Michael Jackson, the child singing sensation with the soulful voice of a fiery angel who went on to moonwalk his way to the title "King of Pop" by recording the best selling album in music history, died Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 50.
It marked a sudden end to a life that veered too often into a bizarre, scandal-plagued soap opera over the 27 years since the release of “Thriller.” His death came as he was planning a comeback he hoped would cement his legacy as the leading entertainer of his time -- as well as the head of a musical dynasty that gave the world the Jackson 5 and his superstar sister, Janet.
The sudden end came Thursday afternoon, when an ambulance was called to Jackson's rented mansion where the singer was unconscious and in cardiac arrest. He was rushed to nearby UCLA Medical Center, but never regained consciousness. Sources close to the singer said he has been heavily medicated with prescription drugs, giving rise to speculation that his death may have been the result of an accidental overdose.
An autopsy was scheduled for Friday, but officials said the cause of death may not be known for days or even weeks.
Michael Joseph Jackson was born on Aug. 29, 1958, the seventh of nine children of Joe and Katherine Jackson, a God-fearing couple from hard-scrabble Gary, Indiana.
Joe Jackson, a steel mill worker, was a stern, belt-wielding taskmaster who molded Michael and his older brothers, Tito, Jermaine, Jackie and Marlon through sheer terror, intimidation and determination into the Jackson 5. By the time he was 10, Michael was the group’s frontman -- frontboy, really -- providing the leading vocals on such hits as “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and the ballad “I’ll Be There.”
The Motown act soared to international superstardom, thanks to a string of hugely successful albums, appearances on numerous TV programs -- there was even a Jackson 5 cartoon show -- and near-constant touring. It seemed at times that young Michael, who had the poise of a performer far beyond his years and experience, was being robbed of his childhood – a theme that would come to haunt him in the years to follow.
With Jackson nearing adulthood, and the Jackson 5 past its pop prime as a kiddie act, he began striking out on his own, appearing in the 1978 movie version of "The Wiz." He played the Scarecrow to the Dorothy of Diana Ross, the Motown mother figure whom he worshipped. Some would say he wanted to sculpt his face to look like her.
Jackson established himself as a major songwriter and musical force in his own right with the 1979 album “Off The Wall.” The record, produced by Quincy Jones, who would become Jackson’s new mentor and father figure, yielded such genre-bending, danceable hits as “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop 'Til You Get Enough.”
But that was just a taste of the greatness to come.
In 1982, Jackson, again with Jones by his side in the recording studio, released “Thriller,” which would go onto spawn nearly as many hits as tracks on the album. The gamut of pop was incredible – he dabbled with hard rock on the driving “Beat it,” which featured a blistering, but radio-friendly guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen; the dance-hit title track birthed perhaps the most adventurous and famous music video of all time; “The Girl is Mine” paired him on a sappy, earworm of a love song with Paul McCartney.
But Jackson re-invented pop music with his biggest hit of all: “Billie Jean,” which combined a Sly Stone-like funk groove and searing falsetto vocal with an R&B and rock sensibility that could get the dead tapping their toes. His moonwalking-filled performance of the song on a TV special celebrating Motown’s 25th anniversary established him as the pre-eminent star of his time – and maybe the most electrifying performer ever.
"Thriller" sold 27 million copies in the U.S. alone, and 51 million overall, giving it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the top selling album of all time. He sold some 750 million records in total, placing behind only the Beatles and Elvis.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer won 13 Grammys -- eight for "Thriller" alone -- and scored 17 No. 1 hits, with and without his brothers.
Jackson's influence reached far beyond the sales figures and awards. His innovative music videos were a staple of MTV in the 1980s, as the music network became a powerful symbol of youth culture. His dance moves, from moonwalking to the crotch grabbing antics that made the old ladies blush, were widely imitated on stages and club floors around the world. His noveau-Sgt. Pepper military jacket, aviator sunglasses and his ever-present white glove shook the fashion world, earning him the nickname "The Gloved One."
Perhaps most significantly his music and popularity bridged racial and ethnic chasms like no other artist before or since.
In the years following “Thriller,” Jackson would produce more hit albums, including, “Bad” and “Dangerous.” He co-wrote the 1985 single "We Are the World," which brought together a supergroup of stars from across a wide musical spectrum to raise millions for starving people in Africa.
But the news that would dog Jackson in the last half of his life centered around, at best, his eccentricities as a boy who never grew up, and at worst, a perpetrator of unspeakable child abuse. Fans were more likely to see his picture in the Star or National Enquirer than Billboard or Rolling Stone as odd behavior mushroomed into outright scandal.
There was his incredibly shrinking and shape-changing nose. There was his ever-lightening skin, which he attributed to a condition called vitiligo.
There was his reported attempt to buy the Elephant Man's bones. He succeeded in buying the publishing rights to the Beatles' catalog, infuriating McCartney, who felt Jackson went behind his back.
There was the Peter Pan-inspired Neverland Ranch, complete with rides, and a menagerie – including a chimp named Bubbles. There were sleepovers by child stars, like Macaulay Culkin, and lesser-known kids – including a 13-year-old boy who charged Jackson molested him. The case was settled out of court in 1994. Similar accusations would haunt Jackson a decade later, painting him as a sicko who plied a young cancer survivor with wine he called "Jesus juice." A circus of a trial ended with his acquittal in 2005.
Then there were the apparent sham marriages, one to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis, another music king whose downfall and early death he would come to mirror. Jackson and Lisa Marie, whose awkward kiss at the 1994 MTV Music Award was a less-than-convincing declaration of their love, broke up after two years. He later married -- and divorced -- his dermatologist's nurse, Debbie Rowe. Jackson fathered three children -- two of whom he named Prince Michael.
He would walk the streets with a surgical mask over his face, and even donned a burka. He dangled his infant son from a hotel balcony in Germany in 2002 – the most public and craziest of the stunts that had more people calling him Wacko Jacko than the King of Pop.
Jackson's 2001 album "Invincible," proved anything but -- it was a $30 million flop that effectively put his music career on hiatus. Beset by money and seemingly insurmountable image problems, Jackson -- once the highest paid entertainer in the world -- sold Neverland in 2005. He started showing up in Bahrain, where a prince later accused him of defaulting on a $7 million loan.
While fans and the press should have learned never to be shocked by Jackson, he surprised entertainment world recently by signing on for a series of 50 shows beginning this summer in London. The concerts were set to start July 13, though there was talk of postponements amid reports of Jackson suffering from an undisclosed illness. Tickets were snapped up by fans uncertain whether they were going to witness the greatest comeback in pop history or another ring in what had become a traveling circus.
Now the world will never know whether the boy who never grew up would end his career as a man worthy of his title as King of Pop, or as a sad court jester.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.