedroom home after they were married, and his desire for success might have come from the environment of Gary. In an interview with GQ Magazine, Jackie and Marlon Jackson would talk about growing up in Gary. According to Jackie, "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."

Marlon would add on by saying that their father made sure to keep the boys out of trouble by making them move bricks from one side of the backyard to the other.

Joseph Jackson was a fierce taskmaster and disciplinarian

According to a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Jermaine Jackson recalled his father being cold to them as children while growing up. "None of us can remember him holding us or cuddling us or telling us 'I love you,'" Jermaine said. In order to grow his children into a cohesive musical unit, Joseph limited their free time in order to focus on music, making them practice five hours a day after classes. They weren't allowed to go outside to play with other kids.

Disturbingly, The Guardian also reported that Joseph would beat his children with a belt or a cord, and if the children made a mistake during practice, he would break off a branch from a tree and hit them. Michael, the youngest in the group and the star, would suffer the physical abuse with his brothers, as well as psychological abuse: Upon learning Michael was self-conscious about the size of his nose, Joseph began to refer to him as "Big Nose."

The Associated Press reported that Michael was so afraid of his father that he would occasionally vomit when he saw him. The youngest Jackson child, Janet, recalled in the article that her father would not let his children call him "dad," saying instead to refer to him as Joseph. Eventually, all of Joseph's children would separate professionally from him when they reached adulthood.

The troubles of child stardom

It's a running theme that child stars tend to have a lot of trouble adjusting to adulthood. Unfortunately, many cope with either a loss of fame or the continuing pressures of stardom through unhealthy and potentially fatal behavior.

While the Jackson brothers eventually gained wealth and success from their music, it had a lasting effect on their lives, especially on the group's youngest member and primary vocalist, Michael. In 1995, the King of Pop released the song "Childhood." The song opens with the line, "Have you seen my childhood?" and goes into detail about Jackson's desire to be able to enjoy "elementary things" free from criticism. Michael would eventually build a home in Los Olivos, California, called "Neverland," named for the home of Peter Pan, the boy who stayed young forever. Jackson said, "I totally identify with Peter Pan, the lost boy from Never Neverland," Biography reports.

In his biography about his brother, You Are Not Alone: Michael: Through a Brother's Eyes, Jermaine Jackson described working as a child performer with his siblings, saying that their weekends between 1966 and 1968 were spent on the road performing in front different audiences and returning home at around 2:00 a.m. on school days following performances. In one instance, while on the road, Joseph was beaten by a group of men right before his sons were expected to perform and told them, despite his injuries and their emotional state after witnessing their father's assault, to still perform.

The Jackson 5's popularity inevitably declined

When the Jackson 5 released their first album at the end of 1969, the group immediately became one of the biggest-selling acts in the world and launched Motown back to the top of the charts. In 1971, the group joined the company of the Beatles by becoming a Saturday-morning cartoon. The Jackson 5ive, according to Afropunk, became the first cartoon to feature an all-Black musician cast and ran for two seasons.

However, reports that, after 1971, the group saw a steady decline from their early supernova success. It was during this period that the band members saw success as individual acts, as both Michael and Jermaine Jackson reached higher chart positions with their own singles than together as the Jackson 5. It had been a few years since they released their first album, and the cute child stars that people loved were now growing up. Between 1972 and 1973, Tito, Jackie, and Jermaine all got married, and Michael and Marlon had grown into teenagers. 

As they grew into more experienced artists by the mid-'70s, the group ran into the same issue many young artists tend to run into after a few years: The Jacksons wanted more control over their music and a bigger piece of the royalties.

Leaving Motown and changing their name

It's odd to see sports legends who achieved their greatest success with one team switch to another at the end of their careers. No one wants to remember Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform. The same goes for artists such as the Jackson 5, who shot to stardom as the last great Motown act of the 1960s before leaving in 1975. That year, the family announced that they'd signed a deal with CBS' Epic Records. At the press conference, Joseph Jackson stated, "Motown sells a lot of singles. Epic sells a lot of albums," as reported by The New Yorker. By the next year, CBS would produce a variety show staring not only the band but all the siblings in the Jackson family.

At least, all but one. 

While Jermaine Jackson was an original member of the Jackson 5, he had married Hazel Gordy, the only daughter of Motown's founder Berry Gordy, and stayed with Motown. According to a 1980 interview with People, the next few albums from the group (now called the Jacksons) failed to recapture that previous spark, and the blame was placed on Jermaine's absence. Despite separating from his brothers and hurting his relationship with his father, Jermaine told People that he had no regrets: "I never regretted my decision. Motown did everything for us, for the whole family."

Joseph Jackson's affairs strained his marriage

Life on the road can be a strain on musicians in committed relationships. However, with the members of the Jackson 5 all being preteens or teenagers when they broke big, the only Jackson who was in a serious relationship while traveling was Joseph. Outside of his troubling record as a parent, Joseph's record as a husband was also far from golden. According to CBS News, on two separate occasions, Katherine filed for divorce, though she never went through with the proceedings. Joseph said after they reconciled in 1988, "We just let our troubles die out. We survived. We love each other, and we have children. That's why we're together."

They remained married until his death, but they did not share a home together, as Joseph lived in Las Vegas and Katherine lived in California. The main reason for the divorce threats was infidelity on Joseph's part. In 1974, he fathered a child with his mistress of 25 years, Cheryle Terrell. Joh'Vonnie Jackson, the daughter of Joseph and Cheryle, according to Nicki Swift, had a great relationship with her father, though not much of a relationship with her half-siblings.

In 2018, she wrote the book Bastard Child, discussing her relationship with her famous father and the rest of the Jackson family. In the book, she reveals that, unlike the rest of Joseph's children, he allowed her to refer to him as "dad" instead of by his first name.

Sibling rivalry between Michael and Jermaine Jackson

Well, if it's good for Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Gregg and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band, a sibling rivalry should be good for the Jacksons as well. Unlike those other rivalries, however, where the siblings were on equal footing in terms of talent, Michael had lapped his brothers as musicians, which led to a rivalry between MJ and Jermaine, per Rolling Stone.

In 1991, Jermaine released the single "Word to the Bad!!," a clear diss track toward his younger, more famous brother. The song contains lyrics attacking Michael's plastic surgery and self-centered attitude. Jermaine, however, claimed he did not write the song as a diss track and never feuded with his younger brother. "The only reason I wrote this song — and it came from the bottom of my heart — was to help my little brother get a grip on reality." What prompted Jermaine's anger and the song was when Michael asked producer duo L.A. Reid and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds to work on some music with him after Jermaine had already planned on working with them. 

The New York Post reported in 2010, as L.A. Reid released his memoir Sing to Me, that MJ was dismissive of Jermaine's frustration. Reid also recalled that Jackson had videos of fellow artist Prince on his television having technical problems with his guitar and of Prince's critically disappointing film, Under the Cherry Moon, which Jackson laughed at.

The Jackson family's run-ins with the law

Outside of Michael Jackson's child abuse allegations and trial, other members of the Jackson family have had run-ins with the law, as well. In 1991, Randy Jackson was sentenced to a month in jail, two years of probation, and domestic violence rehabilitation after being found guilty of beating his wife and baby daughter, the Associated Press reported. According to Yahoo News, in November 2015, Jermaine Jackson's then-wife, Halima Rashid, was arrested for domestic violence, allegedly biting her husband, though the case was dropped because an aggressor could not be determined.

Still, Michael Jackson's child abuse allegations became cultural moments. A 1993 case ended in a large settlement with a 13-year-old boy's family, and it was damaging to Jackson and his relationship with his family. His sister, LaToya, strongly condemned Michael at the time and accused her father of abusing her as a child, though in a 2011 interview with The Daily Beast promoting her autobiography, she retracted both claims, blaming her abusive ex-husband for the statements.

Jackson's name would return to the courtroom when he was charged with, among other things, several counts of child abuse in 2003. The trial ended in an acquittal on all counts for Jackson, but his reputation had taken a permanent hit. Even today, many believe Jackson to be a child predator, fueled more recently with the release of the popular and controversial HBO documentary Leaving Neverland.

Michael Jackson died at 50

At the beginning of March 2009, Michael Jackson announced that he would be performing a series of concerts, naming the tour "This Is It." While the tour was only supposed to be a ten-show residency at London's O2 Arena, by the middle of March, according to Rolling Stone, it had ballooned to 50 shows. Three weeks before the tour was to begin, Jackson was discovered unresponsive in his home in Los Angeles. Despite the efforts to resuscitate him by his personal doctor, Conrad Murray (pictured above), and the paramedics, Jackson was pronounced dead at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

In the investigation into Michael Jackson's death, it was found that Dr. Murray had prescribed the singer propofol to help him rest for the tour, according to Biography. Following a session, Jackson asked for the drug to help him rest. Murray hooked Jackson to an IV and also administered the drugs midazolam and lorazepam. A few minutes later, Murray reentered the bedroom and found Jackson with a weak pulse and not breathing, so he gave the singer flumazenil in an attempt to offset the other drugs.

Paramedics were not called to the home for more than an hour. Dr. Murray was charged with involuntary manslaughter after the autopsy showed that Jackson died from "lethal levels of propofol." Murray was convicted in November 2011 and sentenced to four years in jail, of which he served two before being released.

Paris Jackson's struggles without her father

Losing a parent can be devastating to a child, especially in the case of Michael Jackson's children. According to Newsweek, Paris and Michael Jr. did not have much of a relationship with their mother, Debbie Rowe. Rowe admitted to removing herself from their lives. Michael's youngest child, Prince, was born from an unknown surrogate.

Paris-Michael Katherine Jackson was only 11 when her famous father passed away. In a 2017 Rolling Stone interview, Michael's only daughter discussed the pain of losing her father and living without him in her life: "They always say, 'Time heals.' But it really doesn't. You just get used to it. I live life with the mentality of 'OK, I lost the only thing that has ever been important to me.'"

Paris discussed her teen years without the presence of her father, saying she dealt with cyberbullying, being assaulted at 14, and attempting to take her life when she was 15 by slashing her wrist and taking 20 Motrin pills. She admitted it was not her first attempt to take her life, saying, "It was just once that it became public." In 2019, TMZ reported that Paris was hospitalized once again for another attempt on her own life, though she quickly denied this, as reported by People. Paris today lives in California and works as a model, musician, and actress.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.