He liked to be known as the King Of Pop and only a handful of performers — Presley, Sinatra, the Beatles — could outrank Michael Jackson as the most successful popular music entertainer of all time.
Although ill-health impeded his career in later years and his reputation was irrevocably tarnished by the allegations of child abuse levelled against him in 1993 and again in 2004, the sheer scale of Jackson’s achievements remains undiminished.
With sales now in excess of 57 million copies, Thriller, his magnum opus, released in 1982, remains by far the best-selling album ever released.
The follow-up, Bad, from 1987, has sold 23 million copies and sales of Dangerous (1991) also stand at 23 million. His total album sales, by 2005, had passed the 130 million mark.
These staggering statistics mark only some of the peaks of a career begun at the age of five. Born on August 29, 1958, in Gary, Indiana, Michael was the seventh of nine children born to Joe Jackson and his wife Katherine (neé Scruse).
Joe was a steel mill worker who in his spare time played guitar in a local R’n’B group called the Falcons. Katherine, a devout Jehovah’s Witness who played clarinet, piano and sang, worked as an assistant in a department store
Under Joe’s strict tutelage and with encouragement and support from Katherine, five of the brothers formed a group called the Jackson 5 with Michael as the lead singer.
The sixth, Randy was still too young but eventually joined the line-up much later on while, of the sisters, LaToya enjoyed limited success as a solo act in adult life and Janet eventually became a superstar in her own right.
“I was so little when we began to work on our music that I don’t remember much about it”, Jackson mused in his autobiography Moonwalk, published in 1988.
“When you’re a showbusiness child. people make a lot of decisions concerning your life when you’re out of the room.”
Joe Jackson managed the group with a rod of iron and in later life Michael spoke regretfully of the rift which subsequently developed and was never healed between him and his father.
Nevertheless, Jackson Snr successfully steered the group from talent competitions and a residency in the local strip-tease parlour, to a recording contract with Tamla Motown records, signed in 1969 reputedly for a dismal 2.7 per cent cut of the royalties.
Success with Motown was both instantaneous and spectacular, as the group’s first four singles — I Want You Back, The Love you Save, ABC and I’ll be There — all went to the top of the American chart, each title registering sales in excess of one million copies.
Michael was aged 11 when he first saw his own little face on the cover of Rolling Stone. In 1971, two years after the Jackson 5’s first hit, Michael was signed separately to Motown as a solo act and immediately sallied forth with a string of his own hits — Got to be There, Rockin’ Robin , Ben (a US No. 1 in 1972) and others — which were released in tandem with his work as a member of the group.
In 1975, frustrated by Motown supremo Berry Gordy’s unwillingness to let them write or produce their own material, four of the Jackson 5, including Michael, joined the exodus of acts from the ailing label.
Changing their name to the Jacksons for contractual reasons, they signed to Epic, where they teamed up with the celebrated writing and production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
The results were mixed. The single Show Me The Way To Go was the group’s first and only UK No.1 in 1977, but the album Goin’ Places, released later the same year, failed even to breach the American Top 60.
In 1979 Jackson accepted an offer to co-star with his long-standing friend and mentor Diana Ross in The Wiz, a film version of The Wizard of Oz.
While working on the film he met the veteran producer Quincy Jones and invited him to produce his next solo album Off The Wall. This was the collection which marked the start of Jackson’s passage to the super league and took his success as a solo artist into realms beyond anything achieved by the Jacksons.
It has sold 15 million copies to date. Even so, no one was fully prepared for the epoch-making success of Thriller.
Again produced by Jones, the album yielded an incredible total of seven Top 10 hit singles in America.
Retailers reported that Thriller’s appeal reached far beyond the normal strata of record buyers, attracting people who had never previously visited a record shop in their lives.
Even a documentary, The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1984), quickly became established as the bestselling music video ever released.
Quite why Jackson should have been so phenomenally successful at this point is difficult fully to explain. Musically, he was no great innovator like Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan, nor was he ever a role model for a generation like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones had been before him.
But he emerged as a spectacularly talented all-rounder at a time when pop music was taking over as the world’s primary mainstream entertainment.
He was as good a dancer as he was a singer and he employed new technology to make videos that were as full of stylish impact as his music.
The appeal of his impossibly slick, pneumatic song and dance routines transcended barriers of age, race, class and nationality.
Above all, Jackson was a stringent perfectionist.
He explained why it had taken five years to release Bad, the follow-up to Thriller: “Quincy and I decided that this album should be as close to perfect as humanly possible.
A perfectionist has to take his time. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied, he can’t. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there. That’s the difference between a number thirty record and a number one record that stays number one for weeks.”
Bad was very much in the latter category, as was Jackson’s next album, Dangerous, released in 1991. And even HIStory — Past. Present And Future — Book 1, an unwieldy double-album combining 15 greatest hits and 15 new songs released after the torrent of bad publicity surrounding the first allegations of child abuse in 1993, had achieved global sales of 13 million copies by 2005.
Jackson did not react well to the relentless barrage of (frequently prurient) media attention which was generated by success on such a grand scale. “Success definitely brings on loneliness,” he wrote in Moonwalk.
“People think you’re lucky, that you have everything. They think you can go anywhere and do anything, but that’s not the point. One hungers for the basic stuff.”
As he became an increasingly reclusive and secretive figure, so reports of his eccentricities became ever more lurid and fantastic. In Britain, The Sun newspaper posed the question that came to dominate popular reportage of his private life: “Is Jacko Wacko?” He was known to have kept snakes and a pet chimpanzee called Bubbles who, it was said, slept in the same room as Jackson.
He attempted to buy the bones of John Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, after seeing the movie starring John Hurt. He was photographed wearing a face mask to ward off germs and slept in an oxygen chamber, a practice which he apparently believed would help to prolong his life to 150.
He was known to have had a nose job and a cleft put in his chin, but Jackson categorically denied persistent allegations that he had had his whole face restructured and his skin tinted a shade lighter than its natural tone.
As he got older, though, his features became oddly contorted and he took on a distinctly unhealthy pallor. “I have a skin disorder which destroys the pigment of my skin,” he told Oprah Winfrey in February 1993. “It’s in my family. We’re trying to control it. I am a black American.”
When his Bad tour reached England in 1988, Jackson’s constant companion was the American television child actor Jimmy Safechuck. In London, the pair paid an after-hours visit to the toy store, Hamley’s.
It seemed as if Jackson, having started his career so young, had been forced to stretch his childhood well into adult life. “I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world,” he wrote, in what was to become the most frequently quoted remark from his Moonwalk book.
But as he approached middle-age, it was Jackson’s abiding interest in children which was his undoing. In August 1993, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that the superstar was under criminal investigation following allegations by a Beverley Hills dentist that Jackson had molested his 13-year-old son, Jordan Chandler.
The story provoked a prolonged “feeding frenzy” among the world’s media and Jackson eventually settled out of court, paying the Chandlers a sum believed to be in the region of $26 million to drop the case, while continuing vigorously to protest his innocence.
The announcement, some months after the event, that on May 26, 1994 Jackson had married Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of the late Elvis Presley, was initially greeted with disbelief and subsequently derided as a cynical PR ploy, designed to repair Jackson’s tattered image.
But at least neither partner could be accused of marrying for a stake in the other’s fortune. Their combined worth was said to be close to half a billion dollars.
The marriage lasted just 17 months. In 1997, Jackson married Debbie Rowe, a 37-year-old nurse, who bore him two children, Prince Michael 1 and Paris Michael Katherine before leaving him (and the children), and filing for divorce in 1999.
It was ironic that a near-fanatical interest in fitness was in itself the cause of concern about Jackson’s health. Rail-thin all his life, he was a strict vegetarian who put himself through various punishing regimes involving days of fasting and long spells of obsessive dance practice.
In 1979, while working on The Wiz, he burst a blood vessel in his lung. In 1988 he collapsed onstage during one of the Bad shows in Europe, and in 1990 much was made of a suspected heart attack which turned out to be an inflamed rib cartilage, damaged through excessive exercise.
He cancelled the last six dates of the European leg of the Dangerous tour in 1992, because of “throat problems” and, in 1993, as the publicity surrounding the child abuse allegations reached a crescendo, the South East Asian leg of the same tour collapsed in disarray and Jackson retired to undergo treatment for addiction to painkillers.
It was not until December 1995 that he attempted a return to live performance, but disaster struck again when he collapsed during rehearsals for a show that was to have been televised worldwide from a New York theatre.
He was rushed to intensive care suffering from low blood pressure, dehydration and a suspected virus affecting his heart.
Jackson’s next full-length album, Invincible (2001), was a creditable collection of R&B songs which sold six million copies, a huge success if judged by any standards other than those of Jackson’s earlier work.
A greatest hits compilation, Number Ones, released in 2003, shifted well over a million copies in Britain alone, despite the almost continual controversy that by now surrounded him.
Almost a year earlier, after parenting another son, Prince Michael II with an unidentified surrogate mother, he dangled the baby dangerously over the railing of a balcony at a hotel in Berlin.
The pictures were circulated around the world and raised questions about his suitability as a parent. There was further cause for concern when an infamous TV interview with the documentary film maker Martin Bashir, first screened in Britain in 2003 revealed a middle aged man trapped in a child’s mindset.
More disturbingly, Jackson’s admission in the same interview that he routinely slept with children in his room created further lurid speculation and led to his arrest by the Santa Barbara police which charged him with molesting a 13 year-old boy. Jackson’s lawyers promised that there would be “no quarter” given in their efforts to defend him and fans were vocal in protest.
“His life has been about peace,” insisted Jackson’s elder brother Jermaine.
The case opened on January 31 2005 and the huge media circus outside the Santa Maria courtroom was not disappointed as Jackson provided them with an almost daily supply of dramatic stories.
Even before the jury had been sworn in, he announced a list of star witnesses that included Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor and Stevie Wonder, although in the event none of them were actually called to the stand and nor was Jackson required to testify himself. Even so, the strain on Jackson took its toll, visibly so.
He twice sought medical attention at a hospital, once for flu-like symptoms and once for back pain. At one point, Judge Melville threatened to revoke the singer’s $3 million bail and lock him up for the rest of the trial after Jackson shuffled in weakly, more than an hour late, wearing his pyjamas.
On June 14, almost five months after the trial began Jackson was sensationally acquitted of all ten charges of child abuse, charges which carried a maximum possible sentence of more than 18 years in prison.
Hundreds of fans who had kept a vigil outside the courthouse, celebrated with abandon. But for Jackson, grim-faced and by now extremely fragile, there was only relief that the ordeal was over and that he still had his freedom.
In the aftermath of the trial he sought refuge from the public eye in Bahrain, where it was reported that he had purchased a property close to the palace of his friend Sheik Abdullah bin Hamad al Khalifa.
Yet another greatest hits compilation - The Essential Michael Jackson - sailed to No.2 in the UK chart, but could only limp into the American chart at No.128, a disastrous showing for the man who once reigned supreme.
Jackson’s last years were marked chiefly by stories of financial difficulties brought on by years of extravagant spending. His fans remained loyal, however.
The singer’s death came only weeks before he was due to begin an unprecedented series of fifty concerts in London. When the performances were announced there was a strong suggestion that they might be Jackson’s last and that he would retire when they were over. The dates sold out at once.
Michael Jackson, pop singer, was born in Gary, Indiana, on August 29, 1958. He collapsed and died on June 25, 2009, aged 50.
Michael Jackson’s Rwandan fans grieve
Grace Kwinjeh, 35.
The New Times Managing Editor
“What a personality Michael Jackson was. What I can really think of now is that I grew with his music. It is amazing how he managed to capture such admiration, across generations. But his music lives on, he is a legend and remains an inspiration”.
Dipan Patel, 29.
“May God bless the Jackson family; we have lost a great person. I loved Michael since I was a little boy. I am going to miss him dearly he was just great at everything he did.
Alice Muhongerwa, 32.
“I heard about Michael Jackson’s death on Friday morning, and it really troubled me, and I couldn’t hold back the tears. I enjoyed his music, and he has been a great dancer. The world has lost a great musician, and its unfortunate that at the time, there is no one to step into his feet”.