The King of Pop is a lofty title for any person to live up to, but there’s no doubt that Michael Jackson was qualified. He had not yet reached his teens when he was recording million-selling hits with his brothers in The Jackson 5.
Born in 1958, Michael was the seventh of nine children to Joseph and Katherine Jackson. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and only officially left the organisation in 1987.
By the time he reached his adult years, he was recording albums that rewrote the rules of the popular music industry and setting new standards in the arts of dance and music videos.
Between childhood and adulthood, he became what many consider the consummate pop artist.
Michael was barely out of kindergarten when he was added to his older brothers’ band as a novelty. However, the boy’s prodigious gifts for singing and dancing soon revealed themselves and Michael became their lead performer.
During this time, Michael began making his first solo recordings. His songs, which included gentle, sweet ballads like Got To Be There and toe-tappers like Rockin’ Robin, hit just as big as The Jackson 5‘s songs.
The Jackson 5 continued to record smash hits into the mid-70s for Motown, including classics like Dancing Machine. Usually, Michael sang lead on these. He also continued his solo career with songs like Just A Little Bit Of You.
The Jackson 5 became The Jacksons when they moved to Epic Records in the mid-70s.
They continued to hit big with songs like Enjoy Yourself and began writing and producing their own hits like the dance-floor scorcher Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground).
It was around this time that Michael began to think seriously about resuming his solo career. Michael met master producer Quincy Jones while playing the Scarecrow in the film version of The Wiz (1978).
He recruited Jones to produce a new solo album for him and the result was Off The Wall (1979), a classic pop-soul album that helped him make the transition from child performer to adult star.
It was also full of hits: The propulsive, disco-tinged Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough grooved hard over a bed of swirling strings and the mellow-but-equally-danceable Rock With You was sweetened with horns and Michael’s multi-tracked vocal harmonies. Both songs became #1 hits and the album went multi-platinum.
Off The Wall was a massive success, but Jackson had even bigger hits up his sleeve. He truly earned his superstar status with Thriller, an album that boasted an unprecedented seven Top-10 hit singles, sold over 40 million copies, and won no less than eight Grammy awards.
From the guitar-driven funky rock of Beat It – which featured a memorable (unpaid) guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen – to the sweet synth-driven balladry of Human Nature,
Thriller was the rare album that had something for every pop listener. Accordingly, it held the #1 spot of Billboard‘s top album charts for a jaw-dropping 37 weeks.
However, the music of Thriller was only part of its overall impact on pop culture. Another key part of its significance came from the innovative videos made to promote it. Videos like Billie Jean and Beat It meshed Michael’s mastery of dance with sophisticated visual storytelling, making him the first R&B artist to get heavy airplay on MTV.
The album’s most memorable video came from the title song, a complex mini-movie that paid tribute to classic horror films like Night Of The Living Dead and An American Werewolf In London. In fact, the video was directed by Werewolf’s director, John Landis.
Thriller allowed Michael Jackson to influence pop culture in many ways. The layered red-leather jacket and the single sequined glove he wore became fashion trends after being seen in his videos. The ‘moonwalking’ dance step he dreamt up for his appearance on Motown’s 25th Anniversary Special became a fad among dancers.
Billie Jean was the second single to be extracted from the album which would go on to sell more than forty million copies worldwide. With Jackson’s vocals recorded in one take, the song boasted a video which enjoyed enormous television attention and undoubtedly added to his already impressive reputation.
The workaholic vegetarian man-child with Diana Ross’s face and one sequined glove had made the most successful pop album of all time. It didn’t just go gold or platinum . . . It went nuclear! Even parodies of his work could become major hits, as proven by “Weird Al” Yankovic’s success with Eat It, his food-themed parody of Beat It.
On Oprah he explained away his whitening skin by claiming he had some rare pigmentation disease. Well even if we bought that, Jacko, What about the snout? Maybe it was an after effect of his hair catching fire in that Pepsi commercial in January 1984? Maybe he spent too long in the oxygen tank which the National Enquirer revealed on their front cover? Maybe Bubbles (Michael’s pet chimp) bit it off? Who knows (or cares)?
Being a moon walking, single-glove-wearing, child-friendly freak without a nose didn’t take away from his truly superb voice and outstanding dance steps – they just gave him the added edge that all pop icons need.
Although he would not release another album until 1987, Jackson stayed busy throughout the mid-80s. He appeared with his brothers on their hit album Victory and also on the subsequent, hugely successful ‘Victory’ tour.
He also lent his backup vocals to Rockwell’s hit song Somebody’s Watching Me and appeared in the Disneyland/Epcot Centre 3-D attraction Captain EO.
He performed on the all-star USA For Africa charity song We Are The World, which he also co-wrote with Lionel Richie. This song also made millions of dollars for charity and won the Song of The Year Award at the 1986 Grammy Awards.
In 1987, reports appeared that Jackson had offered $50,000 to buy the remains of the Elephant Man (the deformed Victorian John Merrick, immortalised in David Lynch’s 1980 film of the same name) from the London Hospital.
The headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses issued a statement saying they no longer considered the singer to be of their faith.
Michael Jackson returned to the pop charts with Bad (1987). The title cut was a #1 pop and R&B hit that also had a memorable video – directed by Martin Scorcese – that depicted Michael Jackson calling the bluff of a group of would-be tough guys.
The Bad album also scored hits with the swirling love songs The Way You Make Me Feel, the piano-accented ballad I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, the socially-conscious Man In The Mirror and the guitar-driven rocker Dirty Diana. These follow-ups all went to #1 on the charts as Jackson toured the world and delighted screaming audiences of all ages.
1992’s Dangerous found Michael experimenting with a new R&B style called New Jack Swing on Remember The Time and recruiting Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash to lend his guitar chops to Black And White. Both songs were hits and were followed by another successful social-consciousness song, Heal The World.
In 1993, a complaint was filed on behalf of 13-year-old Jordan Chandler, which accused Jackson of sexual molestation. The civil action was settled for an undisclosed sum and the family of the child then refused to allow him to testify in the subsequent criminal case which collapsed.
No charges were ever legally proven in the case and due to a confidentiality clause, neither side has commented on the allegations other than to state that the payment did not constitute an admission of guilt. Subsequent to the settlement, Californian law has been modified, to avoid minors having a financial incentive not to testify in a criminal lawsuit.
Michael Jackson married twice. In 1994, he married Elvis Presley‘s daughter, Lisa Marie, but they were divorced within two years. In 1996, he married Debbie Rowe. Despite two children, Prince Michael and Paris Katherine, the couple also divorced, in 1999.
Early in 2002, Jackson had another son, Prince Michael II (sometimes known as “Blanket”) via a surrogate mother, whose identity was not released. For security reasons, the children were masked whenever they appeared in public. Ms Rowe claimed that this was at her request, to prevent kidnapping.
Finally, in November 2003, Jackson was booked and released on bail to face charges of “lewd or lascivious acts” with a child under 14.
He faced nine counts on various charges. Jackson countered with allegations of mistreatment and police brutality. In 2005 Jackson stood trial and was cleared of all charges.
Jackson died on 25 June 2009 after suffering from cardiac arrest. Before his death, Jackson had reportedly been administered drugs such as propofol and lorazepam. The Los Angeles County Coroner declared his death a homicide, and his personal physician, Conrad Murray, pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter.