Chuck Jackson, the soulful baritone responsible for such early '60s hits as "I Don't Want to Cry" and "Any Day Now," is returning to Detroit for the second time this year (he "played" at the Jazz Fest this summer — all of a song or two before he was rained out). He'll perform this Friday and Saturday at Bert's Warehouse Theatre with longtime collaborator Maxine Brown and longtime friends the Contours (from the Motown days). On the phone from his home, Jackson is jovial, open and animated — a testament both to his eagerness to share what he loves, and a realness that hasn't eroded despite his years of making music with a host of the most esteemed soul and R&B artists of our time. He says that it doesn't matter that he'll be playing an inside date rather than a festival this time.
"To me, an audience is an audience. It takes as much energy for me if it's 20,000 people or if its 200. I'm gonna do it just as hard for 200 as I do for 20,000," he says.
Of his dynamic stage presence, Jackson says he owes it all to Detroit and Detroiter Jackie Wilson. A dynamic performer himself, Wilson's onstage cavorting — including splits, dips and shaking hips — earned him the name "Mr. Excitement."
On how it all started:
I was singing in a choir. We were doing a contest, and I was representing a part of South Carolina, and we were down to the last competition. I was singing — I'll never forget — "The Holy City." I'd always hit this high note on the end, and my music teacher said, "Don't you do that, keep your voice down with the other baritones. Don't hit that note." But I loved Caruso — he was an opera singer. I'd listen to him every chance I got. We were the last to perform. At the end of the song, the teacher was sitting at the piano looking up at me. She wanted to kill me. There were three female judges and one male, and all were crying. That's how I won my scholarship to South Carolina State.
I went to college a semester. Now, this is cold — this is deep. We started to have riots on the campus because the president of the college was not treating us fairly. Well, off campus, there was a store that all of the kids went to, to buy cigarettes and gum and candy. We thought he should have black students working there because of how much money we spent there. We boycotted the stores, and the president of the college got very angry at us and reprimanded some of us. So we boycotted some of the food at the college. Things started to pile up. Then there was a riot on campus. I was living in the dormitories with the juniors and seniors and the guys came to me and said, "You're one of our treasures. It's gonna get rough here and we want you to leave, and we'll see what happens."
When I got back to Pittsburgh, I was walking down the street and walked past this record store and heard this music. I went in and asked this guy what it was. I told him I was a singer and he said, "Sing for me." I started singing the song, "You'll Never Walk Alone." He looked at me and said, "I'm gonna be in touch." He called me one day, and I came by and he said, "I want you to write a couple of songs." I took a song back to him: "Come On and Love Me." I put the melody around "Danny Boy," and he loved it and he recorded me on it. The record came out and it was doing pretty good around Pittsburgh. One day he said to me, "Have you heard of the Del- Vikings?" I said, "Of course," and he said, "That's my group." Most of the group was being shipped to Germany and only some of them were staying, and they needed a singer.
On how he signed with Scepter Records, which also recorded the Shirelles, Dionne Warwick and BJ Thomas:
One night, after a show, two people from Scepter Records came into my dressing room, a black man and white woman. The woman said, "We have one group called the Shirelles. We don't have any money to give to you, but if you come with us we'll give you your own label." And I went with them, and named the label Wand. I wrote my very first hit.
I was with Scepter from 1960 to 1965. We had some bad times together. And Smokey Robinson — we're still like blood brothers — he said to me, that if I ever left Scepter, Motown's door was open to me. So I called Smoky and said they'll give me a release if I pay them "X" amount of money. He called Berry Gordy, and they gave me the money. I paid Scepter off and went to Motown.
The club I always played was the 20 Grand. I held a record there until it closed. It was my home. I love Detroit. I had so many friends there. I knew Berry Gordy, and his mother and father, who would always come to my show. I would go to their house every Thanksgiving and have dinner.
On his years in the incredibly competitive Motown machine:
I was with Motown almost two years before I realized that I had never had a hit. I had records released; during the time I was at Motown, they kept me so busy. I was on tour all the time with the Supremes or Stevie Wonder or Smokey Robinson or the Temptations. I'd fly in and do a record and fly out. I didn't realize I didn't have a hit until one day a DJ called me up and said he wanted me to do a project. I said, "OK, well, I have these costs." He said, "Well, it's for the station, and we don't pay that much money. You gotta realize, Chuck, that you haven't had a record in a couple of years." And I said, "Oh, my God." And that's when I really became concerned. I didn't have a hit; I had releases, but not a hit. But I have nothing against Motown; they treated me royally. I just didn't get a hit. On my first album, Smokey Robinson wrote my first single, "You Can't Let the Boy Overpower the Man in You." But it just didn't happen.
When I went to Motown, I found out after I was there awhile that Motown was completely different than what I was used to. The sound was completely different. But I was so in love with the writers. I loved the way they wrote. I feel sometimes that I was a little awkward. I was a New York-bred artist. I feel that's what happened to a lot of New York artists who went to Motown and didn't succeed. A lot of them didn't make the standard that was required of them. I hope I did.
On almost working with Stevie Wonder:
I remember one day I was walking down the hall in Motown during a session. I ran into Stevie; I met him when he was 12. We started talking and he said, "I've got some songs that I want you to hear." But someone had said to me, we want you with these writers, not with Stevie. So I had to tell him I couldn't do it. If I remember correctly, all the things Stevie did after that were smash hits.
Jackson has collaborated with producers like Charles Wallert, and with singers like Dionne Warwick and Maxine Brown (who shares the bill at Bert's).
Collaboration is 100 percent of music. For instance, "Any Day Now" was with Burt Bacharach and Hal David. They collaborated on everything they did. Nothing happened unless they agreed on it together. That sort of collaboration is what made the record industry what it is. I loved how Motown worked together and collaborated on everything. It was incredible, how it was a machine, and every part was at its best.
As our interview winds down, we ask about working with the Contours. Then, in true Chuck Jackson fashion, he belts out one of their most recognizable lines: "Do you love me?" The phone's speaker can barely handle the volume of his voice, but his powerful tone is unmistakable. We recover from the surprise quickly enough to squeak out, "That ... was awesome." He says goodbye and hangs up the phone, laughing.
Remember the 20 Grand with Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown and the Contours (revisiting the sounds of one of Detroit's R&B palaces, known as the Apollo Theater of Detroit) is at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 25-26, at Bert's Warehouse Theatre, 2739 Russell St., Detroit; 313-393-3233; Tickets $55, available at Bert's.
Kelly Caldwell is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected].