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The "Mystery" Jackson: Marlon Jackson's Solo Quest in the '80s

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Promotional ad for "Don't Go" single

Promotional ad for "Don't Go" single

“I'm the mystery man. Nobody knows that much about me… I'm the background Jackson." So spoke Marlon Jackson in an article for the LA Times shortly before the release of his first, and as it turned out, only solo album, 1987’s Baby Tonight. His words were remarkably direct, and also accurate; getting to the point of releasing a solo album had been the result of decades of effort to get himself heard as an individual, and even to be taken seriously as a solo singer. “The point of all this,” Marlon said in the same article, “is that I have talent as a singer and a songwriter. I just want an outlet for it."

Singing and dancing hadn't come as naturally to Marlon as a youngster as it had to his brothers. With his father Joe forming a group out of his sons partly as a result of being a frustrated musician himself, he didn’t see in Marlon the same level of innate talent that his other sons had; in fact, Marlon was only included in the Jackson 5 at the insistence of their mother, who didn’t want him excluded. It’s also been well documented, such as in interviews with Michael, as well as Jermaine’s book You Are Not Alone, that Marlon bore the brunt of Joe’s rage when he didn’t excel during early rehearsals. But through force of will and years of effort, Marlon eventually became known as a respectable dancer, holding his own next to Michael and Jackie’s own dance moves on stage, and occasionally taking some turns at co-lead singing on certain Jackson 5 songs, most notably on “Mama, I Got a Brand New Thing” off the classic Get It Together LP.

But while most of the other Jackson brothers started showing off their songwriting chops once the group left Motown in 1975, Marlon was left on the sidelines; he’s the only group member not to have a writing credit on their 1980 album Triumph. It turns out it wasn’t that he wasn’t writing songs, but rather that the others simply didn’t like them. His first real solo credits came from Betty Wright’s 1983 album Wright Back at You, which he produced and wrote songs for, but the album was not a success commercially.

But finally came the Jacksons’ Victory album in 1984, an album designed to feature all of the Jackson brothers individually, with everyone writing and producing their own songs (except for Jermaine who rejoined the group midway through the album). Though the circumstances of how the album was made and the resulting tour are well documented elsewhere, the significance for Marlon was that his song “Body” was his first-ever sole lead vocal on record. More importantly, it was chosen as the album’s third single, and was modestly successful, peaking at #47 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and reaching the top 40 on the R&B chart. An infectious blend of high-energy pop and funk, it no doubt would have been even more successful had Michael allowed it, or any other new songs, to be performed on the tour. [Note: while there was in fact a music video made for the song, I think it’s best to forgo it and simply listen to the music.]

The Jacksons "Body" from VICTORY

This modest success was evidently all the encouragement Marlon needed; after the Victory tour wrapped in December of 1984 (it could have gone on longer, but Michael put an end to it), and after his appearance with most of his siblings on the “We Are the World” session in early 1985, Marlon told his brothers he was quitting the group to go solo. “I didn’t even have a deal. I just started writing and cutting,” Marlon explained in the 7/18/87 issue of Billboard, “I knew I’d find someone who would be interested.”

That someone proved to be Wayne Edwards, an A&R rep for Capitol Records. “Wayne came out to the house, listened to rhythm tracks that didn’t even have vocals, and said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” Marlon said. Signing to the label in 1986, Marlon’s first solo song “The Chosen One” was issued that fall on the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy movie The Golden Child:

Marlon Jackson "The Chosen One" 1986

This wasn’t Marlon’s first foray into film, as in 1985 he landed a role in the b-movie Student Confidential, playing the part of a nerdy high school student. Following this, he focused on his music in earnest. Leading up to the release of his album in the fall of 1987, Marlon appeared on Soul Train, performing the album’s first single “Don’t Go,” followed by a nice interview with Don Cornelius, then continuing with the title track, which Don describes in the interview as "one of the funkiest things I have heard in months, and months, and months."

Reviews of the album were generally positive; Billboard commentator Nelson George had this to say in the September 26, 1987 edition of the magazine: “Marlon Jackson’s Baby Tonight on Capitol probably won’t challenge Michael or Janet in sales, but that’s no reason to overlook the album. The first single, “Don’t Go,” is an engaging mid-tempo strut that services as a perfect introduction to the album’s overall bright, shiny sound. Production on the cool “Lovely Eyes” and “Everybody Everynight” is top-notch techno-pop, but the real surprise is “She Never Cried,” which blends a clever arrangement with thoughtful lyrics about the effect of a broken home on an only child.”

Marlon Jackson "She Never Cried" from the album Baby Tonight (1987)

When released in September of ’87, the album didn’t initially chart on the Billboard Top 200, instead spending its first several weeks residing around the middle of the R&B album chart. But the album soon began to pick up steam thanks to R&B radio stations picking up the first single “Don’t Go,” plus the BET network’s heavy rotation of its music video:

Marlon Jackson "Don't Go" music video (1987)

Marlon promoted his album with numerous TV appearances in addition to Soul Train, including a performance and interview on Arsenio Hall. There was also a lengthy interview on the BET network where he was asked if he missed recording with his brothers, to which he replied, “Honestly? No.” The album finally made its debut on the Billboard Top 200 chart in the November 28, 1987 issue at #191 (That same week, Michael was nestled in at #2 with Bad.). The next week, it rose to #175, and held there the following week. “Don’t Go” meanwhile was a smash on the R&B singles chart, rising to #2. A great start, but then the whole project seemed to hit a wall: the “Don’t Go” video was getting strong support on BET, but MTV wasn’t playing it, and despite its high placing on the R&B chart, the single bafflingly never charted on Billboard’s Hot 100. In short, the song reached a certain number of mostly urban listeners, and then just would not cross over to the mainstream (or, to put it plainly, black audiences liked it, white audiences ignored it.).

Then, early the next year, Capitol issued Baby Tonight’s title track as the second single, complete with a music video, which once again BET got behind…

Marlon Jackson "Baby Tonight" music video (1988)

…as well as an appearance on Solid Gold.

Marlon Jackson "Baby Tonight" on Solid Gold (1988)

The single, however, got no higher than #57 on the R&B chart, and like “Don’t Go” failed to reach the main pop chart. The next thing found in the pages of Billboard is this photo from early ’88 of Marlon signing with a new management company:


Ultimately, the Agency for the Performing Arts did not appear to have done much for him career-wise because, basically… that was it! No further solo records ever appeared, or any further movie projects. Marlon did show up on the title track of the Jacksons’ 2300 Jackson Street album the following year, along with every other member of the family, though he didn’t appear in the music video. In that album’s credits, he is still listed as “appearing courtesy of Capitol Records,” so whether he recorded a second album and it got rejected, or he simply never recorded solo again, isn’t known.

Baby Tonight wasn’t a big hit; one unofficial figure has it having sold about 200,000 copies. But commercially it still fared better than solo records released in the following few years by Jackie, Randy, and sister Rebbie (plus Jermaine’s ill-fated You Said album in ’91, which essentially ended his career). More importantly, the album saw Marlon fulfilling his lifelong ambition on his own terms and giving it his best shot, producing an appealing collection of what could probably best be described as techno-soul (one host on BET called it “soul noir”). It certainly deserves a CD re-issue plus availability on iTunes, so hopefully both can happen soon; at the time of writing, only “Don’t Go” is available as part of a various artists collection called “Lost R&B Hits of the ’80s.”

Away from the music business in the ‘90s, he became part owner of the now-defunct Black Family Channel, as well as becoming a real estate agent. He performed with his brothers in a one-off reunion performance on Michael’s 2001 TV concert special, and in the years since Michael’s death, has happily been a steady presence on stage, singing with Jermaine, Jackie and Tito in the Jacksons touring group. Overall, Marlon’s career, both inside and outside of music, is a good example of a talented individual pursuing his artistic goals on his own terms, but also learning to diversify and pursue other avenues as well. With recordings of the past as well as concerts of today to enjoy, Marlon's career cannot be classified as anything other than a success.