A powerfully creative and disciplined artist, Michael Jackson is a distinctive vocalist, an imaginative and original songwriter with a gift for turning his own experiences into powerful lyrics, and a dancer almost without peer. Keeping control over his own career, he ruled pop and R&B music charts throughout the 1980s. However, beginning in the 1990s and continuing into the new millenium, Jackson's erratic behavior overshadowed his music, and his private life made more headlines than his music did during that time.
Previously the lead singer of the beloved family group the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson was in his early twenties when Thriller catapulted him into the ranks of the rich and famous. He has never matched the success of Thriller, and in the 1990s and early 2000s, his career suffered serious reversals, the most damaging of which may have been the accusations of child abuse leveled against the singer in 1993. By 2000, the star of the self-proclaimed "King of Pop" seemed to have dimmed. But no one who remembered the explosion of his talent during the previous decade could doubt either his overall impact as a performer or his ability to once again seize the limelight.
The Jackson 5 Was Born
Jackson was born on August 29, 1958, in the steel manufacturing center of Gary, Indiana. His father Joseph had played guitar in a local group called the Falcons; his mother Katherine was a country music enthusiast who instilled in her eight children a love of singing. Joseph, very demanding and rumoredy his childreno be an abusive man, aimed to turn his five male childrenackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michaelnto musical stars, and by 1964, before Michael's sixth birthday, had formed them into the Jackson 5. The group played in local arenas and travelled throughout the Midwest performing before they were noticed. Attracting the attention of hit singer Gladys Knight and pianist Bobby Taylorot Diana Ross as some have claimedhe Jackson 5 were signed in 1968 to the Motown label, whose roster of youthful black acts had reliably been generating hits for several years.
Michael's exuberant vocals defined such catchy Jackson 5 hits as "ABC" and "I'll Be There," both of which hit number one on the charts in 1970. He released three albums for Motown as a solo artist, with singles such as "Ben," "Rockin' Robin," and "Got to Be There" reaching top chart levels. With Michael as lead vocalist and choreographer, the group toured extensively, giving audiences electrified shows that made the Jackson 5 more popular with each new show. Joseph Jackson and label founder, Berry Gordy, Jr., never saw eye to eye. Joseph always believed his sons could produce and write, but were limited by Motown's management. The Jacksons left Motown after a dispute over artistic control and signed with CBS's Epic label in 1976.
Motown sued and the Jackson 5 lost its name. Michael filed a lawsuit in 2003 to regain the rights to the "Jackson 5" name, as well as millions in unpaid royalties he claimed he was owed, but the case was thrown out in court. After leaving Motown, the brothers (minus Jermaine, who opted to stay with Motown), now known as The Jacksons, went on to be successful on the Epic label with such hits as "Blame It On The Boogie," "Shake Your Body," and "Heartbreak Hotel," all of which were written by various Jackson brothers.
Michael sought to carve out a career independent of his siblings. Though he made solo albums as a child on the Motown label, it was on Epic that Michael became a superstar in his own right. He played the Scarecrow in the 1978 film The Wiz (opposite longtime friend Diana Ross in the role of Dorothy), and during the making of the film met music executive and producer Quincy Jones.
Jones would become one of the architects of Jackson's grand successes, creating a light, sophisticated production style that effectively showcased Jackson's quiet yet intensely dramatic vocals. A musical eclectic since his jazz days in the early 1960s, Jones also encouraged Jackson to experiment with novel stylistic fusions. The first fruit of their efforts was Jackson's 1979 release Off the Wall, which mixed disco and ballad elements and spawned four top ten singles.
Emergence of a Pop Icon
Jones also produced Thriller, the long-awaited followup to Off the Wall. After the release of 'The Girl Is Mine" (a duet with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney) as the first single, the album's sales built slowly. But with subsequent singles, Jackson emerged spectacularly as a personality who could appeal to diverse audiences like no one else in American music had been able to for years. "Beat It," featuring rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen, crossed over to attain popularity even among fans of heavy metal music; "Billie Jean" drew on Jackson's own experience of unjust paternity accusations. Both songs reached number one, and "Billie Jean" made him the first artist to be number one on the pop single, pop album, R&B single, and R&B album charts simultaneously. Thriller went on to generate an unprecedented total of seven top ten singles. The album roosted atop Billboard magazine's sales charts for 37 weeks, and at its peak was reported to be selling more than 500,000 copies every week.
In 1985 Jackson co-wrote the international famine relief single "We Are the World," one of the biggest selling singles of all time. For a time, it seemed that everything Jackson touched turned to gold or platinum. His videos for the Thriller album helped to put the fledgling music video network MTV on the map. His videos also showcased his dance moves that were still being imitated well into the 1990s. His most famous move, the Moonwalk, became a dance craze. Jackson first displayed the Moonwalk in his video for his song, "Billie Jean." Jane Fonda in Time magazine, described his music as "A fresh, original sound. The music is energetic, and it's sensual. You can dance to it, work out to it, make love to it, sing to it. It's hard to sit still to."
Jackson could also count as fans of his dancing, such pros as Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire. Astaire was quoted in Time as saying, "My Lord, he is a wonderful mover. He makes these moves up himself and it is just great to watch I don't know much more dancing he will take up, because singing and dancing at the same time is very difficult. But Michael is a dedicated artist."
His next album release, 1987's Bad, sold 22 million copies worldwide, a disappointment only by the lofty standard Thriller had established. Bad included five number one singles, including "Bad" and "The Way You Make Me Feel." Dangerous, released in 1991 with new producer Teddy Riley at the helm, likewise topped 20 million in total sales. Dangerous produced "Remember The Time," that won R&B's Best Single at the Grammys. The album also featured kid rap duo Kris Kross, rapper Heavy D, and Princess Stephanie of Monaco.
In the years following the release of Thriller, Jackson found himself subject to the isolation that artists in the top echelon of fame inevitably experience. A devout Jehovah's Witness, he adopted a disguise and went door to door to promote the religion shortly after the album was released. But the pressures of stardom eventually made it impractical for him to continue his religious activities, and he renounced his membership in the sect in 1987 after his video "Thriller" was condemned by the group. A public perception of Jackson as a curious recluse began to take shape about this time. He was a constant subject of stories in the nation's tabloid press. Someuch as the story that he slept in a levitating "hyperbaric chamber" for the purpose of extending his life spanere planted by Jackson's own operatives as a way of garnering publicity. Jackson's skin seemed to become progressively lighter, leading to rumors that he was bleaching his skin in order to appear whiter.
Rocked by Scandal
Jackson countered this rumor in a February of 1993 interview with television talk show host Oprah Winfrey, claiming that he suffered from vitiligo, a rare skin disease. But public unease with the star increased markedly as a result of much more serious allegations that surfaced in August of that year. Jackson was accused of sexually molesting a thirteen-year-old boy at his Encino, California, compound, called Neverland. The singer had long enjoyed surrounding himself with children; in September, his sister La Toya claimed that he had sometimes spent nights together with young children in his bedroom. Jackson strongly denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that he was the victim of an extortion plot on the part of the father of the thirteen-year-old. The case was settled privately for a sum of nearly $20 million in January of 1994, and charges were dropped, but it cost Jackson a lucrative endorsement contract with Pepsi-Cola.
A few months after the settlement, the media announced the secret marriage of Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of singer Elvis Presley. The marriage, seen by much of the public as a possible distraction from the still-fresh court publicity, took place on May 26, 1994, in the Dominican Republic. Jackson's hopes that this would be the start of a life of tranquility were shattered when Presley filed for divorce in January of 1996. In November of the same year, Jackson married Debbie Rowe, his plastic surgeon's nurse, in Sydney, Australia. Rowe gave birth to their son, Prince Michael Jackson, in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on February 12, 1997. The couple, who divorced in 1999, were graced with the birth of a daughter, Paris Michael Katherine, in April of 1998. Rowe, who later described the children as "gifts" she gave to Jackson, has no contact with her children. People quoted her as saying, "I had them because I wanted him to be a father I didn't do it to be a mother."
Attempted to Revive Music Career
Though Jackson's personal life continued to pique the public interest, reception to his music cooled considerably. Despite a $30 million marketing campaign, Jackson's 1995 release HIStory: Past, Present, and Future Book I fell short of expectations with its sales of two million units domestically, 12 million internationally. A 1997 album, Blood on the Dance Floor: History in the Mix, fared even worse, with little marketing and domestic sales in the hundreds of thousands; it consisted largely of remixes by various hit producers of songs from the 1995 HIStory release. Jackson seemed to be attempting to update his style to fit with the technology-driven musical trends of the 1990s.
Early in 2001 he was inducted as a solo artist into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and later that year he released his first album of all new material in ten years, Invincible. Additionally he made an appearance at the MTV Music Video Awards and appeared as a headliner in Washington, D.C., at a benefit concert for victims of terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, against the United States. However, despite these attempts at a musical comeback, Jackson's curious lifestyle overshadowed his performance.
In early 2003, Jackson attempted to dispel rumors by opening his life up to the public eye. British journalist Martin Bashir followed Jackson around with a camera for eight months, gathering hundreds of hours of footage, which was ultimately edited into a two-hour television special. On film, Jackson speaks blithely of sleeping in beds with young children, introduces his third child, Prince Michael II (affectionately known as "Blanket" for the head covering he is always wearing), as the product of "a surrogate mother and my own sperm cells," and alleges he only had plastic surgery on his nose in order to hit "higher notes." These statements, coupled with other bizarre acts including dangling his youngest child off the third story balcony of a German hotel, had many wondering whether Jackson was fit to be a father.
Jackson expressed outrage at being "betrayed" by Bashir, as he told People. His brother Jermaine concurred, comparing the documentary to a "modern day lynching." Jackson put together his own television special, culled from his own cameramen that taped Bashir taping Jackson, in an attempt to set the record straight. While it didn't soothe all critics, some felt that the persecution of Jackson had gone on long enough. MSNBC writer Michael Ventre opined, "What he should do to again conquer the charts and make the public focus on his talent rather than his 'idiosyncracies' is to return to his roots. Take some blues and funk and rock and pop, mix in a large dose of passion, recruit Quincy Jones to produce, and release something that harkens back to the old days."
Jackson returned to the studio in late 2003 with an unlikely collaborator&B hitmaker R. Kelly, who was also going through his own set of trying circumstances. Jackson cut a new Kelly-penned single, "One More Chance," which was scheduled for release in November of 2003, the only new track on Number Ones, a collection of all his greatest hits of the past 25 years, and one more chance for Jackson to revive his music career.
Got to Be There, Motown, 1972.
Ben, Motown, 1972.
Music and Me, Motown, 1973.
Forever, Michael, Motown, 1975.
The Best of Michael Jackson, Motown, 1975.
Off the Wall, Epic, 1979.
Thriller, Epic, 1982.
Bad, Epic, 1987.
Dangerous, Epic, 1991.
HIStory: Past, Present, and Future Book I, Epic, 1995.
Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix, Epic, 1997.
Invincible, Epic, 2001.
Number Ones, Epic, 2003.
With the Jackson 5
Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, Motown, 1969.
ABC, Motown, 1970.
Third Album, Motown, 1970.
The Jackson 5 Christmas Album, Motown, 1970.
Maybe Tomorrow, Motown, 1971.
Goin' Back to Indiana, Motown, 1971.
The Jackson 5's Greatest Hits, Motown, 1971.
Looking Through the Windows, Motown, 1972.
Skywriter, Motown, 1973.
Get It Together, Motown, 1973.
Dancing Machine, Motown, 1974.
Moving Violation, Motown, 1975.
Joyful Jukebox Music, Motown, 1976.
The Jackson 5 Anthology, Motown, 1976.
The Jacksons, Epic, 1976.
Goin' Places, Epic, 1977.
Destiny, Epic, 1978.
Triumph, Epic, 1980.
Boogie, Motown, 1980.
The Jacksons Live, Epic, 1981.
Farewell My Summer Love, Motown, 1984 (recorded 1973, previously unreleased).
Victory, Epic, 1984.
Jackson, Michael, Moonwalk, Doubleday, 1988.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, eds., The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Taraborrelli, J. Randy, Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness, Birch Lane Press, 1991.
Atlanta Journal, November 26, 1996.
Billboard, March 30, 1991.
Detroit Free Press, August 3, 1998.
Europe Intelligence Wire, September 19, 2003.
Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1998.
MacLeans, April 20, 1998.
New York Times, March 20, 1996; June 23, 1997.
People, March 1, 1993; September 6, 1993; May 4, 1998; December 9, 2002; February 17, 2003; February 24, 2003.
Time, March 19, 1984; September 14, 1987.
Washington Post, August 2, 1994; January 19, 1996.
"Jackson Picks Best for Ones," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/newsarticle.asp?nid=18774 (October 4, 2003).
Michael Jackson Official Website, http://www.michaeljackson.com (October 4, 2003).
James M. Manheim
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