Michael Jackson, called the ‘King of Pop’, revolutionized the entertainment industry as a singer/songwriter, dancer, actor, and producer. With the Jacksons and as a solo artist, he broke records in every area of mainstream pop, releasing the biggest albums of the last two generations. The album ‘Thriller’ remains the most influential and best-selling album of all time.
Michael Joseph Jackson was born into a large working class African-American family in the steel town of Gary, Indiana. Mother Katherine Jackson was a homemaker while father Joseph Jackson worked as a crane operator and later as the manager for the Jackson musical group. Both parents had musical talent with Katherine a noted singer and father Joseph a guitarist and instrumentalist. From a very early age, Michael showed talent as a musician, quickly joining his older brothers on stage to form The Jackson 5 as their lead singer. Michael’s expansive range as a singer and dancer impressed audiences from the beginning, which caused the band to gain success quickly. With Katherine wielding a tight grip as manager and disciplinarian, The Jackson 5 were driven to succeed. They built a strong local following that included early shows performing alongside some of music’s biggest groups of the day, such as Gladys Knight & The Pips, James Brown, Sam Cooke, and many others. The Jackson 5 soon grasped the attention of Berry Gordy, who signed them to his Motown label in 1969.
After moving to Los Angeles, The Jackson 5 was intimately introduced to Hollywood through Diana Ross, with a formal invitation into the industry when they opened for The Supremes. They were soon topping the billboard charts on their own with singles ‘I Want You Back’, ‘ABC’, ‘The Love You Save’, and ‘I’ll Be There’. By the age of 14, Michael had launched a solo career of his own still while singing alongside his brothers. The single ‘Got to Be There’ and ‘Ben’ from his 1972 album became his first #1 single as a solo performer. Over the next several years, Michael Jackson and his group The Jacksons maintained a heavy touring schedule, guided through internationals tours by their father Joseph and supervised by Berry Gordy. The success of the group caused friction between Joseph and Berry, with the band choosing to take more creative control by signing with Epic Records and changing their name to The Jacksons in 1976. The band’s next album, Destiny, showcased Michael’s talent as a songwriter and with the release of his next solo album, Off the Wall, in 1977, he emerged as pop music’s next sensation. The album expertly merged the genres of pop, funk, and R&B like never before, producing hits with the singles ‘Rock With You’, ‘She’s Out Of My Life’, ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’, and the title track. This release set the stage for a career that was only beginning to reach its full potential.
After the success of Off the Wall, Michael Jackson was on top of the world and after the release of their next group album, Triumph. They embarked on a world tour as Michael continued to experiment as a solo performer, eventually recording the hit pop song ‘The Girl Is Mine’ with former Beatle Paul McCartney in 1982.
The next solo album from Michael Jackson was one for the record books. Released in 1982, Thriller amassed seven Top 10 hits and remained on the charts across several years, and set the stage for his status as a consummate performer. The videos he released in support of the songs also became iconic, with the video for the title track (directed by John Landis) breaking sales records worldwide and influencing the way other artists produced their future videos. Jackson became a staple on MTV and helped the fledgling network become relevant outside of its youth market. All told, Thriller remained on Billboard for 80 weeks, with 37 weeks at #1, and winning 8 Grammy Awards out of 12 nominations, both records. The album also proved his mettle as a versatile artist, with wins in the rhythm & blues, pop, and rock categories. Together with super-producer Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson also was awarded Album of the Year.
With companies clamoring for an official Jackson endorsement, in 1983 at the top of his profession, Michael signed a deal with Pepsi for $5 million, a record at the time. The follow-up album to Thriller was released in 1987 and became another mega-selling album from the pop singer. Bad produced five #1s, including ‘Them Way You Make Me Feel’, ‘Man in the Mirror’, and the title track, which was accompanied with a video by legendary director Martin Scorsese. In support of the release, Jackson embarked on a lengthy worldwide tour that broke sales records in several cities.
The next release from Michael Jackson was just as anxiously anticipated as the previous ones and Dangerous, debuting in 1991 at #1, set its own records, and featured the hits ‘Jam’, ‘Remember the Time’, and ‘Black or White’, directed by John Landis and starring child star Macauley Culkin. The album was topped off with several live appearances and a performance at the 1993 Super Bowl XXVII halftime show.
As a person and a performer, Michael Jackson was a study in dichotomy. Regarded as electric and intoxicating on stage, he was reserved and insular in his personal life, known for evading the media scrutiny and rarely giving interviews. Musically blessed, Jackson played no instruments but had the ability to reproduce nearly any instrument using his voice, and is credited with infusing the vocal hiccup into pop music as early as the ’70s. His artistry encompassed several styles musically, including funk, rock, new jack swing, rhythm & blues, disco, blues, and more. His production credits relied on his talents of beatboxing and mimicry to create a new sound.
By the late ’80s, Michael Jackson was the biggest pop sensation in the world, his every movement followed and dissected. In order to live away from the Hollywood spotlight, Jackson created his own retreat, Neverland, a sprawling compound that included amusement park rides, live exotic animals, and huge buildings sprinkled throughout the area. After suffering severe burns to face and scalp during the filming of a Pepsi commercial in the mid-80s, Jackson began extensive plastic surgery to his entire body, with his nose becoming fodder for the press. Later, he explained in interviews that his skin tone was affected by vitiligo, a disease known to alter the color of the skin.
During the middle of promoting his album Dangerous, Jackson was embroiled in child molestation allegations when a 13-year-old boy claimed to have been fondled at the star’s Neverland Ranch. No evidence was found and the next year, Jackson settled out of court with the family of the teenager. In the coming years, more allegations emerged, but Jackson pleaded innocent through all of them. The entertainer set up a rare interview with media mogul Oprah Winfrey to proclaim his innocence and explain his behavior over the years.
Jackson was born into a huge family of musicians, with all of his siblings entering show business as children. As one of eight, Michael Jackson shared the stage with all his siblings before embarking on a solo career while still a child. Shy as a child and well into adulthood, a young Jackson was linked with a few stars romantically, including Tatum O’Neal, Brooke Shields, and even pop queen Madonna.
After weeks of rumors, it was announced in August 1994 that Jackson had married Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley. The marriage was heavily scrutinized by the media and the couple were officially divorced by mid-1996. Later that year, Jackson married Debbie Rowe, who at the time was his nurse. Through artificial insemination, she conceived two children: Michael Joseph ‘Prince’ Jackson, who was born in 1997, and daughter Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, who was born in 1998. The couple divorced in 1999 and Jackson was given full custody. A third child, Prince Michael ‘Blanket’ Jackson II, was born through a surrogate in 2002.
In May 2002, Jackson faced another child molestation accusation, and eventually he was acquitted on all counts against him. In 2009, after years of accumulating massive debt, Jackson announced the ‘This Is It’ comeback series that was set in London for 10 concerts, followed by performances in Paris, Mumbai, and New York City. The shows all sold out nearly immediately but less than three weeks before the scheduled performances were set to begin, Jackson suffered cardiac arrest and died. Following his death, the Michael Jackson estate released a documentary of the proposed This Is It show that broke records as the best-selling concert film of all time.
Jackson’s death was also riddled with controversy, with his doctor, Conrad Murray, eventually being sent to prison on manslaughter charges for prescribing his propofol, midazolam, and lorazepam. His death left behind a legacy that is still being dissected by music historians and followed by hundreds of millions of fans worldwide.
- Moonwalk (autobiography)
- Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story
Written by: Triston Brewer