This was the first Jackson 5 single released by Motown Records (they released a single on a local label in Gary, Indiana, in 1968). It launched their career and went to #1 in the US, as did their next three releases: "ABC
," "The Love You Save
" and "I'll Be There
The Jackson 5 were a family group from Gary, Indiana, that were auditioned to exhaustion by their father, Joe, before signing with Motown Records in 1968. Joe made sure the youngest brother, Michael, was out front - his voice, dance moves and stage presence were the star of the show. When "I Want You Back" was released in October 1969, Michael was just 11 years old, but by that point he had so much training he could handle the promotional appearances and rigorous schedule. The entire group was media trained by Motown, and for a while they were ordered to tell a story about how Diana Ross discovered the group. For the most part, they came off as a regular family, with Michael citing basketball and catching lizards as hobbies. They described their sound as "bubblegum soul," a term that explains their appeal to both black and white audiences.
This song tells a tried-and-true story about a guy who took his girl for granted and now desperately wants her back now that she's left him. Making it work from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy took some doing, but the upbeat track takes the weight off, so it sounds more like a schoolyard crush. There are also lots of answer lines in the lyric ("Let you go, baby...") that give the other members of the group a chance to chime in.
Motown had set up offices in Los Angeles, which is where the Jackson 5 relocated and where this song was written and recorded. The top songwriting/production team at Motown, Holland-Dozier-Holland, had left the label to get better terms, so there was a huge void that many Motown writers were trying to fill.
"I Want You Back" started as a song Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Deke Richards wrote for Gladys Knight & The Pips called "I Want To Be Free." Perren and Mizell were childhood friends from New Jersey who moved to Los Angeles and teamed up with Deke Richards, a producer at Motown. When Berry Gordy heard the song, he decided it could be a good fit for the Jackson 5 if it got a rewrite. Michael Jackson reminded Gordy of Frankie Lymon, another teenage star, Gordy suggested they write it as if it were for Lymon. They reworked the song, changing the storyline so it's about a young kid trying to get his girl back, and they fashioned a lively track to underline it.
When the song took off, Perren, Mizell, Richards and Gordy became the songwriting/production team that powered the Jackson 5. Stung by the loss of his marquee team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Gordy branded this new team "The Corporation," which is how the songwriting credit was listed. This kept the writers' names off the record, ensuring they would remain anonymous. They became the first West Coast songwriting team to make a big impact at Motown.
The musicians who played on most of the '60s Motown hits were members of their Detroit house band, the Funk Brothers. The Jackson 5 recorded in Los Angeles with a new group of session players. On "I Want You Back," they included Louis Shelton and David Walker on guitars, Wilton Felder on bass, and Gene Pello on drums.
This song opens with an ear-catching piano glissando that was played by two of the song's writers, Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell.
Berry Gordy went out of his way to make this a hit, using all his resources at Motown to do so. With the '60s coming to a close and Motown moving west, Gordy wanted to mint new stars at the label, and he knew he had a winner in the Jackson 5. One of his ploys was to claim the group was discovered by Diana Ross, and have her showcase the group for industry bigwigs. Ross was also in transition, having recently left The Supremes and launched her solo career. This bit about Ross finding the group proved a solid talking point and was propagated for decades. Nobody seemed to care that it was a ruse - there was a lot more to talk about concerning the Jackson 5 and their precocious lead singer.
When this topped the Hot 100 on January 31, 1970, the 11-year-old Michael Jackson became the youngest person to feature on a #1 on that tally. It also opened the door for family groups with young lead singers, notably the Osmonds and the DeFranco Family.
Two popular songs sampled this in 2001: Jay Z used it on "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)
" and it was also used on Lil' Romeo's "My Baby." In 1992, it was sampled on the Kris Kross hit "Jump
The sci-fi soul singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe covered this as a bonus track on the deluxe edition of her The Electric Lady
album. She explained to A.V.Club
that she chose this particular tune as it resonated with her. "There are so many amazing Michael Jackson songs from different stages of his career," she said, "and that happened to be one of my favorite stages. It makes people happy, and I love the tone, and musically, it has a lot of places to go for our orchestra. It has a lot of odd instrumentation."
"The version I did does not sound like the Jackson 5 original recording," Monáe continued. "I wanted to interpret it my way and record it differently, while continuing to pay homage to him, but I saw it in a different light. I'm really excited to let you guys hear it because you'll get a chance to hear that song from my perspective. I had a dream about it and how I wanted it to be recorded."
This song appears in the films Now and Then (1995), Drumline (2002), Daddy Day Care (2003) and Friends with Benefits (2011). It also plays under the end credits of the 2014 movie Guardians Of The Galaxy and is included on the soundtrack, which was a #1 hit in America for two weeks.