He was born in 1928 or 1929, in Fountain Hill (Ashley County), the oldest of five children. His father was referred to as "Professor" because he taught school and was one of few Black men in the county to own a car.
He was 12 when his parents separated; he went to Oakland, Calif., with his father. When his father remarried, he was 18, and he moved to East Chicago, Ind., to live with his mother and siblings. He never finished high school, but worked in a steel mill and began training to become a professional boxer.
In 1949, he met and soon married 17-year-old Katherine Scruse. The couple bought a small two-bedroom house in nearby Gary, Ind., and started a family. The boxing career didn't work out, so he continued working in the mill as a full-time crane operator. They went on to have 10 children, one dying at birth.
In the mid-1950s, he and his brother Luther started a band, called the Ford Falcons, which wasn't successful, but he recognized musical talent in his children. He started training his three older sons to perform; later he added the next two sons, making a group of five. He demanded long hours of intense rehearsal. In the mid-1960s, he booked the five boys in talent shows and high school functions, then more professional venues, landing a gig at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. Their first professional contract was with Steeltown Records in Gary, where their first single was "Big Boy," with his youngest son as the lead singer. They became a local hit when the recording was played on Chicago and Gary radio stations. In a few months, he landed an audition for the boys with Motown Records in Detroit. In March 1969, they signed with Motown.
He moved his family to California, where he took personal control of every Motown recording session. They became the first group whose first four singles were No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. He maintained a strict business demeanor with his sons, insisting they think of him more their manager than their father — they had to refer to him by name, rather than "Dad" — resulting in a cold family dynamic. Motown CEO Berry Gordy took over the recording sessions, but he still controlled his sons' personal appearances in Las Vegas. The boys gradually left his management, until, in 1983, all had withdrawn. He also trained three of his daughters with a similar outcome.
Who was this strict father, whose youngest son became "The King of Pop"?