Joseph Walter Jackson, who aspired to be a musician himself, instead became the mastermind behind the most successful musical family in pop history, attracting much controversy along the way. He died Wednesday morning in Los Angeles, according to TMZ. He was 89.
Family sources told TMZ that Jackson died of cancer. He was surrounded by loved ones, including his wife, Katherine, as well as children and grandchildren, the website reports.
Born July 26, 1929, in Fountain Hill, Ark., Joe was the oldest of four children born to Samuel Jackson, a high school teacher, and Crystal Lee King, a housewife. When he was 12, his parents separated and Joe moved to Oakland, Calif., with his father. His mother went to East Chicago, Ind.
He stayed in California until age 18, when he moved to be closer to his mother and to pursue his dream of becoming a boxer. It was in East Chicago that he met 17-year-old Katherine Esther Scruse, whom he married in November 1949 after a short marriage to another woman and subsequent annulment.
The couple moved to Gary, Ind., where they welcomed their first child, Maureen Reillette “Rebbie” Jackson, six months later. In Gary, Joe worked as a full-time crane operator for U.S. Steel while his wife took care of their growing family. Over the next 16 years, the couple would have 10 children (including son Brandon, who died at birth).
In the mid-1950s, Jackson played guitar in a band he started with his brother, Luther, called the Ford Falcons. The unsuccessful group broke up after a couple of years. Jackson was inspired to pursue a musical career for his children in 1963 when he heard his son Tito playing his old guitar. Jackson brought together Tito, Jackie and Jermaine to form the Jackson Brothers. He later added his younger sons Marlon and Michael, renaming the group the Jackson 5. Under strict and, as has been alleged, abusive tactics, Joe polished their stage presence, voice and dance.
In 1967, the Jackson 5 went professional and began playing in popular venues. The group landed a Motown recording contract after winning Amateur Night at the Apollo. From there, the brothers’ success skyrocketed, with their first four singles reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. During this period, however, Jackson’s management role in the group dissolved, with Motown head Berry Gordy taking over.
In the 1970s, Jackson began managing the entire family again for performances in Las Vegas, and he orchestrated his sons’ deal with CBS/Epic Records after they left Motown in 1975 (the departure meant the Jackson brothers had to drop the famed Jackson 5 moniker and adopt a new name: the Jacksons). Michael fired his father as manager in 1979, the year he released his first solo album with Epic, Off the Wall. The rest of the brothers would do the same in 1983.
Joe and Katherine had a turbulent relationship over the years, and the marriage was jeopardized at various points by Joe’s extramarital affairs—one of which resulted in the birth of a daughter. Katherine filed for divorce twice without following through, but in 2010, after 60 years, the union did finally end.
During a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Michael described the physical and mental abuse that he experienced as a child from his father. He claimed that he would become so scared of Joe that he would vomit when he saw him. In a 2003 interview with the BBC, Joe said of Michael, “I whipped him with a switch and a belt. I never beat him. You beat someone with a stick.”
Joe didn’t help his case three days after Michael’s death in June 2009, when he attended the BET Awards and publicized his new record label during an interview with CNN—although at least one person came to his defense after that incident.
Controversial figure? Without a doubt. But equally indisputably, Joe Jackson was the driving force that introduced the world to one of pop music’s most famous musical dynasties—and one of its greatest artists.
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.