5 Groovy Things to know about the Jackson 5 Cartoon

When I was in middle school, I really gravitated to everything Jackson 5. I would collect old copies of RIGHT ON! and EBONY magazines, would hang posters of the brothers in my room. I was (and still am) enamored with the 1970’s but also, loved to see how much fun they appeared to have performing as a family. And let’s be real, the Jackson brothers looked like me, they were my age, and I related to their story.

The Jackson 5ive cartoon is one of those things that I LOVED growing up.

It originally ran as part of ABC’s Saturday Morning cartoon lineup in the 1970s but, I was fortunate enough to catch reruns on BET in the 90s. Like most people, I never really knew or understood the significance of the Jackson 5ive series.

It deserves way more attention than it gets. The Jackson 5ive series is significant to Michael Jackson’s history, the Jacksons’ family history, animation history, and black history. When the series was released on DVD in 2013, I did a very brief review that you can read here. But, today I want to dig a little deeper and introduce you to 5 GROOVY Things to know about the Jackson 5ive Cartoon.

 Let’s get on into it!

1. The Jackson 5ive was one of the first animated series featuring positive African-American characters. 

During the black power movement of the 1970’s, there was an emergence of several animated series with non-stereotypical black characters, including Fat Albert and the Harlem Globetrotters. The Jackson 5ive series was one of the first of these, premiering on September 11, 1971. The series premiered at the height of fame for the group and was part of an outstanding lineup of Saturday morning cartoons. Saturday morning programming on three major networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS included memorable classics like “The New Pink Panther Show,” “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?,” and my personal favorites, “Help… It’s the Hair Bear Bunch” and “Josie and the Pussycats”.

To backtrack just a few decades earlier, the 1930s and 1940s have long been considered the “Golden Age of Animation”. However, its an era also known for its racist depictions of minorities in many animated shorts. From Warner Brothers to Disney, the look and behavior of black characters was all too similar and consistent among animation studios to be coincidental. Those also portrayed in a negative light includes Native Americans and Asians, just to name a few. But to my original point, stereotypical black characters were the norm for decades.

Blacks were largely portrayed as lazy, fat, immoral and sly.
Emphasis was put on their natural ability to “sing and dance” for an audience. This behavior is what many now refer to as the “shuck and jive,” a set of actions or behaviors that blacks might do to be accepted by mainstream, in the hopes of avoiding criticism. But after WWII and thanks to the protests of civil rights groups, those types of stereotypical caricatures were phased out in the early 1960’s.

Some might say that the Jackson 5ive series was free of racist stereotypes and political innuendos. But to me, its existence and success was a political statement in and of itself. 

The show featured black characters in title roles pivotal to the main plot, not just as supporting cast. Their afros were a symbol of black pride and the Jacksons represented a positive black family in mainstream media.

Just as they were in the music industry, they were stars of their own show, standing tall in the forefront.

The Jackson 5ive series finally brought positive imagery of a black family in animated form, to national television. How's THAT for breaking barriers?

2. None of the original Jackson 5 voices were used for their characters. 

This is something I have seen widely debated on the internet (and I am not sure why because frankly, anyone familiar with the Jackson 5 speaking voices could probably guess this easily) BUT, none of the brothers original voices were used for the cartoon.  Apart from the songs used in each episode, voice actors were used to play all five of them. But here’s a fun fact- Diana Ross provided the voice for her character when she appeared in the first episode.

The actor who voiced Michael in the Jackson 5ive series, Donald "Don" Fullilove,  went on to continue his career, most notably playing Mayor Goldie Wilson in Back to the Future.

Donald Fullilove in Back to the Future.

Last thing I came across that brought out the 70’s nerd in me? The voice actor for Marlon was Edmund Sylvers, the lead singer for another family-based musical group of the 70s, The Sylvers. The Sylvers saw a rise in popularity after the Jackson 5 but, they were still also one of the 70s most popular acts.

If any of you are into 70s soul like I am, I recommend songs like “Hotline,” “Boogie Fever” or “Misdemeanor” by Foster Sylvers (one of the members who went solo)- they are great tracks and have a Jacksons feel.

Although the Jacksons' voices were not used for their cartoon characters, they were used on Alphabits commercials that aired during the shows when they first aired on ABC. Here's a link to check out two of those in pretty good quality.

3. Michael LOVED being a cartoon! 

Michael talked about the Jackson 5ive series in his 1988 autobiography, “Moonwalk”.

“I was already a devoted fan of film and animation by the time ‘The Jackson 5ive’ Saturday morning cartoon show started appearing over network television in 1971… I loved being a cartoon. It was so much fun to get up on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and look forward to seeing ourselves on the screen. It was like a fantasy come true for all of us”- Michael Jackson.

I think it’s important to note that the Jackson 5 actually had very LITTLE involvement in the development of the cartoon. It was of course, starring them and featuring their songs but, I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael and his brothers were watching each episode for the first time with the rest of kids across the country. The Jackson 5 had a demanding schedule and between recording, touring, appearances, and more- it was decided that they would use voice actors for the episodes.

Marlon Jackson however, has further discussed the cartoon series and shared how the animators were able to capture their individual characters, despite using different voices.

“Michael and I used to watch the Jackson 5 cartoon series, it was funny and touching to see ourselves in a cartoon. It wasn’t simply a drawing of 5 brothers looking like us, people actually came to rehearsals and interviews to make sure the cartoon reflects each of our personalities, how we used to talk to each other, what we used to do, what we loved to do, they really tried to make the cartoon close to ourselves, and to reality. One of the details that I loved is that they made my hair brown and not black, and it’s not a mistake my hair is actually not dark like my brothers.

-Marlon Jackson

note Marlon's hair color!

4. The production team for the Jackson 5ive series also produced several seasonal television specials in stop animation, including Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

The Jackson 5ive series was co-produced by Rankin/Bass Productions and Motown Productions (a company established by Berry Gordy to produce television specials and films for Motown stars). If you’ve ever seen one of those famous stop animation specials around Christmastime, you have seen the work of Rankin/Bass! 

Rankin/Bass also went on to produce a 17 episode animated series for the Osmonds, entitled The Osmonds, in 1972. 

The show was scheduled directly after the Jackson 5ive show during the Fall of 1972 and Spring 1973 lineup.  Here is a cool television promo spot for both shows (link).

5. The animation director Robert Balser insisted that the series not contain any violence. 

Bob Balser, an animator that also worked on the Beatles cartoon “The Yellow Submarine,”  was hired out of London to work on the series. When he spoke to CNN in 2013, he shared how important it was for him to not include any violence or stereotyping. 

Here’s an excerpt from that article: 

"When I came in," explained Balser, "the series had been started. I was not happy with the approach they were doing because ... (this) was going to be the first series directed at young people that was about a black group, and I felt that it was really important that it be shown in a creative way, that they solved their problems with music and with intelligence and not with violence -- which had started out as the approach in the first episode."
(Source: http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/30/showbiz/jackson-5ive/)

I loved reading this, as the brothers solving problems with music was one of the things I loved most about the series as a kid. I learned so many of my favorite Jackson 5 songs from the animated series, as each episode included two Jackson 5 songs as part of the storyline.

The series ran for a total of 2 seasons and 23 episodes, the last new episode airing on October 14, 1972. It has been rumored that Motown only contracted for that many episodes to begin with. (The show was not cancelled due to ratings).  If I had to choose, my favorite episodes are the ones I remember seeing as a child, "Bongo, Baby, Bongo"  and "Cinderjackson". I also find myself watching Episode 22 quite often, "Jackson and the Beanstalk" but, that's mostly because the songs in this episode are two of my faves. I won't spoil the surprise...  

Check out the Jackson 5ive Animated series on DVD for yourself. 

It's on amazon.com for less than $30 and to me, it's worth every penny! The series is a great way to introduce yourself to Michael's music from the Motown era of his career.

To be honest, I have a whole lot more to share about the Jackson 5ive animated series that I wasn't able to fit here. I promise that I will be back to continue this list and some additional fun facts about this time in Michael's career sometime soon. 

Thanks for reading and until next time...

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