17 minute read

Michael Jackson Biography

Singing with the Jackson 5, Striking Out as a Solo Artist, Inspired Dance Moves, Growing Popularity

1958-

Singer, songwriter, dancer

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 rhythm-and-blues music charts throughout the 1980s. Jackson's private life has proven just as fascinating as his music and dance moves.

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 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 the late 1990s, the star of the self-proclaimed "King of Pop" seemed to have dimmed, especially after 2003, when he was arrested on a number of charges including ten counts of child molestation. 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.

Singing with the Jackson 5

Jackson was born on August 29, 1958, in the steel-manufacturing center of Gary, Indiana, outside of Chicago. 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 rumored by his children to be an abusive man, aimed to turn his five male children—Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael—into musical stars. By 1964, before Michael's sixth birthday, he had formed them into the Jackson 5. The group played in local arenas and traveled throughout the Midwest performing before they were noticed. Attracting the attention of hit singer Gladys Knight and pianist Bobby Taylor—not Diana Ross as some have claimed—the 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 "I Want You Back," "The Love You Save," "ABC," and "I'll Be There," all of which hit Number One 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, minus Jermaine, 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. The brothers now known as The Jacksons—added to the group was youngest brother, Randy—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.

As the Jackson 5, the brothers appeared in their first TV special, Goin' Back to Indiana, an ABC network presentation that also starred comedians Bill Cosby and Tom Smothers. ABC also aired a Saturday morning animated series The Jackson Five which featured the Jacksons' singing voices. As The Jacksons, they performed in Las Vegas with their sisters Rebbie, La Toya, and Janet. (Incidentally, Janet in the 1990s would eclipse Michael in popularity.)

Striking Out as a Solo Artist

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.

Jones also produced Thriller, the long-awaited follow-up to Off the Wall. Afterthe release of the mild novelty song "The Girl Is Mine" (a duet with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney) as the first single, the album's sales built slowly. But with subsequent single releases 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 thirty-seven weeks, and at its peak was reported to be selling more than 500,000 copies every week.

Inspired Dance Moves

At a Glance …

Born Michael Joseph Jackson on August 19, 1958, in Gary, Indiana; son of Joseph (a heavy equipment operator and part-time musician) and Katherine (a sales clerk, maiden name Scruse) Jackson. Married Lisa Marie Presley, 1994 (divorced 1996); married Debbie Rowe, 1996 (divorced 1999); children: (with Rowe), Prince Michael Jackson Jr. and Paris Michael Katherine; (with unknown mother), Prince Michael Jackson II.

Career: Performing and recording artist, 1963-. Vocalist with the Jackson 5, 1963-76; group signed with Motown Records, 1969; signed as solo artist with Motown, 1972-.

Awards: Numerous Grammy awards for Thriller, including album of the year, record of the year, best male rock vocal performance for "Beat It", and best new R&B song for "Billie Jean"; Song of the Year for "We Are the World," 1986; special humanitarian award from President Ronald Reagan, 1984; American Music Awards, Special Award of Achievement, 1989; World Music Awards for Best-Selling American Artist, World's Best-Selling Pop Artist, and World's best-Selling Artist of the Era, 1993; Grammy Award, Living Legend Award, 1993; Best R & B Single for "Remember The Time," 1993; Bambi Award, for Pop Artist of the Millennium, 2002.

Addresses: Web—http://mjjsource.com.

In 1985 Jackson co-wrote the international famine-relief single "We Are the World," one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. It seemed that everything Jackson touched turned to gold or platinum. His videos for the Thriller album helped to put the Music Television Channel, or MTV for short, 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." He also began wearing one glove that was covered with rhinestones. He was asked by Barbara Walters on the television show 20/20 why he wore one glove, Jackson replied, "Cooler than two." Glove aside, many were impressed with Jackson's style and moves. 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, who 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."

Jackson reunited with his brothers, including Jermaine, for a Motown 25 television special in 1983. Afterward, the Jacksons released another album, titled Victory, and then went on tour. Pepsi, who had signed Michael to a lucrative contract, decided to make a commercial with all the brothers performing. During production, an accident occurred and Michael's hair and scalp was badly burned, but he fully recovered. The tour was his swan song exit. After the end of the tour, Michael left the group and soon afterward, they disbanded.

Growing Popularity

His next album release, 1987's Bad, sold 22 million copies internationally, a disappointment only by the lofty standard Thriller had established. Bad included five number one singles: "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," "Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Man in the Mirror," and "Dirty Diana." 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 Kriss Kross, rapper Heavy D, and Princess Stephanie of Monaco.

Jackson continued to produce videos. As his popularity grew, he was able to premiere each video during primetime television and MTV. Most videos were short form, that is, lasting the length of the songs, but some were long form, which included dialogue, and some were mini-movies.

His song "Thriller" began the tradition, and the video The Making of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' garnered sales in the millions. Most notable among the long form videos were "Bad"—which also starred an unknown actor by the name of Wesley Snipes—"Black or White," which featured Macauley Culkin of Home Alone fame, and the infamous crotch-grabbing dance routine, and also "Remember The Time," with comedian Eddie Murphy, basketball great Magic Johnson, and supermodel Iman. "Remember The Time" also featured Jackson's first on-screen romantic kiss and one of the best choreographed dance routines of the 1990s.

Jackson's songs "Smooth Criminal" and "Leave Me Alone" were featured in his film, Moonwalker. His other film, Captain Eo, was shown at Disneyworld and Disneyland theme parks. Although he was not given credit, Michael Jackson's voice appeared on the animated television series The Simpsons.

Personal Life Scrutinized

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. Some—such as the story that he slept in a levitating "hyperbaric chamber" for the purpose of extending his life span—were 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 white.

Jackson countered this rumor in a February 1993 interview with television talk show host Oprah Winfrey, claiming that he suffered from vitiligo, a 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 in September, his sister La Toya claimed that he had sometimes spent nights together with them 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 an undisclosed sum in January of 1994, and charges were dropped, but it cost Jackson a lucrative endorsement contract with Pepsi-Cola. He has continued to deny the charges.

Jackson's musical successes since the time of these allegations have been sporadic, but his personal life continued to provide surprises. In August of 1994 it was revealed that Jackson had married Lisa Marie Presley, in November of that year, Jackson married Debbie Rowe, a nurse who had reportedly been artificially inseminated and was pregnant with the singer's child. A son, Prince Michael Jackson Jr., was born 1997, and the couple was graced with the birth of a daughter, Paris Michael Katherine, in April of 1998. The couple divorced in 1999, with Jackson receiving full custody of the children in the settlement. Jackson soon added another son, Prince Michael II, with an unknown woman.

Jackson's public outings with his as quoted in Jet.

Struggled to Stay on Top

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, twelve million internationally; controversies over the songs "Scream" and "They Don't Care About Us" (the latter contained an allegedly anti-Semitic lyric reference for which Jackson later apologized) and an award for song "You Are Not Alone," did not keep the album from dropping out of the U.S. Top Ten within weeks of its release. 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.

During the late 1990s the singer was occupied with grandiose schemes to build entertainment complexes in such diverse locales as Poland, South Korea, Paris, and Detroit, where he joined with gambling magnate Don Barden to push for a proposed casino and amusement park. This effort fell through in Detroit, when the people voted no on their proposal to allow the two to bid for a casino license in August of 1998. His charitable foundation Heal the World was reported by People magazine to be cutting back on donations as Jackson's total income dropped from an estimated $65 million in 1989 to $20 million in 1997.

Jackson continued to release records on Epic in the early 2000s, including Invincible in 2001 and Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection in 2003. While Invincible cost $30 million to make, it only sold six million copies worldwide by mid-2002. Though the record label spent $25 million to promote the record, Jackson believed they did not provide support in promoting the record and were trying to sabotage his career. As Jackson's musical career continued to become more irrelevant, his income also fell further. In the early 2000s, it was reported that he heavily borrowed against his assets to maintain his lifestyle.

Alleged Molestation Goes to Trial

In February of 2003, an unflattering television documentary by British journalist Martin Bashir called Living with Michael Jackson was broadcast. In the program, Jackson defended as "loving" his practice of letting young boys sleep in his bed. In November of 2003, California authorities searched Jackson's Neverland Ranch, following allegations that he molested a young boy who had visited the Neverland Ranch and spent the night there several times. Jackson was booked on child-molestation charges that month and released on $3 million bail. Formal charges against Jackson were filed in December 2003. A grand jury indicted the 46-year-old pop star in April 2004 on charges of molesting the boy at the center of the trial, giving him alcohol and conspiring to hold him and his family captive in 2003. The case remained in the public eye through 2004, with both sides allegedly leaking information. Because of the leaks and related issues, the judge issued a gag order for both sides. This order did not prevent some of the grand jury testimony of the young victim from being released shortly before the trial was to begin.

Jury selection began on January 31, 2005, and Jackson's trial started at the end of February. According to CNN.com, testimony and closing arguments lasted nearly 14 weeks before the jury got the case. "Prosecutors alleged that, following the broadcast of the Bashir documentary in 2003, Jackson and five associates plotted to control and intimidate the accuser's family to get them to go along with damage-control efforts, including holding them against their will at Neverland. The molestation charges relate to alleged incidents between Jackson and the accuser after the Bashir documentary aired. Jackson's lawyers, however, consistently portrayed the singer as a naive victim of the accuser's family, who, they claimed, were grifters—schemers—with a habit of wheedling money out of the rich and famous," CNN.com summed up. On June 13, 2005, the jury exonerated Jackson of all ten charges against him. If he had been convicted, he could have been sent to prison for nearly 20 years. As Jackson recuperated at his Neverland home, his fans wondered what the future would hold for him.

Michael Jackson described the importance of his music career to his personal life in his 1993 Grammy Living Legend Award acceptance speech: "My childhood was completely taken away from me. There was no Christmas, there was no birthdays, it was not a normal childhood, nor the normal pleasures of childhood…. But as an awful price, I can not re-create that part of my life. However, today, when I create my music, I feel like an instrument of nature. I wonder what delight nature must feel when we open our hearts and express our God-given talents." Millions of fans, young and old, black or white, are happy Michael Jackson chose to share those talents with the world. And after Jackson's trial, Michael Sands, a Hollywood media publicist related to People that Jackson's future still held promise. "He's still an icon, and his fans worldwide love him." Jackson seemed to agree, as he still referred to himself as the King of Pop.

Selected works

Albums, solo

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.

Michael Jackson: The Complete Collection, Epic, 2004.

Albums, 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.

Off the Wall, Epic, 1979.

Boogie, Motown, 1980.

Triumph, Epic, 1980.

The Jacksons Live, Epic, 1981.

Farewell My Summer Love, Motown, 1984 (recorded 1973, previously unreleased).

Victory, Epic, 1984.

Books

Moonwalk, Doubleday, 1988.

Films

The Wiz, 1978.

Sources

Books

Chandler, Raymond, All that Glitters: The Crime and the Cover-Up, Windsong Press, 2004.

Jackson, Michael, Moonwalk, Doubleday, 1988.

Jones, Bob, as told to Stacy Brown, Michael Jackson, The Man behind the Mask: An Insider's Story of the King of Pop, SelectBooks, 2005.

Lewis, Jel D., and Michael Jackson, comp., The King of Pop: The Big Picture: The Music! The Man! The Legend! The Interviews: An Anthology, Amber Books 2, 2005.

Perel, David, Freak!: Inside the Twisted World of Michael Jackson: New Information of Jackson's Indictment and Trial, HarperEntertainment, 2005.

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.

Periodicals

Associated Press, January 13, 2005.

Atlanta Journal, November 26, 1996, p. A14.

Billboard, March 30, 1991, p. 5.

Detroit Free Press, August 3, 1998, p. B2.

Jet, December 9, 2002, p. 16; January 19, 2004, p. 55.

Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1998, p. D1.

MacLean's, April 20, 1998, p. 11.

Newsweek, December 1, 2003, p. 38.

New York Sun, November 16, 2004, p. 19.

New York Times, March 20, 1996, p. D4; June 23, 1997, p. D6.

People, March 1, 1993, p. 46; September 6, 1993, p. 40; May 4, 1998, p. 6; July 22, 2002, p. 15; December 8, 2003, p. 84; January 12, 2004, p. 64; June 27, 2005, p. 57.

Time, March 19, 1984, p. 54; September 14, 1987, p. 85; December 1, 2003, p. 48.

Washington Post, August 2, 1994, p. F1; January 19, 1996, p. D1.

On-line

Michael Jackson, http://mjjsource.com/ (August 15, 2005).

"The Michael Jackson Trial," CNN, http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2005/jackson.trial (August 15, 2005).

Other

Barbara Walters' interview with Michael Jackson on 20/20 and Jackson's 1993 Grammy Award acceptance speech was found at the Michael Jackson Internet Fan Club at www.fred.net/mjj/.

—James M. Manheim, Ashyia N. Henderson, and Sara Pendergast

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