In July of 1968, the Jackson 5 signed a one-year contract with Motown Records. Their first four hit singles, “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There” all reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100; they were the first recording act to do this. The first three “bubblegum soul” singles were later used for the opening song of an ABC-TV cartoon series based on the brothers. The Jackson 5 continued to win the hearts and ears of Motown fans for decades to come.
“I Want You Back” definitely launched their music career sky-high, landing them at the top of both the pop and R&B charts. Written by Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Deke Richards, the song was originally titled “I Wanna Be Free.” It was rewritten for the Jackson 5 with a funk beat akin to that of Sly Stone and James Brown. After recording it, the brothers performed it on ABC-TV’s The Hollywood Palace and the world was introduced to 11-year old Michael Jackson from Indiana. The famous chord progression of the chorus is one of the most recognizable, and possibly one of the best, pop chord progressions in music history, which is perhaps why they lifted the chorus of “I Want You Back” to make the melody of “ABC.”
The only song that could bump the Beatles’ “Let It Be” from its number one seat on the pop charts, “ABC” opens with fuzz guitar, percussive piano, and a hooky “dooh-dooh-dooh” vocal until the drums lay down the beat, and 12-year-old Michael starts in on his school-love metaphor. “You went to school to learn girl/Things you never knew before/Like “I” before “E” except after “C”/And why two plus two makes four/Now, now, now I’m gonna teach you, teach you, teach you/All about love girl, all about love/Sit yourself down, take a seat/All you gotta do is repeat after me.” The call-and-response vocals continue between the brothers, accompanied by tambourine, shakers, congas, and the classic Motown stop-and-start walking bass line. The resulting groove is just too sweet not to sing and dance along to.
The approach to “The Love You Save” was an attitude of, “Well if it worked before, do it again.” Elements from their first two hits including the cache of Motown house composers, Michael taking the majority of the leads, shared with Jermaine, Tito’s “bum-bum-bum” sung bass were applied to “The Love You Save” and it most definitely worked. Dealing with that sensitive topic of a girl who’s moving too fast, the lyrics cleverly use familiar safety phrases like “Stop! The life you save may be your own,”
No pop album is complete with a ballad, and “I’ll Be There” not only showed the world that the Jackson 5 were capable of more than just “bubblegum soul” songs, but also solidified the brothers’ music careers. Michael and Jermaine share the lead vocals again, promising to always be there “to comfort you,” and that, “If you should ever find someone new, I know he’d better be good to you / ‘Cos if he doesn’t, I’ll be there,” the boys sound wiser than their years. Their sincerity is without a doubt real, emphasized by Michael’s ad-libbed “Just look over your shoulders, honey!”