Slept on Soul/Randy & The Gypsys
By Michael A. Gonzales
As the last born brother born into the Jackson family, Randy began his musical career playing catch-up to the towering reputations of his already famous Jackson Five siblings. Although Randy didn’t officially become a member of the group until the brothers departed from Motown, signed with CBS/Philadelphia International Records in 1975 and began calling themselves The Jacksons, he’d been preparing for his slot since he was a tot.
Prior to the power move by their manager/daddy Joe Jackson to break away from the stronghold of Motown honcho Berry Gordy, young Randy performed clever-kid parts on stage and television that included campy skits with little sister Janet on the Carol Burnett Show and skillfully banging conga drums as his brothers danced and sang. Literally standing in the shadows, it wasn’t until Jermaine decided to stay at Motown (he was married to boss Gordy’s daughter, Hazel) that Randy moved to the front. Allowed to pose on the cover of the Jackson’s self-titled 1976 album, produced by Gamble and Huff with assists from McFadden & Whitehead and Dexter Wansel, the junior Jackson was ready to prove to the world and his family that he was more than brown-sugar cuteness adding percussion.
While the brothers supposedly left Motown for more creative control, The Jacksons (1976) and Going Places (1977) was mostly overseen by the sonic Philly crew at Sigma Sound studios. In 1978, when the Jackson’s were finally given the reins of their own record, baby bro got a chance to shine when he and Michael collaborated. Three years younger than Mike, the boys shared a close bond that trickled down creatively when they went into the studio and knocked-out the soulful dance track “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).” The song would become the best-selling single from the Jacksons’ Destiny album in 1978. The Jacksons’ charts domination had dimmed for a few years, but the stellar dance swag of “Shake Your Body” proved to be the boogie-down comeback track the group needed.
“We call our music ‘Freaky Soul’ and I think you’ll find it’s nothing like anything you’ve heard from the Jacksons before,” Randy explained to Blues & Soul writer John Abbey that same year. Featuring dynamic horns from Tom Tom 84 and the hyped synths of keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” went to #3 on the Billboard soul charts and #7 on the Hot 100. Just as they were in their Motown prime, the Jacksons were once again platinum-selling crossover artists. “Soul is soul, and music is music,” Randy told Abbey. “We feel that we are pop and that we are soul.”
That same year, Poppa Joe Jackson relaunched his vanity label Ivory Tower International Records and signed then-17-year-old Randy. The formerly indie imprint was also the home to no—hit wonders MDLT Willis, whose 1974 single “What’s Your Game” was produced by the Jackson Five; four years later, when the Jacksons’ label CBS/Epic Records stepped in as distributor for Ivory Tower, Randy recorded the very grown-up break-up single “How Can I Be Sure.” Teenagers fall in and out of love often, but that grown man track would’ve worked better as a Chi-Lites or Blue Magic song than as Randy’s solo debut. The equally strange b-side, “A Love Song for Kids,” was a duet with Janet that was both catchy and corny. “We need love too like grown-ups do…a young love song for me and you,” they sang on the adorable yet ick-inducing novelty love song about love songs. But, weren’t the Jackson 5-as well as the Osmond’s, the Sylvers and the Partridge Family-already making love songs for kids?
Months later, feeling as though many of his creative ideas squashed on the Destiny project, Michael began working on material for the forthcoming solo bestseller Off the Wall. He recruited Randy to play piano on the home studio recorded demos of “Don’t Stop (Til’ You Get Enough)” and add percussion to the final Quincy Jones-guided production. Randy was the only other Jackson brother invited to participate on the project.
While Randy was apparently ready to spread his musical wings, his world came to a screeching halt on the rainy night of March 3, 1980 when he suffered a near-fatal car accident on Hollywood’s Cahuenga Boulevard in his 1977 Mercedes 450SL convertible. Two months after getting his driver’s license, Randy crashed into a light pole and almost lost his right leg when doctors thought they might have to amputate. “I may not be able to walk,” Randy told Jet three months later, “but I will be able to write and record.” Luckily, he was able to do all three, collaborating with Michael again on the scorching “Lovely One” on The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph album.
Of course, two years later, Planet Pop was totally transformed when M.J. released the blockbuster Thriller, his soaring, searing revenge on the industry; he swiftly became the biggest twinkling star in the cosmos. From radio to video to a nightclub near you, it was all about that red leather jacket, the scheming baby mama “Billie Jean,” Vincent Price sounding creepy on the title track, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo on “Beat It” and, of course, the spellbinding enchantment of Michael’s falsetto. The fallout of M.J.’s atomic bomb explosion resulted in a bunch of family members and friends delivering all types of Black bizarro music, including the Michael-produced “Centipede” from elder sister Rebbie, the paranoid pop of Rockwell’s bugged “Somebody’s Watching Me,” with the Gloved One singing backup, and the electro emancipation of baby sis Janet’s masterwork Control (“Free at last … now I’m on my own”), her third LP and first collaboration with FlyteTime fly boys Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Although Randy continued to record and tour with his brothers throughout the 1980s, it wasn’t until 1987 that he signed with A&M Records, the same spot where Janet became a multiplatinum superstar after Control established her as one of the labels marquee artists. Former family friend and then-A&M Records A&R executive John McClain, who is currently the hated family foe/co-executor of Michael Jackson’s estate, was instrumental in shaping Janet’s rhythmic rebirth and signed Randy as well, serving as executive producer on his project.
“Randy was dope and had real vision,” says keyboardist/ producer Khris Kellow, who collaborated with Jackson on what would be called Randy and Gyspys (sic). A Queens, New York native who played on various 1980s recording sessions while still a teen, he played with the System and was part of the David Frank/Mic Murphy produced trio Attitude with singers Cindy Mizelle and Stephen Miller. Kellow was initially signed to A&M Records as a solo artist, but was paired to work with Randy after that deal expired. “When you come from a large famous family, it’s easy to get overlooked, but Randy was the real deal.”
Unlike his siblings, who all desired solo spotlight success, Randy put together the group the Gypsys and didn’t even want his name on the album. “I compromised,” Jackson told the Los Angeles Times in October 1989, the same month Randy & the Gypsys was released. “I just used my first name. I can make it without help from the Jackson name. The music is strong enough to grab people on its own.”
Although that statement might’ve sounded cocky, it was true that Randy and The Gypsys – a posse that later included Baba Burns, Cece Worrall, Cornelius Mims, Jara Harris, Jeff Harris, Pepe Tynes- delivered a solid album that would’ve been a contender if Janet hadn’t released an album at the same time. An electric dream synthesis of new jack swing (“Perpetrators,” “Love You Honey”) Minneapolis soul (“Luv Thang,” “Gigolo”) and atomic-dawg funk (“You Got a Lady”), Randy and The Gypsys was Jackson’s concept. However, according to Kellow, the Gypsys weren’t selected until after the album was completed. “The majority of the songs were put together by Randy and I in a studio he owned in Beverly Hills called Neighborhood Recordings,” Kellow says. “He had already started the project when I got there at the end of ’87, but he wanted to go in a different direction. He and I gelled and, in retrospect, he let me do what I wanted to do. When I got to the studio, I was like, ‘Where are the Gypsys?’ Basically, I was the Gypsy.”
However, with Janet’s much-anticipated Control follow-up Rhythm Nation 1814 coming out the month before Randy’s own project, one can imagine that A&M Records had little time to publicize or promote Randy properly. “That’s not the way I wanted it,” Randy told the Times, “but, as it turned out, I couldn’t change the scheduling of the album.”
The first single “Perpetrators,” the Bryan Loren-produced track that had a Bobby Brown/”My Prerogative” vibe that Kellow contributed a different arrangement than the one originally penned by songwriter Morris (Club Nouveau, Charlie Wilson) Rentie, Jr. “I took it back to my four-track home studio and added the new jack swing elements with Cece Worrall playing a low baritone sax. Music at the time had a jack swing appeal, so I was conscious about adding a few elements to that track.”
The catchy follow-up single “Love You Honey,” with its poppy groove and feel-good vibe, was one of those songs that still makes me wonder why it wasn’t a hit. “I didn’t get that song at first and I never thought it was going to be a single,” Kellow says. “I thought the chords were kind of vanilla, but the bassline was swinging. Afterwards, we came up with the horn parts, guitar parts and stacked vocals; by the second session, I finally got it.” Judging from the wonderful ballads on Randy and The Gypsys, if baby-boy Jackson had stayed on his creative journey, he might’ve developed into a bad-ass soul man that could’ve given macho love men Peabo Byrson and Alexander O’Neil some real competition. Dueting with superwoman Karyn White, the lush “Luv Thang,” with its swirl of keyboards and killer guitar, Randy sounds all grown-man sexy. “That’s my favorite song on the album,” Kellow says. “Originally Chaka Khan was going to do it, but when that fell through Karyn White, who had the same manager as Randy, came aboard. With its slow tempo, that song is just so funky.”
While the sincere heartbreak of “The Love We Almost Had” harks back to lessons he might’ve learnt in the Motown harmonizing days when Smokey and Marvin were in their balladeer prime, easily one of the best tracks on the album was “The Love We Almost Had,” a red-light-in-the-basement, soulful jazz joints that, as Kellow says, “Makes you remember that Randy grew-up watching Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson work. There was a soulful realness that Motown instilled in his music.” The album ends with my favorite ballad, “Not Because of Me,” an over-six-minute jam that fused R&B, gospel and a touch of jazz; the song was masterful and aurally ambitious.
The six-months spent working with Randy at Neighborhood Studio was one of Kellow’s most fun and creative experiences, but he and Jackson weren’t always in agreement. “We cussed each other out, had physical fights and I even left for a few weeks, but it was worth it. Randy could be snippy, but he was like family.”
However, a few weeks before the album’s release, the project crumpled when Randy missed an important gig. “A&M planned this big coming out party for Randy and The Gypsys at the Roxy in Los Angeles,” Kellow explains. “The label spent hundreds of thousands of dollars flying people in, bringing in top notch singers and, the day of the show, Randy got bronchitis and couldn’t talk. The band was on stage sound checking when Randy’s assistant told me the news. At that same moment, there was a guy delivering this massive flower arrangement that Michael sent. The whole showcase was cancelled and, after that, nobody at the label wanted to touch us. The video for ‘Perpetrators’ was already done; we did another for ‘Luv You Honey,’ but, after that, nothing. The label just couldn’t forgive what happened.”
A couple of years later, Randy signed to Richard Rudolph’s label Third Stone Records and Khris Kellow was once again brought in to work with Jackson. “I got paid, but after three or four weeks, it all fell apart. That was 1991, and that was the last time I saw him. Every few years I’ll hear that he’s working on something and I’ve reached out, but, we haven’t spoken.”
In the 26 years since his lone solo album release, Randy has seen a lot of drama including allegedly stealing funds from M.J., his ex-wife Alejandra Genevieve Oaziaza marrying big bro Jermaine (she has two kids with each brother) and fighting with family after supposedly kidnapping his own mother in 2012. Still, somehow it doesn’t seem fair that we’re forced to live in a world where La Toya Jackson b has nine studio albums and Randy and the Gypsys only has one.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.