A new city means new record stores to explore. During a visit to Legends Records in Ottawa I was excited to find two oddities I’d only ever heard about, but never seen before – 1986’s “Reaction” and 1988’s “R U Tuff Enuff” by Rebbie Jackson. You ever heard of Rebbie Jackson? Surprisingly most people haven’t. While making small talk with the guy at the front counter of Legends, even he hadn’t heard of her. But I guarantee you know her family. Rebbie Jackson is the oldest of the Jackson siblings. Yes. Those Jacksons. Michael, Janet, Jermaine and the rest. There was a third Jackson sister which seemed to have fallen between the cracks when it came to pop culture iconisim, and while she has flirted with the music industry, she has managed to stay out of the public spotlight. As I rode the bus home with the pair of Rebbie Jackson albums now tucked under my arm, I wondered just how good can they be? I mean, if the world has basically ignored her, what sort of catastrophe are these albums going to be? As I got home and dropped the needle on the vinyl, I went tripping through a unique worm hole of Jackson history, and how one member of music’s first dysfunctional family managed to stay an insider on the outside.
To start to unlock Rebbie Jackson’s unique place in the Jackson story we need to recap some Jackson family history. This stuff has been told a billion times before, but bear with me as we begin to understand how Rebbie fits in the Jackson timeline.
The Jackson Family is a virtual musical empire composed of the children of Joe and Katherine Jackson. From Gary, Indiana, Joe worked as a crane operator by day but had aspirations to be a musician and played guitar in a group called The Falcons.
Joe and Kathrine’s first child, Rebbie, was born in 1950 and brother Jackie was born a year later followed by Tito, Jermaine, LaToya, Marlon, Michael, Randy and finally Janet, who was born in 1966. Rebbie’s interest in music seemed to go no further than singing in the church choir with her mother, but she did take dance and piano lessons and got attention by performing with brother Jackie as a duo in local talent shows. But, for the most part, it seemed that Rebbie had little aspirations for music other than a side hobby.
But the dynamics of the Jackson family would change dramatically in 1964. Lore has it that Joe saw Tito fooling around with a guitar and frustrated with his own floundering musical aspirations, decided that if he wasn’t going to make it than, by god, his kids could be stars. Joe Jackson began to organize and groom his kids to form a band. But in those early days, Joe was focused on the boys and by 1964 The Jackson Five were playing talent shows and music venues across the state. Rebbie, at age 14, was situated at home where she was to help her mother raise the children and keep the house. At this time, Joe seemed to believe that music was man’s business.
But, as we all know now, it wasn’t a happy home at 2300 Jackson St. Joe was a bully and managed the family through fear and abuse and, as the success of the Jackson 5 gained momentum, Joe clamped down harder on his demands of his young family. Meanwhile, Rebbie recognized the madness in the house, and she longed to escape the tyrannical rules of her father. At age 17 she shocked the family when she announced that she wanted to marry her 18-year-old boyfriend Nathaniel Brown and that the pair planned to leave Indiana and move to Kentucky. Joe was outraged and refused to let Rebbie marry him. Only then did Joe announce that he had musical aspirations for her too. However, Katherine saw her oldest daughter’s need for escape, and she encouraged Rebbie to follow her heart and, in time, got Joe to consent to the marriage. Rebbie and Nathaniel were married in 1968, but Joe did not attend the wedding. Rebbie’s marriage to Nathaniel forever seemed to put a split between her and her father.
So where does Rebbie’s marriage to Nathaniel fit in the Jackson timeline? Well, in 1968 The Jacckson 5 had finally caught the attention of industry players who had brought the Jackson’s to the attention of Motown’s Barry Gordy. In October 1969 The Jackson 5 would make their debut on ABC-TV’s “The Hollywood Palace,” and in December 1969 their debut album, “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson Five” would hit record shelves. By the end of the year their first single, “I Want You Back,” would hit the number one spot on Billboard and the Jackson train was off and running. But, while all of this was happening, Rebbie was far away from it all, semi-estranged from her father and living a quiet life of anonymity with her husband in Kentucky. As far as the press were considered in the first wave of Jacksonmania, Rebbie didn’t exist.
But in 1974 Rebbie would get the chance to join the family’s musical world for the first time. That year the Jackson’s did a series of shows in Las Vegas and the producers had an idea to bring the whole family into the act. With LaToya growing up to be a beauty queen, Randy on the verge of joining his older brothers in the group and little Janet showing strong musical chops and a desire to perform, they felt that the only thing better than the Jackson 5 would be the Jackson 9. So, it wouldn’t be right if Rebbie wasn’t at least invited to join the act. At this point Rebbie was 24 years old and a mother of a four-year-old daughter, but she surprised everyone by agreeing to participate in the show and the experience proved to be a positive one. Not only was Rebbie able to reconnect with her family, but she also found that she enjoyed singing again. The popularity of the Vegas show led to the Jackson’s getting signed for their own weekly variety show on CBS-TV. Rebbie signed on for the musical/comedy showcase and began to feel that she might just be ready to launch into the music world. However, the timing didn’t seem to be just right because as the twelve-episode series was coming to an end, Rebbie found out she was pregnant with her second child. Rebbie stepped back once again to raise her kids while the Jackson’s kept getting bigger and bigger.
Although she was no longer performing, Rebbie kept singing. Over the next few years, she worked as a back up singer for artists like Sonny Bono, Betty Wright and The Emotions as well as some stage and cabaret work. But as the 60’s transitioned into the 1980’s, Rebbie was once again in a place in her life where she felt that it was time to try again. Having rooted her children in a safe and sturdy existence far away from the limelight, Rebbie was off to Los Angeles to give music a shot.
But in an interview with French television in the 1990’s, Rebbie revealed that upon launching her solo career she did not have the support of her father like her siblings did. The divide between Joe and her had never healed, and besides Joe had a new protégé that he was devoting his time to – Janet, who he had recording over at A&M.
But who Rebbie did have in her corner was the rest of her family, including the record label they were affiliated with, CBS Records. CBS, along with Epic Records, were pretty much the Jackson label and had released all of the Jackson’s albums since 1975. When Rebbie came to town in 1983, CBS couldn’t be more excited about the family. The year earlier Michael had released “Thriller,” which would become the best-selling album of the 20th Century, and the brothers, with Jermaine back in the fold, was in production with “Victory” which would spawn the historic world tour of the same name. They had even taken over LaToya’s contract from Polydor! So as far as CBS was concerned, there was plenty of room for Rebbie.
But Rebbie didn’t want to coast on the coat tails of her family who had been in the music business for decades and told her producers that she wanted to put some distance between her and the Jackson name and use her married name, Rebbie Brown, instead. CBS balked at the idea and, along with the encouragement of her family, Rebbie carried on under the name Rebbie Jackson. But, for her first album a compromise of sorts was made. She had the art directors agree to put her first name in a large font, with “Jackson” in a smaller font, as if nobody would ever notice.
Rebbie’s first solo album, “Centipede” was released in 1984. Was it any good? I don’t know. I don’t own it, but it’s on my ‘want list’ (okay, I admit it. I’ve streamed it on-line and its dynamite). What I can tell you is that Rebbie wasn’t alone in the production of the album and the Jackson Family was all over it. The album was produced in Tito’s studio and Jackie, Tito, Michael, and Randy wrote and produced various tracks on the album. One of the biggest surprises was that Prince had even contributed a song, “I Feel 4 U,” but had also submitted the same song to Chaka Khan, who released it mere weeks before “Centipede” went out, thus beating Rebbie to being the original recording artist of the song.
The first single “Centipede” was released in September 1984. Written and produced by Michael, and featuring The Weather Girls alongside Michael on backing vocals, the single sold over a million copies, going to #24 on the Billboard charts, and all the way up to #4 on the R&B charts. It’s really not a surprise. It was the first song produced by Michael Jackson since the release of “Thriller,” and in 1984 the album was still white hot. The R&B listeners seemed to be far more supportive of Rebbie than the regular Billboard charts with the second single, a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “A Fork in the Road” just barely making it on the chart at #40. While “Centipede” wasn’t the biggest hit of the year, with a public hungry for everything Jackson, the album did get gold certification, which prompted CBS to want more.
So, Rebbie was back in the studio in to record her follow up album, “Reaction.” This one is the album I’ve done the real deep listen to. Released in 1985, “Reaction” is a solid 1980’s pop album with a few nice surprises, including duets with Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander and soul legend Isaac Hayes! Her collaboration with Zinder, “You Send the Rain Away” was the first single from the album and was a moderate success, making it to #50 on the R&B charts, and the second single, “Reaction,” fared better at #16.
So, it seemed that people really liked Rebbie Jackson. Producers liked her, her family liked her, and she was getting moderate chart success. “Reaction” is a solid 80’s pop album and, while it doesn’t really push any musical envelopes like Michael, and later Janet, was pushing, it stands on its own feet and has that distinct Jackson sound Despite my first blast of cynicism, I was once again reminded that anonymity doesn’t mean it’s going to be inferior and, in regards to her contemporaries such as Sheila E, Vanity, Apollonia and Stacy Q, Rebbie Jackson’s material is just as good.
So, if her albums were good, why didn’t Rebbie Jackson stick in the minds of the public? I can’t pinpoint exactly what the problem was, but I can make guesses. By the time that Rebbie put out her first album she was 34 years old. Although still young, in terms of pop music she had practically aged out. I mean, unless you were Tina Turner, you pretty much were past your prime at 30. Meanwhile, in an era of decadence and sex symbols, Rebbie’s family life became an important part of her narrative which clashed with the 80’s pop world. While she had the look, the talent, strong material and that golden Jackson name behind her, perhaps she had just waited a little too long before getting into the music business.
Her dedication to family would ultimately put a halt to the 1980’s era of her career. When she was recording her third album, “R U Tuff Enuff” she discovered that she was pregnant again and just like in 1976, she felt that raising her new child, this time a son, was far more important than a show business career. “R U Tuff enough” was released in 1988 and two singles, the title track and “Plaything” both found their way on to the R&B charts and the album reportedly sold over 300 thousand copies. Although it was another solid release, by the time of its release she was already back with her family and doing little to promote the album. Rebbie had her priorities, and that was her family, and shielding them from the crazy world of show business that would soon be revealed to have traumatized her siblings and tore her extended family apart.
Although Rebbie has stayed quiet since her brief 1980’s entries to the pop world, she returned to music a few times. In one of her strangest musical contributions, Rebbie recorded a cover of Bob Dylan’s classic “Forever Young,” which played over the closing credits of the 1995 family film “Free Willy 2” at in 1998, at the urging of brother Michael, she released a fourth album, “Yours Faithfully” which featured her three children Stacce, Yashee and Austin. Rebbie also took part in the Jackson’s 1989 collaboration “2300 Jackson Street” which would be the final recording that featured Michael with his brothers.
Despite a brief flirtation with musical fame which saw some solid pop releases, Rebbie seemed to choose family over fame, but the bonds with her family seem to have held tight. When Michael Jackson died in 2009 it was Rebbie, alongside LaToya and Janet, who represented the family by meeting with the press following the funeral. Rebbie also became a vocal advocate of families dealing with bi-polar disorder after her daughter Yashee was diagnosed with the disorder while in her 20’s. These days it is reported that she is the primary caregiver of mother Katherine who is now 93. But possibly the best chance that she took was when she defied her father to marry her husband Nathaniel despite their young age. Although the odds seemed stacked against them, Nathaniel proved to be the love of her life. The pair stayed together for 46 years until Nathaniel’s death in 2013 from cancer. Her love for her family seems to be Rebbie Jackson’s true success story, and a legacy far greater than any record on the charts.