"It was as natural for him to perform as it is for you or I to breathe." That's Mark Rashkow's assessment of nine-year-old Michael Jackson, and the 58-year-old resident of Kibbutz Hazorea in the Jezreel Valley should know. He played bass in the early incarnation of The Jackson 5 in 1966 and later warmed up Jackson 5 audiences with his own band. "I remember the first time I played with him in '66. Even though I was only 16 myself, I was already a somewhat seasoned performer. But when I saw this kid, my mouth opened and I simply stopped playing. Every time you watched this little boy perform, you saw about 50 years of experience. He reminded me of Fred Astaire," said Rashkow, a native of Chicago. Due to their relative proximity in age, Rashkow and Jackson forged a strong temporary bond during the years that the Jackson 5 laid the groundwork for its contract with Motown and worldwide fame. "I think Michael looked up to me as a big brother," recalled Rashkow. "He was the cutest little guy you could imagine, he was adorable. Offstage, when given the chance, he played like a little boy and acted like a little boy. We'd talk on the phone and he'd say silly stuff and riddles [like] little kids do." RASHKOW, WHO picked up the guitar and bass at 14, was a quick learner, and in the city of blues, he had already gained a reputation as a potent player by age 15, when he played his first professional gig with blues/rock drummer Buddy Miles. "He [Miles] was playing in Chicago, and his bass player OD-ed, something not so uncommon in those days," said Rashkow. "Somehow he got a hold of my number and called. My mother answered the phone, and neither one of us had ever heard of him. He told me he had a show that night and asked if I'd be able to play. Of course my mother said no, but we worked out a compromise that she would drive me there and pick me up, so she agreed. "He sent over his album to my house by taxi, and I learned it that afternoon. From then on, I got the nickname of Last Minute Mark," he laughed. Other calls ensued, including one from Luther Terry, one of the Jackson 5's handlers, asking Rashkow to play bass in their band. "This was a couple of years before their first album came out, but they were already huge in the Chicago area - Gary, Indiana, where they were from, is only a 20-minute ride away, and the word had gotten out. Michael was only nine, but he was already a giant talent," said Rashkow. Rashkow quickly learned the dozen or so songs the group was performing and hit the road with them. As Michael's older brothers began to gain proficiency on their instruments and began taking over those roles in the band, Rashkow was then asked to warm up the Jackson 5 shows with his own band. "I did that on a number of shows through 1967 and '68. I think it was in November 1968 that they signed with Motown, and between the Jacksons' father, Joseph Jackson, and Motown's Berry Gordy, they effectively cut off all their ties to the past. They closed the door on us," said Rashkow. "I would go to their house in Gary to visit and nobody would let me in the door," he recalled. The next year, Rashkow decided to spend some time in Israel volunteering at a kibbutz, and called the Jackson home to say goodbye to Michael. "After 50 attempts or so, I got through. He didn't understand at all what I was doing, but we had a nice farewell," said Rashkow. After three years in Israel, some of it spent on Kibbutz Hazorea, Rashkow returned to the US and tried to reconnect with Jackson. "It was impossible. I went to their house in Gary, but they had moved, and every time I tried to call his manager or agent, they always said, 'He'll get back to you,' but he never did," he said. RASHKOW WENT on to play with some of the blues legends, including Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, before going into semi-retirement in the late 1990s. He returned to Israel in 2003 after getting divorced, and married his old girlfriend from his kibbutz volunteer days on Hazorea. Today, he runs a music store in Kiryat Tivon called Midnight Music, which sells vintage guitars and amps. And in the last three years, he's returned to music, forming the Mark Rashkow Band, which plays Chicago blues in Tel Aviv clubs. Rashkow said that due to his emotional attachment to Jackson, he had closely followed the careening ups and downs of the superstar's career and life, and hadn't been surprised by his bizarre behavior. In fact, he had almost expected it. "I felt sympathy for him, knowing the pain he was going through as an adult. But from what I could observe, Michael didn't really have a childhood. He'd ask me to come play with him, but we were always dissuaded by his father, because they were Jehovah's Witnesses and to them, I was 'worldly' - an outsider," said Rashkow. "Whenever I was with him, Joseph was always present, and if we got to be in private at all, somebody would always come and break it up and take Michael away," he recalled. "He never spoke badly about his father or mother, but there was an overwhelming strictness in the family. When he was eight, he complained to me that his father made him practice all the time, nonstop. He wanted to go out and play ball or something, and he was always told, 'No way,'" Rashkow said. "Even though I was just a teenager, I could see that the kid was suffering. I could sense in our phone calls that he was reaching out for normalcy."