A Reluctant Star - Mckinley Jackson Interview By Dave Thorley

A Reluctant Star - Mckinley Jackson Interview By Dave Thorley magazine cover

Someone asked if I could put up the two interviews I did with him that got published in Manifesto, as this was a work in progress they got published a year apart.

So here's a chance to read right through. One of Detroit's and soul musics greatest arrangers/producers and horn player.

A Reluctant Star - McKinley Jackson-Pt 1

The following day I had arranged to meet up with McKinley Jackson and his life long manager Betty . I arrived at betty's house a little early, so look through some records in the basement; betty calls to tell me that he's at the front door. In walks this tall, slender man, with grey hair in a long ponytail. We sit around for a while chatting about people we both know and as he feels more at ease his own story starts to unfold. Very early on, I get the feeling that this is a sensitive, private man, that love's music, but not so much the lime light; something he confirms later. He was born and raised in inner-city Detroit, and so is a true Detroiter, unlike many of the key people in the music industry there during the 60's and 70's, who were migrant. School days were no great joy, as he was seen to be a little backward, his own words, by the teachers and other kids. All except for one, his music teacher at Jr High, Gordon Allen. 'Music saved my life'. His music teacher could see something others hadn't and encouraged him to take up the trombone. Within a few years he was skipping school to go over to Motown and Golden World studio's to play on sessions. Playing in the second on trombone or just banging on a tambourine he didn't care, and he was getting paid, $6 a session, a lot of money to a kid in Detroit in the mid sixties. The first ever session he sat in on was Smokey Robinson's, Oo Baby, Oo Baby, with Norman Whitfield directing the floor and Paul Riser on arrangements. He was a fast learner, and people around could see that he had natural rhythm. He used the time at Motown to develop his skills and never was worried that he got little in the way of credits for the work he did there. 'It was great, I got to work with some fabulous people and learnt so much'. This become a general theme, as we went on, he was less concerned about credits and fanfare, he just loved making music. The other thing that he appreciated was that he met there, the three guys that influenced him most over his career, Gene Page, H B Barnum and Paul Riser.

His talents were starting to get recognised around the city too, and he started to get requests to do arrangements on independent releases, one of the first being The Arabians on LeMans records. 'They had this great lead vocalist Edward Hamilton, now he could sing.' At the same time he started working round the clubs in the city sitting in with the house bands, Club 12, and the famous Phelps's Lounge. So by the tender age of 16 he was already full immersed in the music industry. During this time he was able to hone his craft with all the leading musicians of the day, James Jameson, Norman Whitfield, Ruby Robinson, Benny Benjamin, to name but a few. He also worked providing arrangements for many classic tunes to come out of the array interdependent studios around town. It was also about this time that he met his soon to be manager Betty Slater. They both spend a few minutes debating where this first meeting was, and settle on the Brown Bunny club. Betty then introduced him to Danny Woods and together they started to form the group, that would first be called the Peps and later the Politicians. Early line up's had Stanley Cleveland, Melvin Griffin, Chuck Boyd, Zak Slater and Charlie Hearndon in the group. Soon they became the house band at the Legendary 20 Grand Motel. The place, that if you were in Detroit you had to go to see all the latest acts and make those important contacts. This group then evolved under betty's influence into McKinley Jackson and the Politicians. 'I was never comfortable being up front, I'd much rather be in the back row play my instrument, or in the studio'. But even with his reluctance to being up front, the group formed into a powerful musical unit, backing all the major artists passing through town to do live performances in it's clubs. 'We had to learn to play most musical styles during this time as part of our role as a house band'. For one season the weekly sessions there even went on television, with McKinley open the show with a trombone solo and then the band backing the artist on the show.

Not long after this Holland, Dozier and Holland left Motown to set up Invictus records. As part of the deal they were under pressure to produce and release their first album, so brought in McKinley Jackson and the Politicians as their first signing. 'The problem was that the album was rushed and poorly promoted, all they (Holland, Dozier and Holland) we're interested in, was meeting their contractual obligation'. This album coursed a small stir on the R&B charts, but never gave them the fast start they had hoped for. For the next few years the group become the main stay at Invictus, playing on nearly everything that was released there. The line up also continued to change, as Danny Woods started to develop his solo career, as well as singing with Chairman of the Board, another group managed by Betty. But the group continued working round the city's clubs and were the group that open up on the first night at Mozambique Club. 'This was a much more black club than the others in town, the acts here we're much more cutting edge. Regulars we're Darrel Banks, Funkadelic, Emanuel Laskey and Cody Black as well as us'. The time at Invictus was relatively short lived. 'Things then started to fall apart there, everybody was off doing other things'. When the company finally closed its doors, he headed out for the west coast with Richard Popcorn Wylie and Lamont Dozier to ABC records.

By this stage of the conversation my time was running out as it was mid afternoon and I had a long drive down to my next meeting Nashville. But as we agreed to continue this conversation next time I was in town, he reflected on the Detroit years. He can now see that he has a lot to be proud of, and is much more at ease with his achievements. Even though he may not have received, fully the credit for the true contribution he made. For him the greatest moments, during this period in his life, we're working with Marvin Gaye and Dionne Warwick. I tell him that next time we meet I wanted to discuss his work on one of my favorite albums, Richard Popcorn Wylie's ESP, on ABC. He smiles, 'Yes that was a good album, wasn't it to my next meeting Nashville. But as we agreed to continue this conversation next time I was in town, he reflected on the Detroit years. He can now see that he has a lot to be proud of, and is much more at ease with his achievements. Even though he may not have received, fully the credit for the true contribution he made. For him the greatest moments, during this period in his life, we're working with Marvin Gaye and Dionne Warwick. I tell him that next time we meet I wanted to discuss his work on one of my favorite albums, Richard Popcorn Wylie's ESP, on ABC. He smiles, 'Yes that was a good album, wasn't it'

But not only did he continue his great career out on the west coast, he also past his talents down to his next generation. Which when he told me came as a great surprise. His son is Proof, of the talented hip hop group D12.


A Reluctant Star - McKinley Jackson-Pt II

For those that didn't read the first article, here's a quick resume. McKinley is a native Detroiter, growing up on the streets not far from the famous offices of Motown's Hitsville USA. He had a natural ear for music and in particular rhythm, which was spotted early on by his music teacher at school Gordon Allen. He was one of the few people around at the time to give him much encouragement, persuading him to take up playing trombone. Soon, he was skipping out of school and going over to Ed Wingate's Golden World studio's and Motown's studio A to sit in on sessions. In the early days you could say that one of his mentors was Joe Hunter of the Funk Brothers who help him to get in on these early sessions. For each of these he would get $5, union rate. A lot of money for a young kid of fourteen/ fifteen.



Whilst at Motown in the first few years, he was able to watch and sometimes work with all the greats, Holland Brothers, Paul Riser, Popcorn Wylie, HB Barnum, Norman Whitfield; Gene Page the list goes on.

All though he fast became an indemand brass player, he was was never that comfortable be upfrount on stage, his was always most at home working in the studio. This said he was working constanly in different bands, including a spell in the Peps. This is where he met Danny Woods and manager to be Betty Slater. From this came the formation of McKinley Jackson and the Politicians, who soon became reconised as one of the hottest group around the city for thier muscianship, and when Holand, Dozier, Holland left Motown, they were the first artists to get signed to the fledgling Invictus label. McKinley, by this time he was spending more and more time in the studio, working as, house band for Invictus, and generally working on arrangements for HDH. Arrangements were fast becoming his forte, but others had spotted this early on. Edward Hamilton had asked him to do the arrangements on their Lemans release some years before. When everything finally fell apart at the record label, McKinley, Richard Popcorn Wylie and Lamont Dozier headed out to the west coast, signing to ABC/Dunhill under the production name of 3G (The three Gemini's) and this is where we pick up the story.

McKinley and i are sitting in his apartment in Detroit. Although trying to get the interview done is proving  a little difficult as he keeps getting phone calls from Eddie and Brian Holland, who he is working with on some arrangements. But also it is a joy to sit and watch him work, the phone goes, his wife Carol calls from the other room, 'it's Brian for you, McKinley' a conversation then starts about the tune and McKinley says 'Well I thought it could go some thing like this' at which point he lays the phone next to a small keyboard and palys a small passage of music. At this point the conversation gets excited, as both Brian and McKinley start to share ideas. The conversation then ends with him saying 'OK I'll keeping working on that'. He then turns back to me, with a big smile on his face and say's 'where were we, you know you making me think about things I haven't thought about in years'. I ask him about the ESP album he did with Popcorn. I tell him, that this is one of my personal favorites and with a little coaching he starts to reel of the track titles, a little like someone looking at a childhood family photo and bit by bit naming everyone in the picture. 'Going out to the west coast was so much fun and working on that project with my friend Popcorn, but you know I haven't seen that much of him since he left and came back to Detroit'. I tell him that I off to see Richard later and he asks if he can tag along. He also asks if I can let him have a cd with the album on, as he has hardly any of the music he worked on back then and in many cases hasn't heard since they were recorded.

We return to the days on the west coast, McKinley had a big culture shock when he first got out there. He had been very used to the Detroit way of arranging and producing, working on the floor of the studio, in the sessions. Making changes on the hoof as the session evolved and taking alot of input from the muscians, just one big ctreative melting pot. But at ABC, he say's 'things were much different, your job as producer, was to bring in all these different people who worked on contract, have everything prepared and work from the control room, more overseeing the process, than getting involved on the floor, other people you employed did that'. I ask did he feel this was a bad thing, 'No, just a different way of doing things, and it taught me about disaplin in the recording process'. 'So how did you come to work with Reggie Garner at ABC'. Reggie Garner, Reggie Garner' he say searching through his memory and looking somewhat distant at me. Then suddenly, he's back 'little Reggie, oh yes I remember him great voice. He came to me on contract, you see we would have are own artist and others that we we would work with as part of the house contract. At this point we talk about the very distinctive string arrangements, that by that time had become his signature. Something you can hear on the ESP album and Reggie Garner's, tracks 'Half a cup' and 'That ain't the way (You make love)'. He smiles, "we did do some good tunes back then didn't we".

We move on to the period after those hectic times at ABC. McKinley went back out on the road with Marvin Gaye, as musical director on his last tour. "That was a bad gig, nearly destroyed many of the people that worked on it. It was just a heavy thing, all the drugs and people around Marvin. One guy committed suicide, open his hotel room one morning to find a pile of coke outside his door, a message from some bad people. No, found it hard to work for awhile after that."

Compared to the 70's the 80's and 90's were farily lean times for McKinley also he split from his wife, Shirley Jones of the Jones Girls. After discussing this the conversation sort of died away. But that wasn't then end of the interview, come conversation. For the next few days he joined me as I went round the city to see other people. First off to see Joe Hunter, were we spent a few hours over some wine, me listening to them reminiscing, and McKinley telling Jo that he had a lot to thank him for in helping him into the industry. Next Popcorn Wylie, they hadn't seen each other for years, so the one time partners sat down to talk about family and the past and I went looking for records in Popcorns basement.

As we come out of his house and get in the car McKinley looks worried, "You know, popcorn shouldn't be like that, he needs to be working, we'll pop back tomorrow with my old keyboard. Next day we go back with the little keyboard he had used when talking to Brian on the phone. I had been curious why it had so much wax on one end of it, so I asked him when we pull up at Popcorn's house. He looks thoughtfully at it, "that's how tuff it got back then, I was living in a place with no electricity, but I still could work, as this is battery power and with a candle on the end, that was all I need. This left me silent, you read all the stories about artist, and McKinley is an artist, going through tough times, but this really gave it a cold reality not normally felt.Once we had finished up with Popcorn, on to what turned out to be a much more warming experience, we go round to see A J Sparks, long time respected session play in Detroit. When he heard McKinley was with me he had made a few calls and by the time we arrive a few people have gathered in his basement, some from his days at Invictus. His arrival is met by lots of hugs and comments like "how many years has it been".

Again talk soon gets back to the old days, at one point McKinley says to the assembled group what was the funkiest tune we cut on Chairman of the Board, it went some thing like this. He plays the opening bars to blank looks alround except me, but I feel a little humble in this group and wait hoping someone will remember, I can't wait any longer "Finders keepers" I shout out, in seconds others have picked up instruments and there before me they are playing the track from memory, note perfect. That would almost be the end of the story, McKinley back home in Detroit amongst friends, chating about the past. But McKinley Jackson isn't one to really look back, he is alway looking for the next project. It took me asking these question for him to think back, I think some of it was fun, but also at times painful.

Today though, his life in Detroit seems a good one, he is working a fair bit for the Holland Brothers, most treat him like some elder statesman. He is working hard to past skills onto the next generation, teaching several times a week at a music tech, and he hasn't lost any of his passion for making soul music. We had half a day in the studio, while he worked on some tracks for Brian and Eddie and at the end of this there was a moment that will live with Malayka for ever. I was sitting with the engineer chating, McKinley and Malayka had gone through to the studio. We could hear a few music passages being played, so we walked through, to find the pair of them sitting side by side at the piano playing duet.

Some sadness has come his way, his son, Hip Hop Giant, Proof of Detroit group D 12 was gunned down early this year outside a city night club. But when we met in October, he was looking fit and full of spirit.

How best do you sum up this mans achievements to date, it's hard for me, as I am a big fan of his work, for me he is one of the very best of that rare breed of muscian, producer and arranger, up there with the likes of Van McCoy and HB Barnum. Over the last few years he and his lovely wife Carol have become good friends, so i'm not impartial. So here a few quotes from some of his Detroit musical peers. "One of the greatest talents to come out of this city", "He is a musical genius, "You're with a legend".

originally posted in the forum here on soul source

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sjclement profile photo


Wow terrific insight I've always held those Mckinley Mitchell ABC albums as favorites in my collection

Hammersoul profile photo


Great Read Dave :thumbsup: .Gotta say one of my fav Arrangers along with Paul Riser. Have bought things blind just cos of him doing the arrangements/Strings and things.

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