Michael Jackson’s death was much like his life — a circus of rabid fans, family, opportunists and media members, who were in a frenzy Thursday trying to confirm yet another rumor about one of the strangest and most high-flying celebrity lives on record.
On Thursday afternoon, a crowd gathered at UCLA Medical Center soon after word spread that the self-declared “King of Pop,” aged 50, had been rushed there from his Bel-Air home. The Los Angeles Fire Dept. responded to a call that he was not breathing.
Website TMZ reported his death around 2:30 p.m. PT, igniting a media frenzy.
The rise and fall of Jackson was one of those only-in-America stories of a hugely talented child who became one of the world’s most recognized and respected talents — followed by an adulthood of lofty plans, lawsuits, financial crises, plastic surgery, health scares and salacious gossip. Through all the hardships, a loyal core of fans remained faithful, while others fell away (or walked away in dismay).
In the 1980s, he was the center of a little empire: He had hit records, concert appearances, a thriving publishing company and big, big plans. By the time he died, much of that empire had disappeared.
After years of scandals, notably his trial and acquittal on child molestation charges, Jackson was attempting a comeback and had had been scheduled to perform 50 sell-out concerts at London’s O2 Arena starting next week and running through March 2010. Kenny Ortega, who was choreographing his London gigs, said Thursday, “This was the most exciting collaboration of my life, with a man who has inspired me like no other.”
Five of Jackson’s solo albums are some of the top-selling of all time: “Off the Wall,” 1982’s “Thriller,” “Bad,” “Dangerous” and “HIStory.” Jackson was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, won 13 Grammy Awards and had 13 No. 1 singles. With total earnings estimated at more than $500 million, he sold more than 750 million albums worldwide.
“Rarely has the world received a gift with the magnitude of artistry, talent and vision as Michael Jackson. He was a true musical icon whose identifiable voice, innovative dance moves, stunning musical versatility and sheer star power carried him from childhood to worldwide acclaim,” said Recording Academy president Neil Portnow.
His musicvideos on MTV, such as “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” were some of the most influential early examples of the form, and his sound influenced numerous hip-hop and R&B artists.
Jackson began his career as a boy with his older brothers in the Jackson 5.
Jackson’s soulful falsetto, not to mention his nifty dance moves, would influence scores of entertainers, from Prince to Usher to Justin Timberlake. In fact, it would be hard to imagine the success of such ’90s boy groups as Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync without Jackson’s inspiration. On songs like “I’ll Be There” and “I Want You Back,” both No. 1 hits, Jackson’s high-pitched vocals soared with the kind of sincere emotion that proved widely infectious.
The pervasive influence of disco crept into his later recordings, beginning with “Off the Wall,” revealing a performer more confident in his swagger and sexuality, opening up new avenues of vocal expression.
Jackson’s own early influences included fellow Motown stars Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, while Diana Ross, with whom Jackson starred in “The Wiz,” became a sort of spiritual mentor. James Brown’s liquid footwork on the stage also exerted a pull on the singer.
Born in Gary, Ind., he had eight siblings: Rebbie, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, La Toya, Marlon, Randy and Janet. His father, Joseph, was a steel mill employee who performed in an R&B band, while his mother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness.
Jackson and his siblings have described his father’s abuse with whippings and forcing constant rehearsals, which affected Michael’s stability the rest of his life.
In 1964 Michael and Marlon joined the Jackson Brothers, a band formed by Jackie, Tito and Jermaine. When he was 8, Michael and Jermaine became lead singers for the group, whose name was changed to the Jackson 5. The group signed with Motown Records in 1968. Despite his high, childish voice, he quickly emerged as the main draw.
Their first four singles, “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” hit No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100.
Starting in 1972, Jackson released four solo albums with Motown, including “Got to Be There” and “Ben,” the soundtrack for the film about a boy and his rats.
The Jackson 5 left Motown in 1975, signing with CBS records, later Epic Records, continuing to perform under the name the Jacksons.
One of his few film roles was as the Scarecrow in “The Wiz,” with a score by Quincy Jones, who produced his next album, “Off the Wall.” After breaking his nose in 1979 during a dance routine, he began undergoing a series of surgeries that affected the rest of his career, and he continued to complain of breathing difficulties.
Jones, who produced several of his hit albums, said in a statement, “Divinity brought our souls together on ‘The Wiz’ and allowed us to do what we were able to throughout the ’80s. To this day, the music we created together on ‘Off the Wall,’ ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ is played in every corner of the world, and the reason for that is because he had it all … talent, grace, professionalism and dedication.
“He was the consummate entertainer, and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever. I’ve lost my little brother today, and part of my soul has gone with him.”
“Off the Wall” was the first album to spawn four top 10 hits, including “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” eventually selling more than 20 million copies worldwide.
Jackson had been somewhat disappointed with the success of “Off the Wall,” but he couldn’t have been disappointed with his next album, “Thriller,” often cited as the bestselling album of all time, with sales of more than 47 million copies.
The record was in the top 10 for 80 weeks, with seven top 10 singles, including “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” By then he was getting the highest royalty rate in the business, about $2 for every album sold. The record is also credited with helping revitalize a moribund music industry and gave the world the image of “the Gloved One” wearing a custom red leather jacket.
Jackson debuted his signature dance move, the Moonwalk, on the live 1983 TV special “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever,” which drew record ratings.
He suffered another accident while filming a Pepsi ad in 1984, when his hair caught fire, leading him to become self-conscious about his appearance. His continued plastic surgeries led to an increasingly odd appearance thereafter, and he had a cleft put in his chin in to look more masculine.
He co-wrote the charity single “We Are the World” with Lionel Richie, with millions of dollars donated to famine relief in Africa and the U.S.
After working with Paul McCartney on two singles, he began acquiring publishing rights to music including much of the Beatles back catalog in a $47.5 million deal.
One of his few other film appearances was in Francis Ford Coppola’s 3-D short “Captain EO,” which played in Disney theme parks for years afterward.
His behavior became increasingly bizarre, leading him to be called “Wacko Jacko,” when he adopted a pet chimp named Bubbles. His skin became increasingly lighter due to vitiligo; there was more surgery, weight loss, makeup and reports that he slept in an oxygen chamber and had bought the bones of the Elephant Man.
His next album, “Bad,” was less successful than “Thriller” but still sold well, with seven hit singles, including “Bad.”
Jackson then purchased land near Santa Ynez to build the Neverland Ranch with Ferris wheels and a zoo.
He renewed his contract with Sony for a record-breaking $65 million in 1991, releasing “Dangerous” with the hit single “Black and White.”
He formed the Heal the World foundation in 1992, bringing underprivileged children to his ranch and donating millions of dollars to children’s causes.
Jackson was accused of sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy and reportedly became addicted to tranquilizers to deal with the stress of the allegations. He settled with the boy’s family in 1994. Later that year, he married Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley; they divorced less than two years later.
His health, which had been delicate for some years, became worse when he was rushed to the hospital in 1995 after collapsing during rehearsals for a TV special. But a few months later he was able to perform 82 concerts on the HIStory World Tour — his most successful tour in terms of audience figures.
On the Australian leg of the tour, Jackson married nurse Deborah Jeanne Rowe, with whom he fathered a son, Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., also known as Prince, and a daughter, Paris Michael Katherine Jackson. His third child, Prince Michael Jackson II, also known as Blanket, was born in 2002, but the mother’s identity was never released. Jackson had to apologize for a well-publicized incident in which he dangled Blanket over the railing of a Berlin hotel that year.
He was again accused of sexual abuse by another boy, and after a trial that approached circus-like proportions, he was acquitted in 2005.
He lived at Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara from 1988 to 2005, when he relocated to Bahrain for several years.
To celebrate his 50th birthday, Sony BMG released a compilation album, “King of Pop,” in various countries, but it was not released in the U.S.
(Steve Chagollan contributed to this report.)