Michael Jackson - Biography

By David Downs


             Named “The Most Successful Entertainer of All Time" by the Guinness World Records; Michael Jackson was a visionary, singer, songwriter, and grand entertainer of immense energy and talent, whose abrupt death sent shock waves acros the globe.  After a successful debut at age ten with The Jackson Five, he cut his debut solo single "Got To Be There" on seven-inch vinyl in 1971 for Motown, and released his debut solo LP, Ben, (Motown) in 1972. By 1979 he had recruited composer Quincy Jones for smash solo LP Off The Wall (Epic) before going on to release the canonical Thriller (1982 Epic) and Bad (1987 Epic) as well as other multi-platinum sellers, such as Dangerous (1991) and Invincible (2001). His conquest of Motown, balladry, new jack swing and aspects of funk and hard rock made Jackson a powerful figure in popular music. He also opened doors at the nascent MTV with his videos for "Beat It" and "Billie Jean." Jackson helped elevate music videos from mere promotional tool to art, astounding audiences with unprecedented displays of modern dance techniques like the robot, the moonwalk and the anti-gravity lean. Fully gauging the influence of Jackson's sound on hip hop, pop and R&B will require decades, as it has not even begun to wane. He is estimated to have sold over 750 million records worldwide and holds eight Guinness World Records, including the record for the "First Entertainer to Earn More Than 100 Million Dollars in a Year" and the "First Entertainer to Sell More Than 100 Million Albums Outside the United States." 


            Michael Joseph Jackson was born August 29, 1958 and signed to Motown records by the age of ten.  Jackson's father, Joseph "Joe" Walker, a steel mill employee and unsuccessful R&B musician, foisted his aspirations on his offspring, like so many failed musicians/composers before him had. Michael was the seventh of nine children born to Katherine Esther. He was raised poor and Jehovah's Witness in Gary, Indiana, the fifth of six brothers. His brothers and sisters were Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, Randy, Janet, La Toya and Rebbie. By age five, Michael was performing before class members and teachers at school recitals. Father Joseph enforced despotic rehearsal schedules with whippings and esteem-crushing nicknames like "Big Nose". By age six, Michael had joined his brothers playing dive bars and strip joints across the Midwest under their father's management. Michael started as backup on congas before moving to backup vocals and dancing. A few years later, the obvious prodigy took over lead vocals and the family of performers became known as The Jackson 5. In 1966, Michael led a recital of James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)" that won the band local notoriety in a talent show.


            When Michael Jackson and his siblings signed to Motown, Rolling Stone magazine called him a gifted prodigy of song and dance. The Jackson 5's first four singles, "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There" began a string of number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 that continue to this day. Jackson cut four solo studio albums with Motown, including Got to Be There (Motown) and Ben in 1972, the year Jackson hit puberty. By the time that the uncomfortably public phase of his altered development was over, Music & Me (1973 Motown) and Forever, Michael (1975 Motown) had come out. They revealed that Jackson's voice had dropped ever so slightly and The Jackson 5 parted ways with Motown.


            CBS Records signed the band in 1976 and the group was renamed The Jacksons due to legal issues with Motown. The Jacksons released six albums over the next eight years. In 1978, he met Quincy Jones while starring as Scarecrow in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical The Wiz. The solo album, Off The Wall, came from the minds of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, with lyrics and music by Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, among others. "Rock with You" (one of Rod Temperton’s compositions) demonstrates the album's smooth synthesis of funk, disco, soul, soft rock, jazz and pop balladry that helped the record earn a record four US top ten hits. Off The Wall's Billboard 200 placement at number three doesn't do justice to the fifteen million copies it sold worldwide - amplified by rabid fans drawn in by even bigger hits to come. Jackson was not satisfied.


            Both in terms of sales and its title track, "Thriller", (another Temperton contribution) Jackson’s Thriller is among the most monstrous albums ever created. The video for “Thriller” is considered by many to be the best music video of all time. The album spent a record 80 consecutive weeks in the American Top Ten – almost half of those weeks at number one. Seven of the nine original tracks became Top Ten singles on the Billboard Hot 100. The Thriller phenomenon was global. Thriller is certified 27 times platinum by the RIAA. In 1985, the Guinness Book of Records named Thriller the “Best Selling Album of All Time.” The record still stands.


            Again Jackson worked with Jones and Temperton, but this time penning four of the songs himself. The results were stylistically diverse. The lead single was a Jackson original, the saccharine pop ballad, “The Girl Is Mine." Another Jackson composition (although heavily indebted to Manu Dibango) followed, the paranoid disco jam, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin’." The Jackson-penned, rock-funk of "Beat It" was also a monster and set the stage for the single, "Thriller." Ostensibly a horror film-inspired funk number, "Thriller" metaphorically functions as a paparazzi parable. Tabloid fame at this time was at rabid levels and the video for "Thriller” is especially prescient. A multi-million dollar stunt for MTV, Jackson is hunted by obsessive night creatures out for blood and ultimately turned by the evil of the "Thriller." Audiences were presented with what they couldn't have then known was a glimpse at the future visage of Jackson - highly made-up, gaunt, bony and unsettlingly inhuman. The transformation would gradually play out over the following decades.


            On March 25, 1983, Jackson debuted his signature move – the moonwalk (created by dance innovator Jeffery Daniels) – to 47 million viewers via television, creating a sensation across the globe as a dance move to know. The next year, Jackson sued PepsiCo after pyrotechnics at a commercial shoot seared second-degree burns to his scalp. Part of a life-long tradition of philanthropy, he gave his $1.5 million settlement to the Michael Jackson Burn Center. 1984 also included a record-breaking twelve Grammy nominations for Jackson. He won eight, a record for most Grammy Awards to be won by anyone in a single year and visited Ronald Reagan at the White House for yet another accolade.


            Bad almost became a smash on par with Thriller. Nearly selling 30 million copies worldwide, it was his final pairing with producer Quincy Jones. Bad again signaled an increase in violence and anxiety in Jackson's musical themes. "Bad" is a camp piece of rock-tinged braggadocio compared to the predation evinced in "Dirty Diana." The rape fantasy of "Smooth Criminal" as well as "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and "Man in the Mirror" showcase Jackson's duality. The videos for Bad came at the height of  MTV's golden age, and Jackson hired Martin Scorsese to direct the eighteen-minute opus for “Smooth Criminal” ( a song seemingly influenced by the rock dance sound Freddie Mercury had created with his band Queen years before;  Jackson was an admitted fan). It featured a new dance, the "anti-gravity lean" (achieved by quickly locking special shoes to the stage), and is a legally patented move.


            In September 1987, Jackson's first solo world tour serviced more than four million fans and earned him the moniker  "King of Pop," bestowed upon him by Elizabeth Taylor. The follow-up, Dangerous (1991 Epic), failed to sell as well as his prior albums, yet tracks "Heal the World," "Jam" and "Remember the Time" found audiences. Again Jackson's videos broke records. The video for "Black or White" debuted to an estimated five hundred million person-audience worldwide on November 14, 1991. The video for "Remember the Time" featured Eddie Murphy, Iman and Magic Johnson as Egyptians.


            In 1993, Jackson proposed to and married Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of the late Elvis Presley. That year, the press began reporting that Jackson had been accused of molestation by a child who had slept over at his home, Neverland Ranch. In 1994, Jackson settled out of court with the accusers. HIStory (1995 Epic) dealt with the persecution Jackson felt. The multiple-disc album sold 18 million copies worldwide and the subsequent tour was attended by more than four million people. The release was also notable for producing the world's longest music video, the 35 minute long "Ghosts". In 1995, Jackson divorced Presley, and married his dermatologist's nurse, Deborah Jeanne Rowe in 1996. She gave him full custody of their son and daughter when they divorced in 1999


            Blood on the Dance Floor (1997 Epic) combined remixed singles from HIStory and added five new songs. It sold six million copies worldwide. Invincible (2001 Epic) sold ten million copies worldwide. Jackson's third child, Prince Michael Jackson II, was born in 2002; the result of artificial insemination. November 2003 saw the release of a best of album Number Ones (2003 Epic), which also sold over six million copies worldwide.  2008 saw the re-release of Thriller (25th Anniversary Edition) (2008 Epic) which included new remixes from Will.I.Am and Akon.


             Jackson's very public personal life had included rumors in the '80s that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to defy aging and that he tried to purchase the bones of the Elephant Man. In 2003, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney charged Jackson with seven counts of child molestation. He was acquitted in 2005. Jackson's skin had also transformed from medium brown to pale white over his career, attributed to vitiligo and lupus. He also had disturbing amounts of plastic surgery as well as exhibited symptoms of anorexia. His weight in the '80s was only 105 pounds. In the '90s, Jackson's tabloid coverage fueled his addiction to prescription anti-anxiety medications and painkillers which led to stints in rehab. On the other hand, Jackson has amassed a lifetime gross of more than half a billion dollars by being an astute businessman. As a philanthropist, he’d given hundreds of millions of dollars to countless charities and benefits for AIDS, natural disasters and burns.


            It is hard to overstate the global influence of this traumatized child prodigy from the industrial Midwest. Jackson was literally beaten, threatened and taunted into becoming a pop culture demigod. By age six, with his siblings in The Jackson 5, he was bound into to a tragic, classic plot trajectory. Already a superstar when he went solo, Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad made him the sun god itself, the King of Pop. But the upbringing that made him special also sowed the seeds of paranoia, anxiety, narcissism and low self-esteem that would be his undoing. Jackson transformed pop music and it literally transformed him, making his biggest video, "Thriller," oddly metaphorical. During rehearsals for a new tour in 2009, dubbed This Is It, Michael Jackson died of acute propofil and benzodizepine in toxication on June 25th of that year, suffering cardiac arrest. The death was ruled a homocide, as Jackson's doctor was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for gross negligence in not properly monitoring the singer, while under extreme sedation for his sleeping problems. It was reported that nearly one billion people watched his memorial service on television. A posthumous film of Michael preparing for the tour, also titled This Is It, was released shortly after his death, to wide acclaim. On December 10, 2010 an album of previously unreleased Michael tracks hit the streets. Simply titled Michael, it featured guest performances by Akon, 50 Cent, and Lenny Kravitz. The record has since sold over a million copies. The pop world will never be the same now that it's king has gone.

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