by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
It’s probably an inevitability that when your siblings include not just one but two of the biggest cultural icons in the entire history of pop music, you will get overshadowed, but then again, that’s precisely what makes going through Jermaine Jackson’s solo catalog so much fun: his music gets such little attention these days from music critics and radio programmers alike that every last album he ever made qualifies as being a candidate for a lost-and-found column. [We’ll focus here on just five of his fourteen total full-lengths.] Whereas it’s virtually impossible to scan the radio dial at any given moment and not find some station that’s playing something by Michael or Janet, you’d be very hard-pressed to run across any station playing something by Jermaine, unless you’re lucky enough to hit upon an R&B or urban station specializing in old-school ‘80s jams or classic soul. Although Jermaine was a regular presence on Top 40 and adult-contemporary radio both during the ‘80s and racked up a very respectable seven Top 40 pop crossover hits on his own (all but one of them a Top Ten or Top Twenty hit, at that!), even the most variety-laden of oldies stations out there seem to have strangely forgotten that Michael and Janet weren’t the only ones in their family to score major pop hits. [There was also older sister Rebbie, the eldest of the Jackson siblings, who scored a one-off Top 40 hit with the #24-peaking “Centipede,” a song that Michael not only wrote and produced but added his own unmistakable backing vocals to, resulting in a song that sounds so much like Michael’s own work – especially during its chorus – it’s amazing that it doesn’t get more airplay than it does.]
It’s a shame, really, because while Jermaine may not be the all-around showman that Michael is, he’s actually arguably both a stronger vocalist from a technical standpoint than his more famous brother (he’s certainly got a warmer voice, at least) and the best instrumentalist in his talent-rich family (his guitar and bass chops are surprisingly excellent, and he’s a gifted keyboardist as well), and he’s also quite undervalued as a songwriter and producer. (Not only did Jermaine write and produce much of his own material, but he’s also been sought after to produce such major R&B acts as Switch and Whitney Houston.) But most of all, the man is just a fine singer, plain and simple – he may not have the high range that Smokey Robinson does, but the warmth and expressiveness of his voice is certainly comparable to that of the Motown legend.
It had to be hard at first for Jermaine to feel as if he’d ever escape the distinction of being a one-hit-wonder as a solo artist. He had scored his first pop hit, a #9-peaking cover of the Shep and the Limelites doo-wop classic “Daddy’s Home,” back in 1973, while he was still serving as a full-time member of the Jackson 5. But his next single, “You’re in Good Hands,” would peak at #79.
After his brothers – fed up with not being allowed to write their own material – decided to leave Motown in 1975 to sign a new deal with Epic, Jermaine, who had married Motown owner Berry Gordy’s daughter Hazel in 1973, stayed behind with Motown as a show of loyalty. He may have initially regretted the move – his brothers would revive their waning chart fortunes immediately, scoring their first Top Ten hit in nearly three years with 1976’s “Enjoy Yourself,” while Jermaine’s next pop hit, “Let’s Be Young Tonight,” would only reach #55, Jermaine failing to even so much as reach the Hot 100 for the remainder of the decade despite fine singles like Feel the Fire’s “You Need to Be Loved” and Frontiers’ “Castles of Sand.”
But his loyalty to the label paid off in a big way by the turn of the decade. 1980’s Let’s Get Serious found Jermaine getting a big boost from labelmate – and bona fide Motown legend – Stevie Wonder, who would both write and produce three of the seven cuts.
It’s rather astounding that the title cut of the album is not played on oldies stations more often – not only does it clearly sound like something Stevie would write, but it’s actually considerably catchier than anything from Stevie’s own then-most-recent album, Hotter Than July [which had spawned the hits “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” and “Master Blaster (Jammin’).”] The brass-laden slippery funk of the cut is reminiscent of a sped-up, more discotheque-friendly version of Stevie’s “Superstition,” and the rhythm track alone is smoking enough to virtually guarantee that the song would be a hit, but throw on Jermaine’s appealingly vibrant vocal – he sounds downright giddy here to get to be recording a Stevie Wonder composition as top-notch as this, and he truly gives it his all – and you’ve got yourself an instant classic. The cut deservedly not only went Top Ten on the pop charts, but it topped the R&B charts for five weeks and would go on to be honored by Billboard as the #1 soul single for 1980, even beating out brother Michael’s “Rock with You”!
But Let’s Get Serious is more than just its title track. The soulful shuffle of “You’re Supposed to Keep Your Love for Me,” also written and produced by Wonder, is more laid-back but nearly every bit as appealing and would follow the title cut into the Top 40, while “Where Are You Now” is an irresistible finger-snapper.
Jermaine even offers up several strong originals of his own in the disco-rock of “Feelin’ Free,” the wormy, Gap Band-like funk of “Burnin’ Hot,” and the lush ballad “We Can Put It Back Together.”
The follow-up album, 1980’s Jermaine, finds Jermaine largely taking over production and songwriting duties (and allowing himself to handle much of the instrumentation, trying his hand at virtually every instrument but the drums to fun effect), but he does so with a greater confidence than ever before.
Stevie Wonder contributes only an uncredited harmonica solo on “I Miss You So” this time around, but Jermaine’s superb and wildly catchy self-penned opener “The Pieces Fit” sounds like such a perfectly obvious follow-up to “Let’s Get Serious” that, if you weren’t looking at the liner notes, you might think that Stevie himself had written and produced it. [Incredibly, Motown passed it over as a single. Go figure. It has “hit” written all over it.]
The disc strangely failed to yield a Top 40 crossover hit, but it wasn’t for lack of contenders: the insistent pulse and synth-heavy shuffle rhythms of “Little Girl Don’t You Worry” foreshadow the sound of Michael’s later hit “The Way You Make Me Feel,” while the downright slinky gentle funk of “You Like Me, Don’t You?” – which sadly and shockingly managed to climb no higher on the pop charts than #50 – may have simply just been a year or two too ahead of its time but has a rhythm track that is simply jaw-dropping. [It’s certainly at least a contender for the title of the best R&B single of the early ‘80s to miss the Top 40.]
Jermaine is also backed on the disc by an incredible supporting cast that includes Nathan East on bass, Ollie E. Brown on drums, and jazz greats Herbie Hancock and David Benoit on keyboards.
[Be sure to drop back in next Tuesday for Part 2 of this feature! We'll also be featuring Jermaine and his brothers in this week's Discog Fever column on the Jackson 5, which comes out on Friday.]