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(Soundbite of music)

JACKI LYDEN, host: Back, way back before the sequined white glove, the animal menagerie, Wacko Jacko - hey, long before his 50th birthday last week, Michael Jackson and his brothers were already superstars.

When the Jackson 5 took the stage, teenage girls, black and white, went crazy. The group cranked out bubble-gum soul hits, and their crossover appeal made the Jackson 5 a music powerhouse.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Jackson brother: (Singing) Listen to me, baby, that's all you've got to do.

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) Oh A, B, C, it's easy as 1, 2, 3, as simple as Do, Re, Me, A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, baby you and me.

LYDEN: Jackson mania also made the band a cash machine for Motown Records. There were Jackson 5 dolls, coloring books, even a TV cartoon show.

(Soundbite of television program)

Ms. DIANA ROSS (Singer): (As herself) Gee, fellas, where'd you all learn to groove like that?

Unidentified Jackson brother: My mom and dad taught us, ma'am. They're fine musicians.

Ms. ROSS: Well they must be, because you boys are wonderful.

Unidentified Jackson brother: Hey, you dig that? Ms. Diana Ross thinks we're wonderful.

Unidentified Jackson brother: I dig, I dig.

LYDEN: This week, the Jackson 5 will be given the Icon Award at the Urban Music Awards in Los Angeles. All the brothers have said they'll attend except Michael. Stephen Davis ghost-wrote Michael Jackson's autobiography, "Moon Walk," and he's on the line now. Welcome, Stephen Davis.

Mr. STEPHEN DAVIS (Ghost Writer, "Moon Walk"): Hi, how are you?

LYDEN: Let's get right to the music.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want You Back")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) When I have you to myself, I really want you around. Those pretty faces always make me stand out in a crowd.

LYDEN: That's the Jackson 5's first single, "I Want You Back," from 1969. Stephen Davis, what made that song such a breakthrough?

Mr. DAVIS: As soon as you played that, Jacki, my shoulders started to twitch, my knees began to tremble, and all of a sudden, it was 1969 again, and it was the most exciting new pop group since Sly and the Family Stone. Just great to hear that again.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want You Back")

THE JACKSON FIVE: (Singing) Let me tell you oh, baby, all I need is one more chance. Show you that I love you...

LYDEN: It took me back, too, and it made me think I was one of those crazy young girls listening to this group, and let's set the scene. It's '69. Who's writing the music for them? What's going on? Why are they suddenly so popular?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, let me give you a tiny bit of background. There were five Jackson brothers, and they all grew up in Gary, Indiana, and they were discovered by a local record producer for Steeltown Records, but then their contract was bought out by Barry Gordy at Motown, the great soul label, and "I Want You Back" was written by what Motown called the corporation, which was their in-house song-writing staff.

LYDEN: But how did they become a mainstream phenomenon for Motown?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, you have to remember they went on Ed Sullivan, and people got a load of Michael Jackson dancing at age seven, and so, you know, there was - it went beyond the radio into incredible success on television, and that's of course what spawned the cartoon show and kept them as a viable act, really for 15 years.

LYDEN: Okay, music critic, pick a favorite Jackson 5 song for us. That should be easy.

Mr. DAVIS: "Never Can Say Goodbye" is my favorite, all-time Jackson 5 song.

(Soundbite of song, "Never Can Say Goodbye")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) I never can say goodbye, girl. Baby, I never can say goodbye.

Mr. DAVIS: Remember, this was Michael at 13, and you know, he was on the cover of all the teen magazines, and so the other kids knew that he was 13, and there's something in his voice that speaks to an incredible yearning in that particular song, and a yearning that would probably be familiar to many, many teenagers who are going through all the teenage stuff that teenagers go through, you know?

(Soundbite of song "Dancing Machine")

THE JACKSON FIVE: She's a dancing machine. Move it baby. Oh, baby, automatic, systematic, full of color, self-contained...

Mr. DAVIS: They had all these hits, and it all accumulated into kind of one fantastic sort of Jackson 5 concept that lingers to this day. You know, they still talk about bringing back the Jacksons in Las Vegas for one more, final billion-dollar blowout.

So obviously, you know, they do market research on this, so they know that the Jacksons still have this incredible audience.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Rock critic Stephen Davis was the ghost-writer for Michael Jackson's autobiography, "Moon Walk." It's been a great pleasure speaking to you, Stephen.

Mr. DAVIS: Thanks, and always an honor to be on your air. Thank you.

LYDEN: Stephen's also got a new book out about another superstar act called "Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N' Roses."

(Soundbite of song "It's Great To Be Here")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) Oh, I went out to do my thing, and I was totally rejected. I put you down for love unknown, but it wasn't what I expected. So frightened and confused...

LYDEN: And as Gustav bears down on us, who better to provide today's parting words than the Jackson 5. Here are the opening lines from one of their non-hits. The song: "The Eternal Light." Mother Earth told the people that the cold nights can be warm. Just get along with your brother. It's the shelter from the storm.

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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