Blues Route: Tito Jackson
Tito Jackson can thank Steven Seagal for one of his most cherished autographs. “A number of years ago, B.B. King was playing this local theater in my neighborhood and, of course, I am going to go,” Tito says. “My brothers and I had met him one other time—at the Fairmount in New Orleans—in the ‘70s. When I got there, I saw Steven Seagal with his guitar and said, ‘Why do you have your guitar with you?’ And he said, ‘There is a part in B.B.’s show where he calls people onstage to play with him if you got a guitar with you.’”
So Tito, the third oldest of Katherine and Joseph Jackson’s sons and a founding member of the Jackson 5, went home, grabbed his guitar and ran back to the show—only to find out that he missed his window. Undeterred, the next time King came through the area, he tried his luck again, this time bringing both his mother and the guitar that he played on The Ed Sullivan Show. “It was my mom’s birthday, and she is a big blues fan. We’re sitting there, watching B.B. King perform—I’ve got my guitar on the floor, between my legs, waiting for that portion to start. It never came. He had taken it out of his show,” Jackson says with laugh. “But I did get to speak with him, and he signed my guitar.”
Later, Tito ended up scoring a featured spot with B.B. King’s band and, now, he is honoring the maestro again on his new blues album, Under Your Spell, which was released on Gulf Coast Records in August. The LP is Tito’s second solo effort and first to tackle the classic genre, featuring appearances by George Benson, Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Neal, Eddie Levert, Steven Powell and Bobby Rush, as well as his brother Marlon and variety of other family members (including Stevie Wonder, who Tito notes is a cousin). The singer/guitarist says that he grew up listening to the blues and that his father and uncle Luther used to play that music around the house.
“The Jackson 5 used to do a little bit of blues prior to Motown—that’s what we were doing on the circuit. Bobby Rush just told me a story: ‘When you were about 5 or 6 years old, your daddy brought you over to my house in Chicago. I have a picture of it,’” Tito says, while on a Zoom call at home in Las Vegas, between drags of a cigar. “But once we became famous, had four No. 1s and were doing arenas that was no longer part of our song structures. The only time I got to play the blues was if one of the brothers split their pants or their mic cut out. They’d holler across the stage and say, ‘Tito, play some blues!’”
Tito—who has played guitar, as well as sang, in his family band since its earliest days—continued with The Jacksons through the release of their final studio album, 1989’s 2300 Jackson Street, and has taken part in all the brothers’ reunion runs since Michael’s 2009 passing. However, until five years ago, he was the only member of the Jackson 5 who had not released a solo album. “There was a survey on the internet and people were wondering if I’d ever do an album of my own songs, so that perked up my ears a little bit,” he says. “Then, Charles Barkley said some wisecracks about me and that really got me going and I said, ‘I gotta do an album just to show them that I can do it.’” In 2016, he finally released Tito Time, scoring a hit with the Big Daddy Kane collaboration “Get It Baby.”
While Tito has been performing on the blues circuit for almost 20 years—noting his love of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Reed, Albert Collins, Albert King and “all the King brothers”—he chuckles that the blues was one of the only styles that he didn’t touch on his first LP.
“The Jackson fan base was poppin’ and that whole thing. I said, ‘Why do a blues album? They won’t understand it anyway. They probably won’t even like it, knowing the pop world,’” he admits. “But then I said, ‘If I do another record, it’s definitely gonna be a blues record because that’s where my soul is and where my heart is.”’
Between commitments with his brothers, Tito started working on Under Your Spell before the pandemic, recording Benson at his home while traveling through Arizona. Once COVID-19 put almost everyone’s touring plans on pause, Tito continued to craft the LP, collecting files remotely and looping back with potential collaborators who were otherwise unavailable. (“I said, ‘Thank you, lockdown, you made it perfect for me,’ Jackson quips.) He reached out to Bonamassa through fellow blues guitarist Mike Zito before he even had a song for him to play on and nudged Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who penned worldwide hits for The Jacksons and The O’Jays, out of retirement to write “All in the Family Blues.” And, of course, he asked B.B. King’s daughter Claudette to join him on a cover of “Rock Me Baby.”
“The music sounded great when we wrote the demos, but we knew that it didn’t have the live feel that the blues need,” Tito adds. “And so that’s when I sent the tracks over to my buddy in Baton Rouge, La., and had my boys down South play on it.”
Looking ahead, Tito hopes to get back on the road and try his latest batch of songs out live, but notes that the pandemic is still “no joke” and “it is a race to see who is gonna win—the virus or the population.” But he does have one goal he’d like to accomplish regardless of what the future holds. “People get the blues twisted,” he says. “There’s sad pop songs or songs that sing about your problems that are popular pop songs. And, just like that, there is happy blues, too.”