R&B legend Millie Jackson remains unapologetically outspoken

Georgia native built a decades-spanning career on live shows, risque humor and provocative album covers.
R&B singer and songwriter Millie Jackson, who's been in the business for six decades, built her career on old-school singing, risque humor and speaking her mind. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

R&B singer and songwriter Millie Jackson, who's been in the business for six decades, built her career on old-school singing, risque humor and speaking her mind. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

I started with a simple question.

What is a typical day like in the life of Millie Jackson?

The music legend, a sonic force who is somehow a cross between Sarah Vaughan and Redd Foxx, sits at her kitchen table cluttered with mail, and picks up a cup of coffee.

She doesn’t answer the question. She just stares at me as she sips the coffee, its hazelnut aroma filling the kitchen of her stately Southwest Atlanta home.

She bats her eyes and licks her lips to savor the taste while I uncomfortably scribble nonsense on my pad and avert my eyes.

I ask her again. She takes another sip.

“I just finished,” she said bursting into laughter. “This is my day.”

Millie Jackson's records came out late at night when the kids had gone to bed, the liquor was flowing and the card table was set up. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Her daughter, sitting in the corner of the room, laughs, and I get it.

The way she looked at me, teased me. The way she held the joke and played on my insecurities. The way she delivered the punchline at just the right moment.

Growing up, I was too young to fully understand the magnitude of Millie Jackson. Sure, I noticed her provocative album covers and sneaked a listen to some of her work, especially the live stuff, but then and now, Jackson always seemed too mature for me. Her albums came out late at night — when the kids had gone to bed, the liquor was flowing and the card table was set up.

In the wide universe of soul and R&B divas that dominated the 1970s, there was no one like Millie Jackson. She wasn’t the most popular singer and she didn’t have the best voice. She didn’t get much radio play because her lyrics were so explicit. But her live performances were legendary.

Jackson growled at her shows and stalked the stage like a panther, or better yet, a cougar. Her lyrics were raw and edgy. She would sweat and grind. She talked about sex — a lot.

Millie Jackson was born in Thomson but in her teens moved up north where she began her career. In 1985, she returned to Georgia, making a home for herself and her children in Atlanta. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

And she cursed. Lord knows she cursed.

She received two Grammy nominations for her stunning cover of “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right,” which she would do live for 20 minutes on stage if the mood hit her.

But she also had a song, which she called a symphony, in which every word was a curse. And it was brilliant. She was naughty and nasty, yet still classy and dignified.

And as early as the 1960s, she developed a patter in her songs considered by many to be a precursor to rap.

Jackson is the perfect example of “Blackfamous,” a condition popularized by author and cultural critic Michael Harriot to explain the gap between Black stardom and white anonymity. A person becomes “Blackfamous” when most Black people know their name and face, but white people often have no clue.

Think Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.

But Jackson, who grew up in rural Georgia, was a phenomenon who built a career on a combination of old-school singing and uncompromising style.

In her six decades of making music, she has toured the world, racked up three gold albums, been nominated for Grammy Awards, sold out arenas and been inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame. But she has never been featured in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before now. She was amused when I told her that this profile was going to be in the Sunday paper.

“Church folks gonna lose their minds,” she said laughing.

At 79, Jackson is still sharp, funny and confident enough in her sexuality to tastefully flaunt it.

‘I don’t have to sing’

I was a bit nervous meeting Jackson. Her persona is so big that I didn’t know what to expect.

When I arrived at her home, she answered the door dressed in a pair of sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt. She offered me coffee and food and complimented my Jordans. Sitting at her kitchen table, she looked like the doting grandmother she is.

I expressed my condolences for the long-ago passing of her ex-husband, to whom she was married for less than a year.

“Why?” she deadpanned.

I ask her if she plans on ever getting remarried.

AJC reporter Ernie Suggs takes a selfie with R&B legend Millie Jackson at Encore Film and Music Studio recording with her daughter on Sunday, Feb 4, 2024.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

“I am 79 now. OK? I’m not interested in bringing another man in here because he would only be watching TV, not me,” Jackson said.

Throughout our conversation, Jackson often broke out in song to make a point.

When talking about her finances, she sings: You can buy you some dirt / There will never be no mo’ / Just buy dirt.

“I heard that on the radio once and that just made sense,” she said. “So every time I got a new contract, I bought dirt. Now I have dirt, and I don’t have to sing.”

Jackson continued to perform until the pandemic slowed her down. She worked two shows in 2023, the most she’s done since 2019.

“With COVID, I wasn’t going out there in that crap,” she said. “And frankly, Scarlett, I never did drugs. I only drank red wine and ... saved my money so therefore I didn’t need to go to work. It’s all right.”

The liquor house

Mildred Jackson was born in Thomson, 36 miles west of Augusta, in the rural Briar Creek community.

Before she was 2 years old, her mother burned to death after accidentally pouring gasoline into a stove thinking it was kerosene and it exploded.

Her father, Ty Rufus, a sharecropper, didn’t stay single for long.

“It was just me my dad and all them women he married,” she said. “Since I was a girl, he kept trying to find me a mama.”

While Ty Rufus was behind a mule every weekday, on the weekends their home became the neighborhood liquor house. Her daddy made corn liquor and little Millie happily served it while doing double duty as the house DJ.

“I was in charge of music and the corn liquor. Our house was the house,” she said. “I was just enjoying myself and the people were enjoying themselves. They came, drank liquor, listened to the music and they carried their (expletive) home to get ready for church on Sunday.”

When Millie was 14, Ty Rufus agreed to help his sister drive to New Jersey where she was relocating.

He stayed there two years.

“I guess he thought he was still driving,” said Jackson. She was sent to live with her mother’s parents in the home of her grandfather, the Rev. William Bradshaw.

“I went from the liquor-serving house to the Rev. Bradshaw’s house, which I really didn’t think matched me too well,” she said, drawing out each syllable of “reverend” for emphasis. “You don’t go from serving liquor to praying every day.”

A year later, she ran away to stay with one of her stepmothers for about a year, then she left Georgia to live with Ty Rufus in Newark.

A dare and a break

Up north, Jackson got a job as a waitress at Schrafft’s, a once-popular chain of restaurants in the New York City area. She went to school at night and tried modeling, once making the cover of Jive Magazine.

As a model, Millie Jackson once graced the cover of Jive magazine. Courtesy of Millie Jackson

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Credit: Millie jackson

But it was at Harlem’s Palm Cafe, on a cold December night in 1964, where she got her break on a dare.

Lester Young, who had mentored Billie Holiday, was leading the band that night and Jackson told her friends that the singer was horrible. They bet her $5 that she couldn’t do any better.

The 20-year-old hopped on stage and sang Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song.”

“Yes, I, too, sang with Lester Young,” she quipped.

Someone caught the performance and invited her to gig at the Crystal Ballroom the following week. She spent her whole paycheck, including the $5 she won on the bet, on a new outfit.

Until that moment, being a singer had never crossed her mind.

More gigs came. One joint in Hoboken booked her for a month, paying her $15 a night — more than what she was making at her day job. She had three songs: She opened her set with “All In My Mind” by Maxine Brown followed by “Don’t Play That Song.” Her closer was a spicy version of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”

“I played the club for another month and that was the beginning of it,” Jackson said. “I ain’t stopped yet.”

Songwriter Billy Nichols remembers the first time he met Jackson. Demo in hand, she came to Sue Records, where Nichols and a bunch of writers were hanging out.

“She was loud and she said out of her mouth whatever she wanted to say,” Nichols said. “That attracted me because there was an honesty in what she was doing and saying.”

But he didn’t think Jackson had the potential for a bright future.

“I didn’t see her as a big star at the time. She sounded like a good singer,” Nichols said. “But there were a lot of good singers.”

He would be proven wrong.

‘A unique artist’

Jackson and Nichols, who was forging his way around New York as a songwriter, stayed in touch. Jackson invited him to see her at a show in New Haven, Connecticut.

When Nichols walked in the club, the crowd was eerily silent. Everyone including the bartenders and cigarette girls were staring at the stage where Jackson was talking, not singing.

The first time Millie Jackson performed was on a dare from some friends. Courtesy of Millie Jackson

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Credit: Millie Jackson

“That is when I first realized that she was a star,” said Nichols. “I had never seen her do that part of her act. I said to myself, all this girl needs is a record. She had her stage act. All she needed was hit.”

Once she landed a record deal, Jackson initially followed the stylings of fellow Georgian Gladys Knight.

“Everyone said we sounded alike,” Jackson said.

Her first album, the self-titled “Millie Jackson,” came out in 1972. That was the same year that Aretha Franklin released “Young, Gifted and Black” and a year before Roberta Flack released “Killing Me Softly,” and Gladys Knight and the Pips had the hit single “Midnight Train to Georgia.”


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That first album produced two top 10 soul hits, “My Man, A Sweet Man,” and “Ask Me What You Want,” which was co-written by Nichols and became the first of his many Billboard top 20 hits.

Despite the songs’ success, Jackson thought they sounded like warmed-over Motown tunes and too much like Knight. She had to do something different to break out of the pack.

That same album featured the socially charged “A Child of God (It’s Hard to Believe)” and became an early example of her Southern blues and soul background.

Her second album, “It Hurt So Good,” dropped five months later. The title track was featured in the hit movie “Cleopatra Jones” and peaked at No. 3 on the soul charts.


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But the stage was where Jackson made her mark. A highlight of her shows was her version of Luther Ingram’s “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right.”

She opened up the song and stretched every boundary of it, similar to what Issac Hayes was doing on covers like “Walk On By” or Aretha with “Respect.” She talked and rapped about the joys and perils of being in love with a married man and lamented how she couldn’t be with him during the holidays, despite all she did for him.

Capitalizing on those themes, she scored her first gold album in 1974 with “Caught Up,” a concept album about a woman having an affair with a married man. Side A features Jackson singing from the mistress’ point of view, and Side B is told from the wife’s point of view.

More albums followed, some featuring notorious cover art like 1977′s “Feeling Bitchy,” which featured her staring at the camera and licking her tongue out, and 1989′s “Back to the [Expletive],” where she is seated on a toilet.


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“Millie is a unique artist that has a special kind of personality,” said Nichols. “She is herself all the time. There is no deviation from that. That is why her music is not necessarily mainstream, but she is all right with that.”

In his upcoming memoir, veteran Atlanta drag performer Charlie Brown, who died in March, wrote extensively about Jackson’s influence on him and the gay community.

“Millie could be raunchy as all hell. I loved being nasty and her numbers went over huge with our gay audiences,” Brown wrote in “Bitch of the South,” co-authored with former AJC reporter Richard Eldredge. “One of the best compliments I’ve ever received in my life was from Millie Jackson herself ... (who) told me, ‘Charlie, you’ve probably helped sell more of my records than I have.’”

Her own manager

Because of the explicit language Jackson was known for, radio play became elusive and by the end of the ‘70s, her record sales fell off. But she remained a sought-after live performer. She traveled the world during the week and came home on the weekends to be with her daughter, Keisha, and her son, Jerroll, in Teaneck, New Jersey, until 1985 when they moved to Atlanta.

And because no man, or manager, could ever control her, Jackson managed her own career.

“I never saw where it made sense to pay someone 20-25% of my gross income to say she will do the gig. I don’t think so,” she said. “Those fractions didn’t work.”

Jackson hired her band; started her own record label, Weird Wreckuds; and booked her tours. To promote her album, “Young Man, Older Woman,” she developed a popular stage play around it. In 1979, she released, “I Had to Say It,” which might very well have been the first rap song recorded by a woman on a major record label. She even recorded a country album.

“What I think is great is that she’s put herself in a position, as an incredible business person, to be able to pick and choose what she wants to do,” said Keisha, 57. “If she doesn’t feel like working this year because all of the offers are trash, then she won’t work. And she is perfectly fine with that.”

Keisha Jackson, left, with her mother, Millie Jackson, at Encore Film and Music Studio.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

These days, Keisha, who looks exactly like her mama, serves as Jackson’s de facto spokesperson. She sets up Jackson’s interviews and sits in on a lot of them, serving as a context filler.

Keisha started singing background for her mother when she was 15 and has released two solo albums. But she is best known as a highly sought-after and acclaimed session and background singer, performing with Joss Stone, Angie Stone, Faith Evans, OutKast and, most notably, Erykah Badu.

“She always wanted me to be an attorney, because I debate real well. But I was around it so much that singing was a natural thing for me,” said Keisha, who is touring with Kenny Loggins on the Yacht Rock Revue tour. “The things that your parent almost forbids you to do are the things you gravitate toward.”

All in the family

A week later, Keisha invited me to a video shoot for her new single, “On the Floor.”

Jackson, who has a cameo in the song, would be there shooting her scene.

Keisha arrived with Yamma Brown and Heather Hayes, the daughters of James Brown and Isaac Hayes. Keisha, Hayes and Namphuyo Aisha, the daughter of Betty Wright, make up the touring group, Daughters of Legacy.

Keisha Jackson, from left, Millie Jackson, R&B singer and songwriter, Yamma Brown, daughter of James Brown and Heather Hayes, daughter of Issac Hayes are at Encore Film and Music Studio recording on Sunday, Feb 4, 2024.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

About an hour later, Jackson walked in.

The laughing stopped and they each pay their respects to Jackson, who smiled and hugged all of the daughters.

Then she walked into the studio and delivered her line: “When the hell are you gonna be tired of being sick and tired?”

She nailed it on the first take, but the director insisted on a few safeties.

After a few more takes, she smiled and walked off stage.

“We got it,” she said. “I’m going home.”

Back at the kitchen table, I asked Jackson what she wants people to remember about her. She cut me off before I could finish the question and told me she doesn’t care what people think about her.

Then she paused.

“But at the same time,” she said, “the one thing that everybody seems to remember about me is that I say what I feel and do what I want. And I took care of my kids. That’s it. None of that other (stuff) matters.”