Joe Jackson Leaves A Mixed Legacy

The father of Michael and Janet Jackson, who died today, launched their careers but his authoritarian, abusive style haunted them and their siblings.

joe with Michael in happier times

Jackson family patriarch Joe Jackson died today after a long battle with pancreatic cancer leaving a legacy that helped shape American music but also a heritage as an abusive, authoritarian parent that needs to be buried right along with him.

Joe Jackson’s death in a Las Vegas hospital comes only two days after the ninth anniversary of his son Michael’s death.

That symbolism seems appropriate because for all that Joe (referring to him by first name to avoid confusion with the many other Jacksons) accomplished – and he packed a lot into his 89 years – he will always be remembered mainly as Michael’s father or Michael and Janet’s father.

It is fair to say that without Joe there never would have been a Michael or a Janet as we know them from their huge show business successes.

Michael, the eighth of Joe’s ten children with his wife Katheryn, was only six years old when his father incorporated him into the family’s musical act.

No six–year-old is going to make his own choice to start a career, and it was Joe who became music producer, manager, and the absolute boss of the band that soon came to be known as the Jackson 5.

It was Joe who negotiated the deal with Motown that launched their big-time career and who was with them in the studio for every recording, who kept them on the road working, who chose what they would wear and sing in the early years.

joe in recent years

It was Joe who when the arrival of disco interrupted their success moved all but two of the Jackson 5 to Epic Records, where Michael really flowed as a star.

It was Joe who moved the family to California to expand their careers and later started his own record label and management company to keep them going.

It was Joe who took Janet into the studio and made her a recording artist to capitalize on her success as a child actor in sitcoms.

When his authoritarian methods were questioned, Joe would say that was how he kept his kids off the streets and out of trouble, which may be true.

However, it was also Joe who took a strap to his kids and beat them into submission when they didn’t obey him.

Michael later talked about what he called the emotional and physical abuse inflicted by his father with Oprah Winfrey.

“Stepping out of line in the Jackson household often meant you were punished physically by Joe, Michael and Janet claimed,” People Music reported today. “The late star was said to have led his home with fear and would even hold a belt in his hand when the Jackson 5 rehearsed, ready to strike anyone who stepped out of line.”

Michael said his father beat him more than once in a while.

“It was more than just a belt — cords, whatever was around,” Michael remembered in an interview “[He’d] throw you up against the wall as hard as you could. He would lose his temper.”

Joe brushed it aside saying hitting the kids with a belt wasn’t beating them. He said if he hit them with a stick, that would be a beating and he never did that.

“Janet felt the wrath of Joe only once,” reported People: “I was very young, I remember being younger than 8. I can’t remember what it was that I did. I can’t remember if I truly deserved it. … My father never touched me aside from that time.”

joe with teenage LaToya and Janet

“Joe justified this behavior, recalled People: “Parents, they are too soft on their kids. There’s no such thing about beating a kid. You whip them and push them over something they did and they remember that in a way that they will never do it again.”

Joe came from a hard background in Indiana and another era where corporeal punishment of children was more accepted.

However it is not an accident that Michael and several of his brothers during their lifetimes were accused of abusing others (wives, girlfriends and children) – because the abuse is often handed down from one generation to the next.

Joe didn’t let his kids call him “Dad” when they were working together, or afterward, because he didn’t like all of them calling him dad at once.

In many ways he became more their boss than their dad, as Michael recalled in an interview.

“And one day — I hate to repeat it — but one day he said, ‘If you guys ever stop singing I will drop you like a hot potato,’” Michael said. “It hurt me. You would think he would think, ‘These kids have a heart and feelings.’ Wouldn’t he think that would hurt us? If I said something like that to [my kids] that would hurt. You don’t say something like that to children and never forgot it.”

Michael was later accused of being a pedophile who sexually abused children but he made it a point to never beat or physically abuse his own children.

The Jackson Family in the early years

I met Joe briefly late in his life when he was promoting one of his many schemes to start or build or create something, usually with partners to whom it is kind to call them shady.

He fought with those in charge of Michael’s estate and lost.

He wasn’t a shining example of a husband though he never got a divorce. He is known to have had a mistress for 25 years and to have fathered a child with her.

There are many tributes pouring in today to Joe, who won a number of prestigious awards in his lifetime, and they are heartfelt.

But for those who watched Joe from a distance, he was not a role model as a producer, a father or a businessman.

He made a lot of money, which some will praise, but he also had to declare bankruptcy in 1999 and seemed to be scrambling for money throughout his later years.

Joe accomplished much but he also oozed negative energy that put off many of those he came in contact with before he was felled by illness beginning in 2015 when he had a stroke.

There are lots of tributes and obits available today if you want to know all the details of his life, but for me his legacy is mixed between what he accomplished and who he was.

It is fine that he is remembered mainly as Michael and Janet’s father because for all he did and tried, their accomplishments – many achieved after they broke with Joe - are his lasting legacy.

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