An R&B star with a stunning voice, Millie Jackson was close to breaking into the mainstream like her nemesis Tina Turner, but it's probably best that she didn't. Flying just under the radar keeps her out of trouble, like when the PMRC somehow missed her.
She's a rap innovator, setting up songs with compelling interludes and creating what might be the first rap song by a female artist. A songwriter, producer and performer who has remained firmly in control of career, she has no problem speaking her mind - just wait 'til you read her hip-hop conspiracy theory.
Caught Up was Millie's triumphant 1974 concept album about cheating, with the first side featuring songs from the perspective of the mistress, and the second side from the wife.
Millie Jackson: Well, I've had a few married men in my life, but the songs weren't about them. It just gave me a reflection of what it's like.
Songfacts: Well, all that material you have for the Caught Up album, if it's not personal experience, you must have gotten a good first-hand account.
Jackson: Well, if you listen to Caught Up... see, first of all, it's like a story. One side of the entire album is about the girl going with the married man. But the second side of the album, I thought the wife should have her say. So it's from the side of the wife and what she thinks about being cheated on. Her confrontation with the girlfriend. You know, "All you're gettin' is my leftovers, digging out of love I done picked over. You oughta leave my man alone, find one of your own." [laughing]
When I write a story like that, I like to balance it out so people on both sides can see what's going on. That's why I did the wife and the girlfriend. And when I do my live performances, the women were always my biggest fans, but now I do both. I talk about the women, and then I go and I talk about the men, which the women expect me to do, but then I'll talk about the men and the women, so it can be balanced out that way. Try to keep it on an even keel.
Songfacts: Have you been married?
Jackson: Oh, yes! I was married for a whole eight months.
Songfacts: That's it?
Songfacts: When was that?
Jackson: 1971. He was a bass player named Victor Davis, and he thought that we were gonna be the next Ike and Tina Turner. He thought he was gonna tell me what to do with my life, and I decided that was not gonna happen. Case closed.
Songfacts: Did that give you some impetus for your songs that followed over the next few years?
Jackson: No, he was gone before "Ask Me What You Want" came out.
Songfacts: Can you tell me how you write songs?
Jackson: I always wrote, but they were poems. So you just take poems and have somebody put some music behind it, or you get an idea in your head as to how the melody is, and you hum it and somebody else plays it. And by the time I learned enough about music to do it myself, I found that the music part was boring and it's worth 50% of the song to give it to somebody else to do it and get it over with.
Songfacts: So you don't write melodies, just lyrics?
Jackson: Well, I have melodies in my head, and I have a piano, but I don't do it enough for it to be interesting to me. It's easier if I hum it to somebody.
If it's "Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder where you are," then I'll just sing that, and then they can get the chords and we'll be finished with the whole song in half an hour. If I'm sitting here trying to figure out the chords, three weeks later it still ain't finished. I could have written four or five more songs.
Songfacts: Where do the words come from?
Jackson: From anywhere. From life.
Songfacts: Well, give me an example.
Songfacts: Let's say infidelity.
Jackson: Infidelity? Oh, boy. You just went down my whole album. In fact, my whole repertoire. Do you decide whether or not you want to talk about a certain part of an infidelity. Is it a man? Is it a woman? Is it both of them? Or do you want to go and start talking about what infidelity calls to life, or how it ruins a relationship, and not pertaining to anybody in particular. But, see, just like that you can write 25 songs on infidelity.
Songfacts: Let's take "A Child Of God" for instance. Tell me about writing that song.
Jackson: It was Don French's idea. And I just came in and put the lyrics to it. It was easy, it was simple. I'm great with poems.
Songfacts: I don't think that's simple for other people. Because that's a fairly complex thought that you distilled into something that is very meaningful.
Jackson: I write a lot of meaningful songs, but nobody ever heard them, because in my case most people would rather only listen to infidelity. But I was talking to somebody yesterday and he says, "You think you could write rock?" I put the phone down and played about five songs off of my  Rock N Soul album. He says, "I didn't know you did rock and roll!" Rock and roll is my spirit, really, but nobody cares. Tina Turner came through and forgot about that. In fact, there's a good story behind that.
I recorded "Missing You" And I was all excited about it, it was gonna be my next single, and the guys at Muscle Shoals said, "Boy you got the song out quick! I heard it at a truck stop." And I'm trying to figure out how in the world did they hear my song at a truck stop when it won't be out for two weeks. And of course it was Tina Turner and we had to pull the single and come back with a different one.
Songfacts: You mention Tina Turner. She can write songs if she wants to, but her hits in the '80s were written by other people. Aretha Franklin did the same thing. And it seems like you could have gone that route and become a crossover pop star.
Jackson: Well, in America I think in order to be a pop star you've got to have management, and I always managed myself. I was never looking to become that crossover pop star. Let white folks cross over to me. I call myself the poor people's queen. Because once you get to the top there's only one way to go.
When you had all the problems with profanity in the music, nobody mentioned me. The senator's wife never knew I existed, so I didn't have to go to congress. During the time when Jesse Jackson was raising hell about profanity I was being booked by the same agency as the Isley Brothers and they had Fight The Power with "all this bullshit going down," nobody mentioned my name. Nobody knew I was doing it. I didn't have to deal with any of that. And basically that's me.
I want to make a living doing what I'm doing, and I bore easily. When I get tired of doing something I go off and do something else. Music is my career, and it's a gig. It's not a 9-to-5, but it's a gig, and I want to survive from doing this. So therefore, I write a lot of songs and I publish them, and I go to work when I feel like it. That's why I never had a manager - I don't need anyone to tell me when to go to work. I know if I want to work or not. In this business I guess it could be semi-eccentric, but I like being able to go shopping for myself. I go to the supermarket and nobody bothers me. I don't have a bodyguard, I like that. I think I live a very decent life. I'm a long way from starving, and I'm still me.
Songfacts: Along this journey, did you ever have somebody try to have you become a different type of singer?
Jackson: Of course. In fact, my first album is not my natural voice. They speeded up my voice. It was too low for a woman they thought, so they speeded up all my tracks a half a step so everything would be higher than I actually sing it in. The first song I recorded that came out in my natural voice was "Hurts So Good." On "Ask Me What You Want," I'm almost one of the Chipmunks.
Songfacts: How involved are you in the studio?
Jackson: Well, I've been co-producing my albums since Hurts So Good. And Caught Up was the first album that I got credit for co-producing. In fact, Brad Shapiro came to see me because the record company sent him to see one of my shows. I had the idea to do Caught Up, the way one song keeps going into the next song. And he told the record company, "I need her in the studio. I don't know how she does what she does."
So I went down to Muscle Shoals to show him how I do what I do, and co-produce the album. And when the album came out, it said, "Album concept by Millie Jackson," and I hit the ceiling. I stood up in the middle of the floor and cussed like a banshee. And finally Roy Rifkin said, "Can we please go to lunch? You gonna be the death of me yet." And Bill Spitowski says, "We'll put on your tombstone, 'Produced by Millie Jackson.'" [laughing]
Songfacts: It sounds like "Hurts So Good" was a turning point where you really took control. Can you tell me how that song came together?
Jackson: I didn't write the song. The writer knew me well, and Brad Shapiro picked the song. And to be honest, that ended up in the movie [Cleoptra Jones] because of timing. They needed the songs, and they knew of me, and they put two songs in the movie, only because they were available. The album was supposed to be called something totally different, but since it came out in the movie they called it "Hurts So Good." My whole career is an accident. I just believe that if opportunity knocks, open the door.
Songfacts: What's an example of an opportunity that knocked for you?
Jackson: Well, I never had any training - I did on-the-job training. My whole career started at Palms Café in Harlem, and it sounds like some Hollywood storybook, but it wasn't. Leslie Young was the band, and we'd go up on Thursday nights and hang, and if anybody wanted to sing, they went and sang. This was in New York, 125th Street. And this girl was singing, I don't know who she was, but I was laughing about how terrible she sounded. And my group that was with me said, "You think you can sing better?" I said, "Sure, anybody could."
So they dared me to go on stage. We bet $5 that I wouldn't go on stage and sing. So I went on stage and I sang Ben E. King's "Don't Play It No More." Somebody was having dinner, saw me, called me over to his table, and asked me if I would work at the Crystal Ballroom the next week. He was gonna pay me $15. So I went out and bought $125 dress to wear, bought me a wig, got sharp, went and sang. And somebody saw me there, felt sorry for me 'cause the promoter that booked me made off with the money, including my $15. And he said, "Well, would you like to go to Hoboken, New Jersey with me for four weeks?" So I went to Hoboken, New Jersey. And that was the beginning of me singing around New York.
I did all of New Jersey and New York, Connecticut, and I did that along with my day job, working for Schrafft's Restaurants on 5th avenue [the first Black waitress] for two or three years. And then I got a chance to go on the road with L.C. Cook [Sam's brother] when Sam Cooke died, and was the opening act for him. I came off the road and took a job at Kimberly Knitwear. That's where I'm still on leave from. They're out of business.
Songfacts: When did you come up with the idea to do the interludes?
Jackson: Well, I did on-the-job training. I never had any vocal lessons. I would be singing and people would pay me no mind. They started talking, and I was nervous as all hell. A friend of mine said, "The people came to see you. Just go out and attack them before they attack you."
So I would be singing and somebody in the audience would be talking, and I'd just break the band down and attack 'em and start that, "'Scuse me, 'scuse me. Would you like us to have this conversation together?" And the people would end up liking that. It got to be a part of my show where I would always break the song down and talk to somebody in the audience.
Songfacts: I heard Isaac Hayes say that's how he started doing it: To get the audience's attention.
Jackson: No kidding? Isaac and I did a whole album together. I wanted to do the duet album, and it was supposed to originally be Joe Simon, and Joe said No. So I called Isaac, he said Yes. And I said, "Well, you know I never sing any harmony or anything." And he said, "Well, that's OK. You just sing your part and I'll get with you." We did all the vocals on the entire album in two days.
Jackson: I was in London and Elton came to the show and approached me about doing it because Tina turned him down.
Songfacts: Tina Turner again.
Jackson: Yes. So I dislike her for doing "Missing You," but I thank her for not doing the song with Elton. That way I got a chance to do it.
Songfacts: That's the song that could have put you on MTV and gotten that crossover going.
Jackson: Yeah. Didn't happen. Don't care.
Jackson: I love rap music. In fact, I did an album called I Had To Say It. I didn't know that I had the first female rap record until Coca-Cola investigated and found out I did, and we did the Sprite commercial, the Five Deadly Women. They told me I had the first female rap record. The album was entitled I Had To Say It, and the song was "I Had To Say It." By then I had gotten over all my nerves, my fright and stuff, so it was no problem with me talking about people then.
And the real reason I did it was because I was poking fun at rappers like the Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow. Up until then, I thought that Roxanne Shanté was the first female rapper. She wasn't, but she is one of the Five Deadly Women.
Songfacts: What did you think of the Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, those guys in the very early part of it?
Jackson: Well, I like the rhythm of it: "It's like a jungle some times, it makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under." It had that nice little rap feel to it, the groove. The beat was what everybody liked.
When I did "I Had To Say It," I was just sayin' something, 'cause I felt like somebody oughta say it. In fact, I was thinking of what the next album is gonna be, and I had run out of things to talk about, because the record company didn't care what I did as long as I had one of those raps. So we were on the tour bus and I'm going through Jet magazine, and I'm saying, Okay. There's Arthur Ashe - with a white woman. There's the guy that plays Shaft on TV... with a white woman. Damn, there's O.J. Simpson - with a white woman. That's my next record. Somebody needs to say this. Why don't I say this? I have to say this.
I sat right there and wrote the song before I got to the next gig.
Songfacts: How did you feel as rap music got more complex in the '80s and then into the '90s with the gangsta stuff?
Jackson: Well, I disapprove of all the gangsta stuff, because I think it causes too much killing, but at the same time, I also realize that it's the industry itself. The industry doesn't promote hip-hop unless it's gangsta. You have religious rap artists, nobody hears anything about them. And if you got an artist that can rap, and they ain't talking about somebody else, nobody really pushes the record.
I truly believe it's part of the conspiracy theory. If you get killed, the record company ends up with all of your publishing and your music. And if you don't get killed, you can always go to jail for shooting somebody else and they can tell you they spent $25 million in your defense. So the record companies end up with all the money.
But then the rappers got too slick for them, and they said, "You know, this is dangerous. I think I need to put out some cologne. I need to do a clothing line." [laughs] "I need to have somebody else to do rappin' and let them get shot. In fact, rappin' ain't nothing but acting. I think I'm going into movies."
So it semi-backfired on the record company, because all your major artists now, all they do is start rappin' so they can get into movies.
Songfacts: And they're good at it, aren't they?
Jackson: They're very good at it. They're great businessmen. And keep sampling my music, thank you very much.
Songfacts: Are there any musicians out there that you particularly like?
Jackson: Well, Gladys Knight is at the top of my list for women, period. She always knows where I'm recording, finds her way in my studio and I have to start the song all over, especially if it's a ballad. In fact, the B-side of "A Child of God" was a better song, and the record company said, "Nah, we're gonna release this side because that song people will only say, 'Give me Gladys' new record.' It won't establish you." So, then Gladys started rappin' on "Take The Ribbons From Her Hair," and I'm going, "OK. Now she's gonna rap? I guess I'll just cuss." [laughs] She's too much of a lady to cuss, I'll fix her.
Songfacts: You talked earlier about how you have a bunch of meaningful songs that you've written. Are those songs that you've recorded and have released?
Jackson: Yeah. Nobody knows a thing about them.
Songfacts: Give me a couple examples of those songs.
Jackson: OK. One song on my Rock N Soul album is called "Killing Me," and it's about alcoholism: "It's Killin' Me Watching You Killin' You." 'Cause you're an alcoholic, I can't fight back, I can't compete with Jack. I've done all I can do. And it's killin' me watchin' you killin' you. It's about somebody I cared about that drank all the time.
"You Knocked The Love (Right Out of My Heart)," I did that one messin' with Tina. It was about Ike and Tina, and the proceeds for that are supposed to go to battered women. But I didn't call any names. [singing] "You knocked the love right out of my heart, you took my dreams and tore them apart. The day you hit me, you shoulda quit me, 'cause you knocked the love right out of my heart."
I got another song I wrote called "Somebody Shoulda Heard Me" - "Somebody shoulda heard me holler, somebody shoulda heard me yell. Somebody should heard me call their name, now somebody can just go to hell, because I'm heading down the highway of happiness, on a one-way street to destruction. If I get lost, I don't care. My life is under construction."
Songfacts: What is that song about?
Jackson: It's about a teenager running away and nobody there to catch him, to show him the right path. Somebody shoulda heard him, seen that the things that the child was doing were not just done to be done, but were done for the sake of getting attention.
Songfacts: Millie, you've done cover songs.
Jackson: Oh, yeah.
Songfacts: You have a talent for turning these songs on their head. Can you talk about some of the songs you've covered and what you did to them?
Jackson: Well, Brad Shapiro was in Miami, and he worked with Henry Stone [president of TK Records], so therefore he got the songs as soon as they came out. Bobby Latimore would say, "Can you give me 30 days before you redo my song?" [laughing] And I had told him, "Well, you got 'Let's Straighten It Out.' That's enough, that's your signature, you don't need them other songs."
Songfacts: What are some of your favorite songs to sing?
I do it because I find that a lot of women my age now feel the same way. You know, can I please be by myself? One of the lines I like in this song is "Don't try to sell me nothing, it gets me excited, don't bring your ass to my house if you haven't been invited. Leave me alone."
Songfacts: What do you think of "Lovin' Arms"?
Jackson: It's in the medley still.
Songfacts: But did you like that song when you did it?
Jackson: Oh, yeah.
Songfacts: When you were recording in Muscle Shoals, how much direction were you throwing out there?
Jackson: The majority of it. They followed me, really. And then Brad musically told them what to do to get what I wanted.
Songfacts: So Brad would have to translate into musician for you?
Songfacts: How did that work? Imagine I'm a bass player, and you're trying to get me to do it a certain way.
Jackson: Well, due to the fact that Brad is a bass player, and the two of us connected so well, most of the time I would be singing the melody, and the bass player would pick up the bass. Now, the guitar player would have to deal with me and where I'm going, and Brad would take the bass player where he needs to go. The keyboard player would listen to me.
Songfacts: This sounds like a really interesting little dynamic.
Jackson: Oh, definitely.
Songfacts: So it's not so much words as it is you singing and playing and then just putting the whole thing together?
Songfacts: When you did the song "Young Man, Older Woman," which then became your play, was that based on anything in particular?
My boss at the radio station [Millie does 3-6 on KKDA in Dallas] asked me a few months ago, "Why don't we do a segment in your show with 'Young Man, Older Woman'?" I said, "'Cause I've done it." And he said, "Yeah, but everybody else is gettin' paid for what you started." I said, "No, they're not." He says, "Haven't you seen the TV show Cougar Town? There's cougar this and cougar that," I said, "Yes, I have, but evidently you didn't listen to the words to 'Young Man, Older Woman.' 'Young Man, Older Woman' says, 'We're denying feelings and emotions, but still we're falling in love.' That's not a cougar. A cougar is someone just looking for a young man to have sex with, goodnight, and see you tomorrow, maybe if I get hot again."
And that's not what "Young Man, Older Woman" is about. "Young Man, Older Woman" is about these two people seeing each other every day and denying they feel it. She's denying that she's feeling something for you, and vice versa. But still they're falling in love.
Songfacts: I see where your boss is going with it, though. You have to admire his entrepreneurial spirit.
Jackson: Yes, I understand that. I did it for a day, and I was finished with it. Because that's about all I could say about it after that, and once I've done something, I like to move away. Johnny Taylor told me that in this industry everything changes every 10 years. So every 10 years I like to be doing something different. I've been doing radio for 11 years now, so I'm a year and a half late.
Songfacts: So you've gotta be looking for something else at this point.
Jackson: I'm already in the process of doing a TV pilot. It's called That Other Jackson. I'm the Jackson that the Jacksons you know don't want to know, and definitely would not admit being related to.
I've done a bunch of skits. For example, Bo says, "There are some things even Bo don't know. Millie Jackson is one of 'em." And I'm trying to get Jesse today, he's here in Atlanta, and I sent a cameraman out there to catch him, if he can catch him when he's not speaking at this rally, and he's supposed to say, "Millie Jackson, I pray for her. I don't know if my prayers are being answered, I just keep hope alive." And his son is going to do it for me, and his line, since he's a congressman, is, "Millie Jackson? There ought to be a law." Joe Jackson I've already gotten. He says, "No, she's not one of mine!" Tito is being shot tomorrow, I got Samuel Jackson already.
Songfacts: Ms. Jackson, I have one last thing for you.
Songfacts: Is the "Phuck You Symphony" directed at anybody in particular?
So we sat down and he said, "OK, what are the words?" I'm going, "How about 'fuck you'?" He said, "All the words 'fuck you'?" So he went and wrote the music while I sang "fuck you." I laugh about that song. I say that song, those lyrics were so hard to write, it took forever to come up with all those lyrics. [laughing] Oh boy.
We spoke with Ms. Jackson on May 11, 2010
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Further reading: The Muscle Shoals story
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