Singer, songwriter. Jackson was born August 29, 1958, in Gary, Indiana, to an African-American working-class family. His father, Joseph Jackson, had been a guitarist but had put aside his musical aspirations to provide for his family as a crane operator. Believing his sons had talent, he molded them into a musical group in the early 1960s. At first, the Jackson Family performers consisted of Michael’s older brothers Tito, Jermaine, and Jackie. Michael joined his siblings when he was five, and emerged as the group’s lead vocalist. He showed remarkable range and depth for such a young performer, impressing audiences with his ability to convey complex emotions. Older brother Marlon also became a member of the group, which evolved into the Jackson 5.
Behind the scenes, Joseph Jackson pushed his sons to succeed. He was also reportedly known to become violent with them. Michael and his brothers spent endless hours rehearsing and polishing up their act. At first, the Jackson 5 played local gigs and built a strong following. They recorded one single on their own, “Big Boy” with the b-side “You’ve Changed,” but it failed to generate much interest.
The Jackson 5 moved on to working an opening act for such R&B artists as Gladys Knight and the Pips, James Brown, and Sam and Dave. Many of these performers were signed to the legendary Motown record label, and it has been reported that Gladys Knight may have been the one to tell Motown founder Berry Gordy about the Jackson 5. Impressed by the group, Gordy signed them to his label in 1968.
Relocating to Los Angeles, Michael and his brothers started work on their music and dancing with their father as their manager. They lived with Gordy and also with Supremes singer Diana Ross when they first arrived there. In August 1969, the Jackson 5 was introduced to the music industry at a special event, and later served as the opening act for the Supremes. Their first album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, hit the charts in December of that year. It’s first single, “I Want You Back,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in January 1970.
More chart-topping singles quickly followed, such as “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There.” At the age of 13, Jackson launched a solo career in addition to his work with the Jackson 5. He made the charts in 1971 with “Got to Be There” from the album of the same name. His 1972 album, Ben, featured the eponymous ballad about a rat. The song became Jackson’s first solo No. 1 single.
For several years, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 maintained a busy tour and recording schedule, under the supervision of Berry Gordy and his Motown staff. Gordy wrote many of the songs recorded by the group and by Michael Jackson as a solo artist. The group became so popular that they even had their own self-titled cartoon show, which ran from 1971 to 1973.
Despite Jackson’s individual achievements and the group’s great success, there was trouble between the Jacksons and their record company. Tensions mounted between Gordy and Joseph Jackson over the management of his children’s careers, and their level of participation in making their music. The Jacksons wanted more control over their recordings, which led to most of the Jacksons breaking ties with Motown in 1975. Jermaine Jackson remained with the label and continued to pursue a solo career, having previously released several albumsnone of which had matched the success of his younger brother Michael.
Now calling themselves the Jacksons, the group signed a new recording deal with Epic Records. With 1978’s Destiny, Michael Jackson and his brothers (which by now included younger brother Randy) emerged as talented songwriters, penning all of the record’s tracks. Working with producer Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson wowed the music world with his next solo album, 1979’s Off the Wall. It featured ann infectious blend of pop and funk with such hit tracks as the Grammy Award-winning “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough,” “Rock with You,” and the title track. He also found success with the ballad “She’s Out of My Life.”
The overwhelmingly positive response to Michael’s latest solo album also helped buoy the Jacksons’ career as well. Triumph (1980) sold more than one million copies, and the brothers went on an extensive tour to support the recording. Jackson, however, began to branch out on his own more. Teaming up with rock legend Paul McCartney, Jackson sang on their 1982 duet, “The Girl Is Mine,” which nearly reached the top of the pop charts.
The song also appeared on his next solo album, Thriller (1982), which generated seven top 10 hits. On a television special honoring Motown, Jackson performed “Billie Jean” — eventually a number one hitand debuted his soon-to-be-famous dance move called the moonwalk. Jackson, a veteran performer by this time, created this step himself and choreographed the dance sequences for the video of his other No. 1 hit, “Beat It.”
His most elaborate video, however, was for the album’s title track. John Landis directed the horror-tinged video, which featured complex dance scenes, special effects, and a voice-over done by actor Vincent Price. The video for “Thriller” became immensely popular, boosting sales for the already successful album. It stayed on the charts for 80 weeks, holding the No. 1 spot for 37 weeks. In addition to its unparalleled commercial achievements, Thriller earned 12 Grammy Award nominations and won eight of those awards.
Jackson’s Grammy victories showcased the diverse nature of his work. For his songwriting talents, he received the Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Song for “Billie Jean.” Jackson also won Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male for “Thriller” and Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male for “Beat It.” With co-producer Quincy Jones, he shared the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
At the top of his game creatively and commercially, Jackson signed a $5 million endorsement deal with Pepsi-Cola around this time. He, however, was badly injured while filming a commercial for the soda giant in 1984, suffering burns to his face and scalp. Jackson had surgery to repair his injuries, and is believed to have begun experimenting with plastic surgery around this time. His face, especially his nose, would become dramatically altered in the coming years.
That same year, Jackson embarked on his final tour with the Jacksons to the support the album Victory. The one major hit from the recording was Michael Jackson’s duet with Mick Jagger, “State of Shock.” In 1985, Jackson showed his altruistic side, co-writing and singing on “We Are the World,” a charity single for USA for Africa. A veritable who’s who of music stars participated in the project including Lionel Ritchie, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and Tina Turner.
Releasing his follow-up to Thriller in 1987, Jackson reached the top of the charts with Bad. It featured five No. 1 hits, including “Man in the Mirror,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and the title track, which was supported by a video directed by Martin Scorsese. Jackson spent more than a year on the road, playing concerts to promote the album. While successful, Bad was unable to duplicate the phenomenal sales of Thriller.
Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Jackson was a shy and quiet person off-stage. He was never truly comfortable with the media attention he received and rarely gave interviews. By the late 1980s, Jackson had created his own fantasy retreata California ranch called Neverland. There he kept exotic pets, such as a chimpanzee named Bubbles, and had his own amusement rides. To some, it seemed that Jackson perhaps was exploring a second childhood. He sometimes opened up the ranch for children’s events. Rumors swirled around him, including that he was lightening the color of his skin to appear more white and slept in a special chamber to increase his life span.
In 1991, Jackson released Dangerous, featuring the hit “Black or White.” The video for this song included an appearance by child star Macaulay Culkin, and was directed by John Landis. In the video’s final minutes, Jackson caused some controversy with his sexual gesturing and violent actions. Many were surprised to see the Peter Pan-like Jackson act this way.
Jackson’s music continued to enjoy wide-spread popularity in the upcoming years. In 1993, he performed several important events, including the half-time show at Superbowl XXVII. Jackson gave a rare television interview, which aired that February. Sitting down with Oprah Winfrey, he explained that the change in his skin tone was the result of a disease known as vitiligo. Jackson also opened about the abuse he suffered from his father.
Allegations of child molestation against Jackson emerged later that year. A 13-year-old boy claimed that the music star had fondled him. Jackson was known to have sleepovers with boys at his Neverland Ranch, but this was the first public charge of wrongdoing. The police searched the ranch, but they found no evidence to support the claim. The following year, Jackson settled the case out of court with the boy’s family. Other allegations emerged, but Jackson maintained his innocence.
In August 1994, Jackson announced that he had married Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of rock icon Elvis Presley. The couple gave a joint television interview with Diane Sawyer, but the union proved to be short-lived. They divorced in 1996. Some thought that the marriage was a publicity ploy to restore Jackson’s image after the molestation allegations.
Later that same year, Jackson wed nurse Debbie Rowe. The couple had two children through artification insemination. Son Prince Michael Jackson was born in 1997 and daughter Paris Michael Jackson was born in 1998. (Jackson later had a third child, Prince Michael Jackson II, nicknamed “Blanket,” with an unknown woman.) Rowe and Jackson divorced in 1999 with Jackson receiving full custody of their two children.
His musical career began to decline with the lukewarm reception to 1995’s HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I, which featured some of his earlier hits as well as new material. The record spawned two hits, “You Are Not Alone” and his duet with sister Janet Jackson, “Scream.” “Scream” earned Michael and Janet a Grammy Award for Best Music Video, Short Form that year. Another track from the album, “They Don’t Care About Us,” however, brought Jackson intense criticism for using an anti-Semitic term.
By the release of 2001’s Invincible, Jackson was better known as an eccentric whose quirks were reported in the tabloids than as a performer. The album sold well, but stories of his odd behavior started to overshadow his talent. He often appeared in public wearing a surgical mask, and he hid his children’s faces under veils.
In 2002, Jackson seemed confused and disoriented on stage at an MTV awards show. Soon after, he received enormous criticism for dangling his son, Prince Michael II, over a balcony while greeting fans in Germany. In a later interview, Jackson explained that “We were waiting for thousands of fans down below, and they were chanting they wanted to see my child, so I was kind enough to let them see. I was doing something out of innocence.”
Jackson’s reputation was served another blow in 2003 with the television documentary, Living with Michael Jackson. British journalist Martin Bashir spent several months with Jackson, and he got Jackson to discuss his relationships with children. He admitted that he continued to have children sleepover at his ranch, even after the 1993 allegations. Jackson said that sometimes he slept with the children in his bed. “Why can’t you share your bed? That’s the most loving thing to do, to share your bed with someone,” Jackson told Beshir.
Jackson faced more legal woes in 2004 when he was arrested on charges related to incidents with a 13-year-old boy the previous year. Facing 10 counts in all, he was charged with lewd conduct with a minor, attempted lewd conduct, administering alcohol to facilitate molestation, and conspiracy to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. The resulting 2005 trial was a media circus with fans, detractors, and camera crews surrounding the courthouse. More than 130 people testified, including Macaulay Culkin who appeared on Jackson’s behalf. He said that he had been friends with Jackson as a young teen. While he had stayed over at the Neverland Ranch, he told the court that Jackson never tried to molest him. Jackson’s accuser also appeared via videotape and described how Jackson had given him wine and molested him.
On June 14, 2005, Jackson was acquitted of all charges. He stayed at Neverland for only a short time after the trial and then moved to Bahrain. A friend of the king of Bahrain’s son, Jackson was able to avoid the intense media scrutiny he had been subjected to during the trial. Plans were made for Jackson to record a comeback album with the king’s son’s record company, but the album never materialized.
Reportedly in dire financial straits, Jackson sold his Neverland Ranch in 2008. He, however, sued to block the auction of some of his personal items from the home the following year. Around this same time, the largely reclusive Jackson announced that he would be performing a series of concerts in London as his “final curtain call.” There had been some speculation regarding whether often fragile-appearing singer would be able to handle the rigors of 50 concerts. However, despite all of the allegations and stories of odd behavior, Jackson remained a figure of great interest, as demonstrated by the strong response to his concert plans. Set to appear at the O2 Arena beginning July 8,2009, Jackson saw the tickets to these shows sell out in only four hours.
Michael Jackson, one of the most popular artists of all time, died suddenly of cardiac arrest on June 25, 2009 in Los Angeles just before the concert series. He was 50 years old.
He will be missed!
*Please visit the Michael Jackson Youtube channel for all of his classic and groundbreaking videos here