HIStory: A look back at Michael Jackson’s life and music

06.25.09 8 years ago 11 Comments

AP Photo/Jeff Widener

Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest today in Los Angeles. The 50-year old superstar was in the midst of preparing for a comeback tour when he collapsed at his home in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles earlier today.

While his musical contributions were overshadowed by his controversies and eccentricities in later years, Jackson was an iconic performer whose role in pop music cannot be overstated. His music formed the soundtrack of many people’s lives started with the Jackson 5’s first single in 1969. He will be most remembered for 1982’s “Thriller,” the best-selling album of all time with worldwide sales in excess of 50 million, and his legendary moonwalk dance moves.

Born in Gary, Ind., on Aug. 29, 1958,  Jackson and his brothers, Tito, Marlon, Jermaine and Jackie, formed the Jackson 5 in the mid-’60s and by the time he was eight, Jackson was routinely touring throughout the Midwest with his brothers.

The Jackson 5 signed with Motown in 1968, getting a big boost from Diana Ross, who took the quintet under her wing.

From the start, it was clear that Jackson, an adorable, smiling presence, was the breakout star as the group scored hit after hit. There was seemingly nothing that Jackson couldn’t do: sing, dance-and later– write.  The depth of his talent was unparalleled during his ’70s and ’80s heyday.

The Jacksons’ first four singles, “I Want You Back,” “ABC, “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There,” all hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts between November 1969 and September 1970. The group’s popularity was so strong that its version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” soared to the top of the charts in December 1070.

Jackson launched his solo career in 1971 with the sweet “Got to Be There” and “Ben,” but they only hinted at the talent to come.

Jackson and his brothers left Motown in 1975, signing with Epic Records. The period ushered in a new wave of popularity for Jackson as both a solo artist and member of the group.

Now renamed The Jacksons, the group scored major hits such as “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” and “Can You Feel It.” However, Jackson was continuing to break away from his family. He starred in the movie “The Wiz” as the Scarecrow. His collaboration with Quincy Jones on that project led to a long affiliation with Jones and the greatest period of Jackson’s success.  The two collaborated on “Off the Wall,” which, upon its release in 1979, spurred several No. 1’s, including “Don’t  Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You.”

That album, which, unbelievably did not reach No. 1 on the Billboard album chart stalling at No. 3, was a precursor of the greatness to come.

In 1982, Jackson released “Thriller.” The album, again produced by Jones, spent an amazing 37 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and in many ways changed the face of pop entertainment through its trailblazing genre-bending music and electrifying videos.  It was the first album in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 to spawn seven Top 10 singles.

“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,” said Jones in a statement.
“He was the consummate entertainer and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever.”

As much praise as he received, Jackson seldom got enough credit for crossing genre lines in a way that may seem commonplace  now, but wasn’t done in the ’80s.  Eddie Van Halen’s now-classic guitar shredding on “Beat It” caused shock waves when people first heard it. The song introduced the world to a tougher, snarling Jackson that seemed antithetical to his previous soft image, as did “Billie Jean,” a strange take on paternity with Jackson declaring “She says I am the one, but the kid is not my son.”

“Thriller” won seven Grammys and toggles back and forth with The Eagles “Greatest Hits” as the best selling album of all time in the U.S.

He was an innovator not only musically, but with his videos. Although MTV was first hesitant to play him as a black artist (Incredibly, Epic, Jackson’s label, had to threaten MTV to get them to play Jackson’s solo clips at first), his videos helped usher in the MTV era. His John Landis-directed video for “Thriller,” was allegedly the first video to cross the $1 million threshold.

Perhaps his most iconic moment came on March 25, 1983. That was the day that “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” aired on television and Jackson electrified the world with the Moonwalk. It became his signature dance move as more than 47 million people watched the television special.

Jackson reunited with his brothers for the highly successful “Victory” tour in 1984, with Jackson reportedly donating his $5 million fee to charity.

He was widely regarded for his humanitarian efforts. Jackson co-wrote “We Are the World,” the 1985 all-star single which raised money for famine relief. He later formed the Heal the World foundation, which brought underprivileged and ill children around the world to Neverland Ranch, his residence from the early-’90s until he sold it recently.

Jackson often seemed a lonely figure, isolated by his fame and his eccentricities-such as rumors of his sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber and carrying around his constant companion, Bubbles the chimp.

His weirdness had begun to overshadow the music by the time “Bad” came out in 1987. Haunted by the success of “Thriller,” Jackson labored over the album and while it was No. 1 for six weeks, it was seen by some as a disappointment despite landing four singles at No. 1. Among the hits were “Man in the Mirror,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Dirty Diana.”

A world tour followed with the 15-month outing breaking attendance records. The 123 concerts put the superstar before 4.4 million people. At the time, the tour set a Guinness World Record by grossing $125 million.

Around that time, Jackson began being referred to as the King of Pop, an appellation that longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor allegedly bestowed upon him. It was a moniker that stuck just as surely as Elvis Presley was referred to as the King.

Although financial troubles beleaguered Jackson over the last several years, in many ways he was a shrewd businessman. He owned the copyrights to many Beatles songs through his publishing acquisition of Northern Songs. He later merged that catalog with Sony’s catalog to form Sony/ATV Music Publishing. He also signed what was a landmark deal at the time when he re-upped with Epic parent, Sony, for a reported $65 million.  The first album under the new deal was 1991’s “Dangerous.” First single, “Black & White,” continued Jackson’s pattern of making groundbreaking videos. The clip featured faces morphing into different faces of all races and was a strong statement on racial equality.  

Jackson’s isolation only increased in 1993 after he was accused of child abuse. The emotional distress led, allegedly, to Jackson becoming addicted to painkillers. He cancelled his remaining tour dates for “Dangerous” and entered rehab. In 1994, Jackson settled with the family of his accuser and while there was never an admission of guilt –Jackson always maintained his innocence-his image and career never recovered.

 Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis Presley, in an odd, yet somewhat fitting, pairing in 1994. Their union lasted only two years and resulted in one of the most awkward televised kisses ever when the duo appeared on the MTV Awards.

In 1995, Sony released “HIStory: Past, Present and Future: Book 1.”  The two-CD set combined his greatest hits on one disc with new tracks on a second disc. In a move that perhaps signaled his megalomania, HIStory was promoted by the erection of many statues of Jackson- each several stories high-in key cities throughout Europe. Although his star had already started to dim in the States, he remained a superstar of almost unheralded proportions in other areas of the world.

His last substantial tour, the HIStory World Tour, ran from September 1996 through October 1997, took Jackson to 35 countries before 4.5 million fans.

Much of the last decade for Jackson was consumed with lawsuits and health issues. His last album of new material, “Invincible,” was mired in controversy as he accused his label of insufficiently promoting the title. “Invincible” sold around 10 million copies worldwide, but was largely seen as a disappointment.

Life went from bad to worse for the superstar when he was charged with seven counts of child sexual abuse and serving alcohol to a minor (the accused child said Jackson served him wine, described as “Jesus juice.” In 2005, he was acquitted of all charges.  Jackson spent much of his time outside of the U.S.

Although he had been in frail health, Jackson was reportedly  excited about returning to the concert stage in July when a flight of  50 sold-out dates at O2 Arena in London were slated to begin. 

AEG’s Randy Phillips, who coordinated the concert dates, had told several press outlets when the concert dates were initially announced that Jackson had passed a physical exam in order to get insurance coverage for the shows and was in very good health, despite his appearance.

More than 750,000 tickets sold for the series of shows, which was eerily titled, “The Final Curtain Call.”

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