Sharing Her History with Ours
Baltimore Native Davette English Poses with Jackson 5 in Iconic Arena Photo
It’s a photograph you might see pop up during a documentary chronicling the long, successful career of pop superstar Michael Jackson – a rather non-assuming black-and-white snap of the young music legend posing with his four brothers, each sporting what appears to be flashy 70s garb and an impressive afro.
The photo of the Jackson 5 was taken backstage at the Royal Farms Arena (formerly the Baltimore Civic Center) prior to a show in 1971, at the height of the Motown boy band’s worldwide fame. It now hangs – roughly 60-inches-by-72-inches – on one of the walls in the Royal Farms Arena’s East side hallway, amongst similar sized photos of and advertisements for some of the Arena’s largest shows throughout the past five decades, including the Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles, Ray Charles and many more.
This particular photo was taken by photographer Michael Maltese. In it, posed in the arms of young Marlon Jackson is a small girl, typically thought to be a young Janet Jackson by Royal Farms Arena patrons and staff.
We were all proved wrong earlier this year, however, when a surprising and thrilling phone call came through to the Arena’s Marketing & Public Relations Department.
As it turns out, the little girl is not in fact Janet, but rather the daughter of Melvin Franklin, one of the original members of Motown supergroup The Temptations – and a Baltimore native.
“I’m scrolling through Instagram a few weeks ago and I see a post from Chris Brown of him posing in front of my picture,” 48-year-old Davette English said, of her initial discovery of the Arena’s historic photo on display.
“I thought, ‘how did Chris Brown take a picture in front of my picture?! I knew it is floating around the Internet somewhere…but I have the worn, torn original, and I just thought, ‘that’s so cool!” “But then it came together and I was like, “wait a minute! He came to the Arena!”
“And I thought, ‘this is too much!’,” she added, laughing.
The mother of one of English’s friends had recently worked a commencement ceremony at the Arena and passed the word along to her daughter – who then told English – that her cherished photo had in fact been enlarged and was hanging up in the Arena.
“I immediately called [the Arena] and said, ‘this is going to sound really crazy, but I’m the little girl in that picture,’” English said. “I just needed to then see it myself,” she said, so she “ran right up there.”
Of the day the photo was taken in 1971, English, now a budget analyst for Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health, said she unfortunately doesn’t remember anything about it. She was only three-years-old, and was backstage at the show with her mother. Her father, who was traveling with The Temptations at the time, wasn’t even at the show.
“The Jacksons would babysit us young kids when they [the Jacksons and The Temptations] would have meetings at Motown and when the acts would all rehearse,” English said. “The Jacksons and that whole Motown family were extremely close – Michael loved my dad and my dad loved Michael,” she added, noting that Jackson even attended her father’s funeral service in 1995.
“At that moment, if I could close my eyes and see the scene, I’d imagine they were probably as tickled pink to see me as I was to see them…because they were mostly responsible for us kids…and it was cute for them to be able to come to Baltimore and be able to see me,” English added. She, her mother and her older brother used to come to any local venues The Temptations would play, including The Lyric, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Wolf Trap and some casinos in Atlantic City, but would also go to other artists’ shows in the area that her father would arrange for them to attend if he was on tour.
English said in addition to living between Baltimore, Detroit and Los Angeles as a child, she also traveled a bit with her father when he was still on the road touring with The Temptations in his old age. She learned quite a lot from her father and his love for performing, but said she never had intentions of doing it herself.
“My father’s big thing was that you have to do something you love – I guess he picked up on that old saying that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” she said. “To him, if you really wanted something you had to be passionate and focused and driven.
“To him, being a Temptation wasn’t just a job – to him, being a Temptation was life,” she added. “He put as much effort and energy into it from the day he started all the way up until the day he died.”
The Reservoir Hill resident still has famous ties – her Godmother is the one-and-only Patti LaBelle and her Godfather is The Temptations’ Otis Williams. Passionate herself about entertaining – although not on the stage, like her father and Godparents – English hopes to move to the U.S. Virgin Islands in a few years and open her own bed and breakfast.
“Yes, I sing, but I look at it (entertainment and performing) in a whole other lens because of how I was raised,” she said. “I look at the hard work that goes into putting a show together, how hard it is going from hotel to hotel … I still want to make people happy, but just not like that.”
English is still a “celebrity” in her own right, though – within that precious moment frozen in time with the Jacksons. The original, she said, lives in “just a regular little frame on my wall,” as she’s afraid to take it anywhere in fear that it will get damaged or stolen.
“I see it all the time, but to see it blown up and hanging as a public display, that’s really awesome. I can’t even come up with a better word for it – it’s just awesome,” she said.
SMG/Royal Farms Arena’s General Manager Frank Remesch added that English’s one-of-a-kind photo is one of the many that help tell our historic Baltimore venue’s treasured story.
“When we host an act in this building, we do everything we possibly can to make it feel like home on the road. To have an act as iconic as the Jackson 5 take this family photo while they were here, hanging out backstage, made a really special moment. We love having it -- and all of our other historic photos -- up for everyone to see. It’s a unique way to share our history with the world,” he said.
“Thank God for photographers and thank God for moments captured like that because you have to hold on to them,” English added. “I still have a picture of purity, when the Jackson 5 were still the Jackson 5 – they were untouched, unbothered and enjoying life and enjoying what they did. Not many people have intimate pictures like that like I do – so I like to think it’s rare.”
“Here I am this little girl from Baltimore, and now my picture is in the Arena,” she said. “To have people admire it as much as I do, that’s great.”