The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back”

HIT #1: January 31, 1970

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

On August 4, 1958, Billboard published its first-ever Hot 100 chart. (Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” was #1.) About three weeks later, Michael Jackson was born. With “I Want You Back,” the first nationally available single from Jackson’s group the Jackson 5, Michael became the first singer to top the Hot 100 who was younger than the Hot 100 itself. Jackson was 11 when he recorded the lead vocal on “I Want You Back.” I’m pretty sure he’s still the youngest person ever to sing lead on a #1 song. And you could argue that nobody, before or since, has ever done it better.

Funny thing about “I Want You Back”: It’s a classic song before Michael Jackson even opens his mouth. The instrumental intro is pure supercharged excitement, all these different push-pull elements working together: the piano run, the ecstatic chicken-scratch guitar, the ripple of conga drums, the angels-of-heaven strings. And then there’s the bassline, one of the greatest ever put to tape. I can’t hope to come up with the right words to talk about that bassline, a chord progression so satisfying that it hits like a magic trick. It says a whole lot about the way pop music used to be produced that we can’t even be sure who played that bassline. James Jamerson, longtime genius bassist of Motown’s Funk Brothers, claimed that he’d played on the song, but most people seem to agree that new recruit Wilton Felder, who later helped found the Jazz Crusaders, is the party responsible. We should give both of them the Nobel Peace Prize, just to be sure.

That’s a hell of a rollout for a new singer that’s just hitting America’s ears for the first time. We’re 20 seconds into “I Want You Back” before we hear Jackson’s wordless pubescent yip. And whenever I hear him hit that first note, I get goosebumps. His voice on “I Want You Back” just explodes. There’s so much joy and force and determination in it; it’s like someone let this pure engine of unbridled glee loose on the pop charts.

“I Want You Back” is, at least on paper, a sad song. Michael was in a relationship with somebody, but he neglected her. He took everything for granted. And now, full of regret, he begs for another shot: “Every street you walk on, I leave tear stains on the ground.” But that’s not how Michael sings it. Just about everyone who heard the song would’ve known that they were hearing a little kid; it was central to the way Motown put all its marketing muscle into the song. Everyone would’ve known that Michael was too young to experience these emotions for real. He’s under no real burden to sell the emotion. And so Michael and his older brothers take this song’s incredible arrangement and treat it as a trampoline, all of them hitting these overwhelmingly exuberant ad-libs, pushing each other onward.

Michael’s voice — “All I want! All I need! All I want! All I neeeeed!” — is pure liquid happiness. He’s a baby, and yet the rhythmic intelligence is already there. On the fade-out, we can already hear him doing those adapted percussive James Brown grunts: “Oh baby, I just need one more chance! Hah! I tell you that I love ya!” It’s the earliest version of that vocal tic that would be his signature for decades to come. And the other Jacksons, all of them taking their own little solo runs, sound nearly as great. I love how Jermaine — almost four years older and about five feet taller — complements Michael, his own voice worn and almost haggard next to his little brother’s helium howl.

As young as they were, the Jacksons were veterans by the time the world heard them. As early as 1965, Joe Jackson, their terrifying taskmaster father, had pushed them out onto stages — first at local Gary, Indiana talent shows, which they dominated, and then at chitlin’ circuit venues and even strip clubs. Joe abused the hell out of his kids, of course. He inflicted psychic scars on Michael that were still obvious decades later. (Michael, in turn, may have passed scars onto other kids.) And through all this suffering, the Jackson 5 became a ridiculously tight performing unit. It’s a measure of Michael’s own strength that he was able to radiate on-demand joy, even after suffering through this hopelessly bleak childhood.

Motown turned the Jacksons down twice, and they released a couple of singles, including the unpolished but pretty great Michael-sung “Big Boy,” on the local Gary label Steeltown in 1968. The tape of the Jacksons auditioning for Motown in 1968 is a thing of strange, rough beauty — a tiny Michael, captured on murky Bigfoot-grain film, pulling off absurd James Brown whoops and steps, leaping off of the screen. Gordy, watching that tape at his new Hollywood office, still turned the group down. It’s mind-boggling that anyone could see this happening and not want to be a part of it.

But when Gordy finally signed the Jacksons in 1969, he put all of Motown’s resources into the group. He sent the Jacksons out to open for the just-wrapping-up Supremes, and he presented the group as being the discovery of Diana Ross. The Jackson 5’s debut album is literally called Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5, even though Ross didn’t sing a note on it. (Gladys Knight, who’d tried to get Motown to sign the Jacksons in 1967, had a better claim on the “presents” tag, but that wasn’t the narrative that Gordy wanted to push.) This was smart marketing; it made the Jacksons look like a big deal right out of the gate, and it also gave some reflected shine to Diana Ross, whose own solo career was just beginning.

“I Want You Back,” the song that Gordy used to introduce the Jacksons to the world, was a product of a new Motown system. Gordy had just moved the label’s operations from Detroit to Hollywood, where the Jacksons recorded the song. It’s the first big hit from the new songwriting/production unit known as the Corporation — Gordy himself alongside Freddie Perren, Alphonso Mizell, and Deke Richards. The song was originally meant for Gladys Knight & The Pips, and Diana Ross was also going to record it at one point. It’s fascinating to imagine how either of those versions might’ve turned out. But in the end, Gordy knew where it should go. Ultimately, the Corporation existed only to crank out Jackson 5 hits, and they only lasted a couple of years, but they came up with some songs that will resonate until long after we’re all dead.

The Jackson 5 went on to do great things; they were the first group, for instance, to see their first four singles all hit #1. And Michael would, of course, do great things on his own. But there’s still a case to be made that they never did anything better than “I Want You Back.” My friend Jack Hamilton, an expert in these things, once asked me what I thought the best #1 single of all time was. I didn’t have an answer ready, but he did. He picked “I Want You Back.” I could argue a case for a few other songs. But when “I Want You Back” is playing, I wouldn’t even try.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jay-Z’s 2001 single “Izzo (H.O.V.A),” which producer Kanye West built around an “I Want You Back” sample:

“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” peaked at #8. It would’ve been a 7.

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Janelle Monáe’s jazzy cover of “I Want You Back,” a bonus track on some editions of her 2013 album The Electric Lady:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s baby Groot dancing to “I Want You Back” during the end credits of James Gunn’s 2014 movie Guardians Of The Galaxy:

THE 10S: Led Zeppelin’s elemental fuckstomp “Whole Lotta Love,” the only top-10 single from that band’s entire career, peaked at #4 behind “I Want You Back.” It is, quite obviously, a 10. Here it is: