It’s the stuff rock dreams are made of: On a winter day in 1994, poking around an abandoned house in Gary, Ind., Ben Brown came across a box of tapes that included the Jackson 5’s very first studio recordings, made 27 years earlier.
”Some of the reels were broken; the outer tape was raggedy,” recalls Brown, now 48. ”But the bulk of it was well preserved.” Granted, the find wasn’t a total surprise. The house had last been occupied a decade before, by Brown, and the recordings — made seven months prior to the Jacksons’ signing with Motown in July 1968 — were for a now-defunct local label named Steeltown, of which Brown was president.
”I hadn’t actually forgotten [about the tapes],” he says. ”But they were not in the forefront of my mind.” Despite the obvious financial incentive to do so, Brown — a producer and management consultant who worked for the Jacksons from 1984 to 1993 — ”had not given serious thought to reissuing those old tapes” until he ”looked at the box” in the pantry of his former home. He adds that under the original agreement, the right to release them is his alone and does not require permission from the Jackson family.
The cache — a mix of rudimentary soul originals and covers of R&B classics — now released as Pre-History: The Lost Steeltown Recordings (Brunswick), reveals a 9-year-old Jacko already in full command of an impressive vocal instrument. The musicianship and sound quality, however, range from basement-tape grade to Edison-era primitivism. Tito’s guitar solo on ”Jam Session (Part One),” for instance, won’t go down in history as an improvisational masterpiece. Still, it’s cute in the way that any 14-year-old trying to rock might be. The reissue’s producers, David Gore and Paul Tarnopol, have beefed up the music on some tracks with cheesy synths and drum machines, giving cuts like ”Under the Boardwalk” and ”Tracks of My Tears” an anachronistic, discombobulated feel.
Like all such historical oddities, Pre-History is for completists only. Others will be interested simply to know that the legendary quintet paid its dues as part of an ”indie scene” (crude aesthetics and all) before signing on with a powerhouse label.