In 1971, when Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass contracted with Motown Recording Company to produce an animated Saturday morning television series caricaturing the recording group the Jackson Five, they capitalized on the group’s popularity. The R&B group’s first four singles for Motown topped the pop charts, and the popularity of the music and the young ages of the members (from 13-year-old Michael to 20-year-old Jackie) made them ripe for weekend cartoon fare. Rankin-Bass hired African American actors to voice the group’s speaking lines, and veteran actor Paul Frees voiced incidental characters. Mad magazine cartoonist Jack Davis created the model sheets and established the character designs. In a rare bit of 1970s vocal cultural appropriation, Frees even voiced Motown’s African American founder Berry Gordy, which at least improved upon his voicing of the slave Uncle Tom in Tex Avery’s 1947 cartoon Uncle Tom’s Cabana for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Jackson Five tried to attract viewers to music as well as to the half-hour stories. Each episode of the 1971-72 season featured two recordings from the group’s albums (Diana Ross Presents the Jackson Five, ABC, Maybe Tomorrow, and Third Album).
For the music sequences, Robert Balser incorporated psychedelic animation reminiscent of his work on the Beatles’ animated feature Yellow Submarine. Rankin-Bass could not possibly have known that the studio was producing a time capsule of a transitional period for Motown. When the series began on September 11, 1971, Motown was headquartered in Detroit, where it had been since its founding in 1959. The company frequently achieved top-ten pop hits by the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, the Jackson Five, and others. However, in June 1972, Motown suddenly announced that it was relocating to Los Angeles. The company had another recording studio there, and Gordy was making a biopic feature for Paramount Pictures about singer Billie Holiday.
The most popular soloists and groups for the company were invited to go west, but the lesser-known and fading stars and the phenomenal in-house musicians known as the Funk Brothers stayed behind in Detroit. Motown kept its Detroit facility open for two more years for those left behind before fully becoming a Los Angeles-based company. The Jackson Five survived the relocation to California, but the group’s music never sounded the same. After all, they did not perform their own instruments on their recordings, despite the frequently reused animation of Tito and Jermaine playing guitar on the show. As a result, the seventeen episodes comprising the 1971-72 season capture the last days of Motown-Detroit in animation.
The series returned for the 1972-73 season with six more new episodes and a different title: The New Jackson 5ive Show. The animation was of poorer quality. At the time Rankin-Bass was producing full seasons of new series Kid Power and The Osmonds.
Also, with recording activity slowed, the studio had only two new albums of recordings to mine for the episodes. One of the albums was not even by the group but rather Michael Jackson’s first solo effort Got to Be There. The other album Looking Through the Windows did not sell as well as the group’s previous releases.
The rest of the episodes that season were reruns, and the music on them sounded dated by 1972. R&B was changing, and the mixture of soul and “bubblegum” that had carried the group since 1969 was not as popular as the lush orchestrations of Philadelphia-based R&B recordings like the O’Jays’ “Love Train” or “Betcha By Golly Wow” by the Stylistics. Meanwhile, R&B sounds also became more psychedelic through Motown’s albums by producer Norman Whitfield and through non-Motown groups like Sly and the Family Stone. A new album by the Jackson Five (Skywriter) was released during the 1972-73 season of the show and fared even worse than Looking Through the Windows.
The new release listed Motown’s address as Los Angeles. A few days before the series ended on September 1st, 1973, the Jackson Five released the single “Get It Together”. It moved away from bubblegum-soul and towards psychedelic soul. Motown released the album Get It Together in September, and the following spring it yielded the early disco hit “Dancing Machine.” The hit single came too late for the series and, thus, never received any animated treatment. Then again, the new song had a mature sound, and The Jackson Five had done its job of promoting the last of “The Sound of Young America.”