Almost Famous

Two singing families came out of Gary, Indiana. One got lucky.

Even with the scarecrow lips, the forlorn eyes, the partially prosthetic nose, and the pancake makeup into which is baked a mountain of metaphors on What It Means to Be American, 2004, there are still a few lost souls out there who would happily trade places with Michael Jackson. The money and fame screams out at their worthless lives, so when someone asks, which no one ever actually gets around to doing, they say, Yes. In a heartbeat. Any press is good press. Yes. Any of them. Latoya, even.

Not Fred Steele. "I don't know that I'd ever trade places with them," he says. "They've got an awful lot of money, and incredible fame. And that's a tough thing to manage, for sure. It would be great if we had that, and we've certainly had our share of success. But I think that the most important successes you have in life are not financial. We're grounded. We don't have that much controversy. Nobody does."

No kidding. Steele is a member of the renowned Twin Cities-based singing family the Steeles. And while he says he wouldn't trade places with the Jacksons, he started out in virtually the same place--singing with his siblings in Gary, Indiana, "America's Magic Industrial City," where these days 38 percent of the children grow up poor. But in the'60s, Gary was a thriving steel town with a vibrant arts and music scene. And, hard though it may be to remember these days, once upon a time the Jacksons and Steeles were just kids. Kids who loved to sing.

"We played churches and gospel concerts, opening for James Cleveland, and Mahalia Jackson and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. My dad would just put us in the car and drive us all over the country--Florida, Detroit, New York," says Fred.

"I watched Gary go through two or three different phases. When I was a kid, it was a wonderful town where there were a lot of jobs and people working. You could leave your doors open and go wherever you wanted to go. Then the steel industry crashed, and I watched it go from that to the gang activity and the drug thing that basically destroyed the city. Plus, we had the first black mayor in the nation [Richard Hatcher], and a lot of the [white] retailers pulled out of Gary."

So did the Jacksons. They signed to Motown in 1968, and set out on the path that ultimately led to their current status as America's freakiest family. In the meantime, the Steeles got the booby prize: church and college and the Twin Cities, outside of which they are not what anybody raised on American Idol would consider famous.

"I had an opportunity to taste some of that. I had a big hit in Europe, and I couldn't go anywhere by myself," says Jevetta Steele, whose success with "Calling You," the theme to Baghdad Café, will this year take her to Barcelona, where she'll star in the stage version of the 1988 film.

"I had to have bodyguards, and my children had to have bodyguards, and I found that it could be very tragic, because you're grasping at straws as far as what's real around you. They don't surround you with people who will tell you the truth. It is your job to keep truth and light and love around yourself. But I didn't get into this industry as a child, like the Jacksons. They were children, and found themselves at superstardom level. That's a hard world to find any real love and real joy and to stay grounded in."

That may read like the philosophy of an also-ran, but to hear the Steeles tell it, they're the ones who got lucky: They grew up as a church-going middle-class family on the west side of Gary, while the Jacksons grew up as teen-sensations-or-else on the blue-collar east side. The other big difference was that, unlike living under the iron-fist of Joe Jackson--a musician turned steelworker--the Steeles were guided by their father, J.D., a steelworker union man who emphasized family, faith, and music more than stardom. When he was killed by a drunk driver in 1971, Sally Steele-Birdsong took on both parenting roles and taught her children such lessons as "Every door is not intended to be opened" and "There's good ideas in life and there's God ideas."

"When you're constantly hearing those kinds of teachings, you get real grounded and assured about what's really important," says Jevetta. "So none of us have ever chased fame. We always felt like the music would chase us, but if it compromises or challenges any of our spiritual beliefs or the foundation of family, we walk away.

"I don't think the Jacksons ever had an opportunity to go back and grab a hold to any real roots. The music industry is a beast in itself, and if you don't grab it by the horns, it will absolutely send you careening. I think that's what has happened here: Something that was intended to enhance the lives of others has all of a sudden turned around and become this horrible plague in their family."

Like most of the saner cultural commentators trolling the Jackson entrails these days, Jevetta and Fred are careful not to presuppose what goes on at Neverland, or to characterize Michael Jackson as a victim. But unlike most of the rest of the world, they were there at the beginning, watching and listening when the pride of Gary was a little boy singing, even then, "I'm goin' back to Indiana, Indiana here I come/I spread my wings for greener pastures/I still ain't found what I was after/I got the blues and that is why I sing."

Now the Steeles are in Minnesota, still known primarily for their singing, while the little boy-man who grew up across town from them cries, "Have you seen my childhood?/I'm searching for the world that I come from/'Cause I've been looking around in the lost and found of my heart."

"We didn't really know the Jacksons growing up, but I do remember being at the talent show at the high school I wound up graduating from, Westside, where my brother J.D. was in the first graduating class in 1970," says Fred. "It was right around then when Diana Ross came and 'discovered' them. There was big talk about her coming to town. They had a big talent show in the gymnasium. The Jacksons were already big in the area because of 'You're A Big Girl Now,' the single they released before they signed with Motown. It was huge. A big event."

Periodically, the Steeles go back to Gary to visit friends and family. Last summer, Michael Jackson did the same thing for the first time in 20 years. He received the key to the city and helped the mayor dedicate the launch of something called the Michael Jackson Performing Arts Center. No such hometown honors have been bestowed upon the Steeles; nor do they have constant cable experts talking about their arrested development, business savvy, penis size, plastic surgery, conspiracy theories, or arraignment on multiple counts of child molestation, which will happen next week before a worldwide theater of the absurd.

"It's going to be interesting to see it all unfold," says Fred Steele. "I pray for them. All the families. I wish him the best. It saddens my heart, because Michael certainly is a legend. An absolute legend from Gary."

 

Jim Walsh can be reached at jwalsh@citypages.com or 612.372.3775.

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