Millie Jackson, also known as Ms. Jackson when she was nasty, which was most of the time, is featured on “Unsung” this week. She has an old school, gutsy singing style which was how she made herself different from other singers.
Mildred Jackson was born in Georgia where her father was a share cropper. Her mom died while cooking when Millie was very young. There was a can of kerosene and a can of gas in the kitchen, and her mom used the wrong one when she was cooking and burned to death.
She grew up in a house that was filled with music and lots of corn liquor. Her home was considered the party house of the neighborhood.
When Millie turned 13, her father sent her to her grandmother’s house to live. He knew his daughter was going to be a problem and had no idea how to handle her. Her grandfather was very strict and a preacher, and Millie couldn’t take living there so she ran away. She found herself in New York with a waitress job at Schrafft’s. Millie was the first Black waitress at the 5th Avenue restaurant. She also had a few modeling jobs. High fashion was not for her, but she considered herself a demonstrative model.
In 1964, Jackson started her singing career in the Palms Cafe in Harlem, New York. There was a singer on stage who wasn’t very good, and Millie said she could sing better and got up on stage to prove it. A man approached her and offered her a singing job at the Crystal Ballroom. Most of her salary went for clothes and hair products. Millie had her own style to keep up, and that style was sex; she threw it all around the room.
In 1966, she became a single mother, and her daughter became her top priority. She worked hard to make sure her child everything she needed.
Soon Jackson found herself on tour with LC Cook. During her tour she found that she did a lot of talking on stage along with singing. She sang and recorded Billy Nichols’ song, “Ask Me What You Want,” which was a basic song with a Motown groove. Nichols took her to MGM, and she was offered a contract with them. Millie Jackson said no.
But Spring Records was looking for a female act, and Millie signed with them. But something else was happening in 1970. A singer named Gladys Knight was very popular for Motown. Jackson and Knight had similar voices, but Jackson didn’t want to be a singer like Gladys Knight. Jackson liked Gladys but wanted to be different.
Gladys sang songs about how fine her man was, how sweet he was, and how kind he was, but Millie was not that kind of singer. She wanted to speak the truth, as she put it.
In 1972, Jackson recorded “My Man,” and it went to number 2 on the charts. But she wasn’t established until she recorded “A Child of God.” The problem was that NBC wouldn’t let the song be played because they said God shouldn’t be mentioned on television when she was asked to sing on a program for them. Millie ended up singing a Gladys Knight song instead.
Jackson was very selective about her songs, and her second album produced a huge hit called “Hurts So Bad.” It was featured in the movie “Cleopatra Jones.”
She made her mark with the song “If Loving You is Wrong I Don’t Want To Be Right.” She wanted her songs to be relatable to women and to have the woman’s point of view. She was able to do this by teaming up with Brad Shapiro from Spring Records. Millie sang songs about women who were in love with married men. Other songs were from the view-point of the women whose men were cheating on them.
In 1975, her next album, “Still Caught Up,” was released. On stage she sang whatever she wanted to sing and said whatever came to her mind. There were no bounds for what she did on stage, but radio was different. Her hit, “Feeling Bitchy,” a song for her fan base audience of low-income women, project moms, who told their husbands what to do wasn’t played on the radio. What was taboo to most was not taboo to her, and that led to her next hit, “All the Way Lover,” a song demanding oral sex. She sang this on stage all the time.
Her fans were loyal to her, but because radio refused to play her songs, sales dropped. Millie could have toned things down, but she just didn’t want to.
In 1982, Millie Jackson shocked everyone by using the F word on stage. In fact she sang a full song just using two words, F*** and You. She wanted the song to have some class to it, so she sang it with a symphony orchestra behind her to dress it up.
Everything was controversial about her, not just her songs. One album cover showed her sitting on a toilet seat. Everything was covered up and nothing showed but the cover brought lots of criticism.
But nothing stops Millie Jackson. These days she lives in Dallas, Texas, where she has her own radio show aired out of her home. She’s on the air five days a week. Millie talks about what she used to do, and if she forgot what she did, she makes it up on air.
At the age of 67, she would like to be married so she’d have a man around to do her gardening and other household work. Her two children are doing fine; Millie takes care of all her finances and knows what she’s doing. She loves her life and has no regrets about anything.