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Saturday, February 23, 2013

J.J. Jackson - An MTV Founding Father

We have six days left to go in the month of February, and “Black History Month” is about to come to a close. I really had a lot of fun doing this theme month, and I wanted to have this upcoming week end with a bang.

But, today happens to be Saturday, and as we enter the last Saturday of the month, I came to a frightening conclusion. I had run out of topics to discuss as far as Saturday Morning cartoons went. I wasn't exactly sure what I could talk about this week and keep it theme related.

That is, until I got a little bit creative.

You see, Saturdays were days in which cartoons would air during the morning hours, and we'd all sit on the couch in front of the television eating cereals that had as much sugar in them as a giant piece of chocolate cake. And, traditionally, they would end right around lunchtime, and we would be forced to go outside and play.

But what if the weather outside was so terrible that you had no choice but to waste an entire Saturday indoors...keeping in mind that when I was a kid there were no such things as Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest to keep you occupied. What would you do then?

Well, if you were born and raised in the 1980s and 1990s as I was, you simply found something else to do indoors. And, in my case, there was good old reliable MuchMusic (or if you were living in the USA, MTV).

This was back in a time period in which MTV and MuchMusic actually played music videos twenty-four hours a day. There was no “Pimp My Ride”, “Jersey Shore”, or “Silent Library”. In short, when MTV was still cool.

Of course, you couldn't have MTV (or MuchMusic) without the media personalities known as VJ's (or video jockeys). Certainly in Canada, our VJ's were people that helped make the video viewing experience much more entertaining. Some of the people who I remember watching on Saturday afternoons on MuchMusic were Erica Ehm, J.D. Roberts, Master T, Sook-Yin Lee, Rick Campanelli, Bill Welychka, Rachel Perry, Bradford How, George Stroumboulopoulos, and Namugenyi Kiwanuka.

And, MTV had their own fair share of VJ's in its nearly thirty-two year history. Some of the ones I remember hearing about were Downtown Julie Brown, Carson Daly, Ananda Lewis, Jesse Camp, and Kennedy.

But, do any of you remember who the very first MTV VJ's were when the station debuted on August 1, 1981? I do. And, one of them happen to be the featured topic of the day.

The first five MTV VJ's were Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, and J.J. Jackson. And, it is the final name in that list that we will be discussing. There's not a lot of information that I have readily available. But with the aid of five different websites (Internet Movie Database, Wikipedia,,, and Find-A-Grave), I think I have enough information to make a decent article about a real pioneer in the music broadcasting industry.

The late J.J. Jackson made history by being the very first African-American MTV VJ (though given that his first day was August 1, 1981, I suppose that it's not exactly all that impressive). But that wasn't his only first. We'll get to that in a second.

J.J. Jackson was born in The Bronx, New York on April 8, 1941. His full name was John J. Jackson Jr, which seemed to explain why one of his nicknames growing up was “Triple J”. In the 1960s, his career began at radio station WBCN in Boston, Massachusetts. Throughout the 1970s, he relocated to California, where he worked at Los Angeles based radio station KLOS for the better part of a decade.

During this time, he was one of the few African-American people to work as a disc jockey at an “album rock” radio station, and he was also revolutionary in being one of the first DJ's to play music by The Who and Led Zeppelin.

Of course, J.J. Jackson was skilled in other areas besides spinning records in a DJ booth. He also did a little bit of composing on the side as well. If you've heard of the movies “Summer School Teachers” (1974) and “Badge 373” (1973), give the music a really good listen. He actually composed the scores for both movies. His voice can even be heard as the radio announcer in the 1976 feature film, “Car Wash”.

By 1981, Jackson was working as a music reporter for KABC-TV in Los Angeles when he was offered the gig of a lifetime. A brand new television station known as MTV was set to debut in the summer, and they were looking for hosts (otherwise known as VJ's) to introduce music videos, interview up and coming artists, and attend events that were music related. It was an opportunity that Jackson couldn't refuse. That summer, Jackson relocated to New York City, and on August 1, he was on the air during MTV's debut broadcast.

The early years of MTV were in many ways a huge experiment, and J.J. Jackson was involved in some of the station's most memorable moments during the first five years of the network. In July 1985, he was the sole MTV VJ covering the Live-Aid concert event from London, England. And, anyone who remembers watching the Live-Aid event knows just how huge an event it was. In 1986, when MTV debuted the long running program “120 Minutes”, Jackson served as the host for the series premiere.

And, Jackson was also involved in a rather extraordinary event involving the rock band KISS. I could talk about it...but I think it's better for me to show you what I mean.

KISS without makeup. That's an image I can't get out of my head (despite the fact that Gene Simmons has basically gone without makeup throughout the entire run of his “Gene Simmons' Family Jewels” reality series).

But, that's exactly what J.J. Jackson brought to MTV. He not only brought enthusiasm to the job, but he also brought years of experience and wisdom. When MTV debuted, Jackson was 40 years old. The other VJ's were at least a decade younger (in the case of Martha Quinn, Jackson was technically old enough to be her father), but the other VJ's treated him with the respect and class he deserved.

In an interview that he did with MTV, founding VJ Mark Goodman explained that although all five original VJ's left the station years later (Quinn was the last one to leave in the early 1990s), they shared a bond that only grew stronger over the years. Goodman stated this quote about Jackson in this interview;

J.J. was really a gentle man. He was smart. As I think of him, I think of him laughing. The guy had this huge laugh. He was this rabid music fan. Rod Stewart was a friend of his, guys in Led Zeppelin were friends of his. He championed these bands early on when they were just getting going. He did Bruce Springsteen's first television interview. J.J. was a really great guy. For the five of us, he was the wise DJ. He was the guy who had been through it all and was able to always put a mature perspective to things. He wound up handling the spotlight that was thrust on us better than any of us.”

Now, how's THAT for a legacy?

J.J. Jackson stayed at MTV until 1986. Following his stint at MTV, he moved back to Los Angeles, where he lived the rest of his life. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, he worked at several Los Angeles based radio stations, and one memory that I have of him goes back to when I was in high school. I have distinct memories of turning on the radio while I was doing homework in my bedroom and listening to three radio programs while I typed out essays. One show was Backtrax USA with DJ Kid Kelly. Another one was Casey Kasem's Top 40 show. And, the third one was a special look back on the life and career of the 1960s band known as The Beatles...which was presented by J.J. Jackson.

Just hearing Jackson talk about the Beatles with so much knowledge, and so much was clear to me how he survived in the music broadcasting business for so long. He loved what he did, and he wanted to share that love with everyone who took the time to watch him on MTV, or listen to him on the radio.

And, I think that's why so many people were saddened when on the evening of March 17, 2004, Jackson passed away of a heart attack at the age of 62.

In his later years, Jackson had undergone a triple-bypass operation on his heart, and about a couple of years before he died, friends recall that he was making a conscious effort to get healthier. On the night he died, he went out to dinner with a friend, and was driving home when he experienced a heart attack while on the road. Miraculously, Jackson managed to get his vehicle safely off the road by easing off on the gas, so nobody else would get hurt. Paramedics found Jackson slumped over in his vehicle, but they were unable to revive him.

He left behind a daughter and three grandchildren.

It's been nine years since Jackson passed away...but I don't believe that he will ever be forgotten. The remaining four original MTV VJ's still sing his praises when asked about him, and his interviewing style and passion for music was an inspiration to those who wished to follow in his footsteps.

J.J. Jackson was a legend, a music historian, and all around nice guy. I think that's how he would want to be remembered too.

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