I Want You Back: The Jackson 5, David Ruffin and KT Tunstall

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song I Want You Back. This is a great Motown song, and the first #1 hit for the Jackson Five. We will then discuss covers of that song by David Ruffin and KT Tunstall.

The Jackson Five and I Want You Back:

In 1969 a new Motown quintet came bounding out of Gary, Indiana and immediately became a pop hit sensation. The Jackson Five featured energetic pop songs performed by five of Joe Jackson and Katherine Scruse’s ten children.

Michael sang lead vocals on nearly all the group’s songs.  Various brothers played guitar and bass, and their performances were supplemented with keyboards, horns and drums.  The other Jackson brothers also sang backup.  Their act may have been prototypical 70s style — with the Afros, caped and fringed costumes, and dance steps — but the music was timeless pop and R&B.

Here is a photo of a very young Jackson Five, taken in 1968. From L: Tito, Marlon, Jackie, Jermaine and Michael Jackson.

Embed from Getty Images

After success in various music competitions, the group caught the eye of Motown.  The official story is that the group was discovered by Diana Ross, who brought them to the attention of Motown CEO Berry Gordy, Jr.  In fact, other artists had lobbied for the Jacksons with Motown, but Diana Ross’ celebrity, plus the fact that she was just heading off for a solo career, determined that she would be credited with discovering the boys.

In fact, Ross was extremely supportive of the group in its earliest days, and her fame gave her leverage in promoting the boys.  It rapidly became clear to Motown brass that the Jackson Five were really special.  In fact, Berry Gordy set up a special team to write, arrange and produce songs for the group.  In addition to Gordy, `The Corporation’ included Freddie Perren, Alphonzo Mizell and Deke Richards.

The first song written and produced by The Corporation was I Want You Back, which is one of the all-time great pop music hits. The tune was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and is ranked 121 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Various publications have singled it out for praise.
In 2006, Pitchfork Media named it the second best song of the 1960s, adding that the chorus contains “possibly the best chord progression in pop music history.” A June 2009 article by The Daily Telegraph called it “arguably the greatest pop record of all time”.

The singer is mortified that he took his love for granted. Now he believes that he has lost her, and begs her to reconsider.

When I had you to myself, I didn’t want you around
Those pretty faces always made you stand out in a crowd
But someone picked you from the bunch, one glance was all it took
Now it’s much too late for me to take a second look

Oh baby, give me one more chance
(To show you that I love you)
Won’t you please let me back in your heart

Here is what I believe is a live performance by the Jackson Five, with a very young Michael. This is from a 1971 TV special Goin’ Back to Indiana.

Isn’t this terrific? Even at age 12 Michael showed off his fantastic vocal style, perfect pitch, and uncanny showmanship. The song starts off with some great, bouncy piano and bass licks, and then continues with fine showmanship from the brothers, but headlined by Michael’s brilliant singing.

The video is really dated, full of 70s touches — the Afros, Smurf-like costumes, capes and fringes.  However, don’t let that distract from the timeless brilliance of this song, and the Jacksons’ terrific performance.  The song grabs you right from the opening notes, and carries you right through the closing doo-wop harmonies.  The sheer exuberance of this tune gets me every time.

Before they hit the big time, Joe Jackson drilled his sons relentlessly – and also, as we now know, abusively. He schlepped them around to various music competitions starting when Michael was only seven, and in the early days Joe even booked the boys into strip clubs to get them some exposure.

However, the net result was that once they caught the public eye, the group was polished and irresistible. After their first big hit with I Want You Back, the Jackson Five were off and running. That song was the first of four straight #1 hits written and produced by The Corporation and performed by the Jacksons.

Almost immediately, it became clear that Michael was the musical genius of this group, and he began a solo career in 1971. However, he continued to record albums with the Jackson Five (a name later shortened to `The Jacksons’).

The group eventually scored 17 top hits for Motown before leaving for Epic Records in 1975. At that point brother Jermaine was dropped and replaced by brother Randy. However, the hit-making machine continued, with five albums being released by Epic between 1976 and 1981.

In 1983, a TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever was filmed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Motown. At that time Michael re-united with five other Jackson brothers, including both Jermaine and Randy, to perform a few of their great early hits, including I Want You Back.

As everyone knows, Michael Jackson went on to become the `King of Pop.’ He sold a phenomenal number of records (his album Thriller is the best-selling album of all time at 65 million copies and counting), became a dominant force in the direction of pop music at the turn of the century, and was also an extraordinary, path-breaking dancer. In fact, Michael Jackson is the only rock performer ever to be inducted into the Dance Hall of Fame.

Michael Jackson performing in Vienna, Austria, 1988, on the Bad World Tour. Photo by Zoran Veselinovic.

Michael Jackson performing in Vienna, Austria, 1988, on the Bad World Tour. Photo by Zoran Veselinovic.

At left is a photo of Michael taken in Vienna, Austria in 1988, on the Bad World Tour.

The Jackson Five were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and Michael Jackson was inducted for his solo career in 2001.

Unfortunately, I jumped off the “Michael Jackson bandwagon” when his behavior became increasingly erratic, in a number of different areas. I will not categorize these here, but suffice it to say — the dude was weird.

On June 25, 2009 Michael Jackson died in his sleep. Apparently his death was associated with an adverse reaction to various drugs that had been prescribed as sleep aids for Jackson.

In 2011, Jackson’s personal physician Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s death. Murray served two years of a four-year sentence and was released in 2013.

Whatever one thought about Michael Jackson’s personality, it’s impossible to deny his impact on pop music. He produced an extraordinary number of pop hits, and sold something like 400 million records worldwide.  His work formed an important bridge leading to genres such as hip-hop and dance music, and Jackson made an indelible impact on pop music style, dance, and production values.

David Ruffin and I Want You Back:

David Ruffin was a soul singer who became a member of the great Motown quintet The Temptations.  We previously reviewed the Temps in our blog post on the song My Girl.  Ruffin grew up in Mississippi and initially was aiming for a career as a gospel singer. However, when artists like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson moved from gospel to R&B, Ruffin decided to try his hand at that line of work.

Ruffin moved to Detroit where he became acquainted with Berry Gordy, Jr. When the Temptations fired tenor Al Bryant, Ruffin auditioned for the group and was added as a member at the start of 1964. During the early days, Ruffin was mainly a backup singer in the group, as the lead parts were generally taken by Eddie Kendricks or Paul Williams.

Here is a photo of David Ruffin taken in 1965.

Embed from Getty Images

However, Smokey Robinson believed that Ruffin had terrific potential, and he wrote My Girl specifically with Ruffin in mind for lead vocals. Following the smash success of that record, David Ruffin became the Temptations’ lead singer. A series of top hits followed, and Ruffin became a Motown superstar. He became “the guy with the glasses” in the Temptations, as you can see from the photo above.

Unfortunately, David Ruffin was unable to handle the accompanying fame and the spotlight. His addiction to cocaine caused him to begin missing rehearsals and concert performances. Ruffin refused to travel with his Temptations mates, instead driving around in a custom limo that had an image of his trademark glasses detailed on the outside.

Ruffin also pressured to have the group renamed as `David Ruffin and the Temptations,’ in the same way that Motown had re-titled their premier girl group `Diana Ross and the Supremes.’ However, Ross could get away with this as she was then sleeping with Motown boss Berry Gordy, whereas Ruffin had no such leverage.

The net result was that Ruffin seriously pissed off his Temps mates, and once he began missing rehearsals and performances he was bounced from the group.  This began a long, sad downward spiral for Ruffin. He pressured the Temps to give him another chance and eventually they relented. Alas, he arrived late for what was to be his return concert with the group, and the Temps subsequently permanently replaced him.

Ruffin then commenced a solo career. Although he had a few hits, his reputation for being difficult to deal with, combined with the cocaine addiction that he was never able to shake, eventually produced an inexorable decline that was marked by troubles with the law, leading to jail time for Ruffin.

During the period 1970-71, David Ruffin recorded tracks with Motown for what was intended to be an album titled David. However, Motown shelved the album, and it was not released until 2004, when it was titled David: the Unreleased Album.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine for AllMusic Review writes of this album:
It’s still a wonder that this record sat in the vaults for over three decades, with very few of the songs recorded during the sessions appearing on other records and compilations over the years. [the album] finds Ruffin at a solo peak, not just a singer but in terms of material.

One of the cuts on the `Unreleased’ album was David Ruffin’s cover of the Jackson Five’s I Want You Back. So here is the audio of that track.


Judging just from this cut, I would have to agree with Mr. Erlewine. It is hard to imagine just locking this material up in the Motown vaults, and releasing it only three decades later. The song was recorded in Detroit, backed by the incredible Motown house band the Funk Brothers.

Ruffin is in great form here. Of course, Motown had lots of great material and they were known to have very demanding standards regarding the songs they released, but at least this particular song seems to be very strong.

David Ruffin died in 1991 in Philadelphia from a cocaine overdose. One can only wonder what he might have produced, had he been able to break free from his drug habit.

K T Tunstall and I Want You Back:

K T Tunstall is a Scottish singer-songwriter, who is apparently rather famous in the UK but not so well known in the US. I learned about her from biologist Jerry Coyne, who writes a very popular chronicle called Why Evolution is True.

Below is a photo of KT Tunstall performing onstage in London in November, 2013.

Embed from Getty Images

Very shortly after she was born in June 1975, Ms. Tunstall was adopted by David Tunstall and his wife. Tunstall was a physicist at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, where he carried out highly-regarded research in low-temperature physics.

Although she was raised in Scotland, she spent a year in California where her father was on sabbatical at UCLA, and she spent a year in high school at the Kent School in Connecticut.

She spend some time busking on street corners, and playing with indie bands before she caught the public’s eye through a 2005 appearance on the TV show Later … with Jools Holland. The song Black Horse and the Cherry Tree which she performed there, subsequently made it into the top 30 in both the UK and US Billboard charts.

Tunstall has won awards in the UK – for example, she won a 2006 BRIT award for best British Female Solo Artist. I have to confess that I had never heard of Ms. Tunstall before I saw Jerry Coyne’s post on her.

However, that means nothing because I am notoriously clueless about modern pop music.  For example, to the best of my knowledge I have never heard a song by Taylor Swift. However, I have to say that I very much enjoyed K T Tunstall’s live cover of I Want You Back, which we present here.

Isn’t this a great solo performance of the Jackson 5 song? Ms. Tunstall rolls through the song’s chord changes on acoustic guitar, and she gives a smart, sassy take on this song. Her voice reminds me a bit of Janis Joplin (not Janis’ blues wailing, but the rough-edged vocals and inflections).

Plus, I thought that Tunstall’s cover provides a very creative folk-rock alternative to the pop and R&B stylings of Michael Jackson and David Ruffin. I hope that KT Tunstall enjoys a very successful career.

Source Material:
Wikipedia, I Want You Back
Wikipedia, The Jackson 5
Wikipedia, Michael Jackson
Wikipedia, David Ruffin
Wikipedia, KT Tunstall

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife have shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, Lewis and his sibling Clark [2002-2018], who have enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s