Michael Jackson Biography

Michael Joseph Jackson, 29 August 1958, Gary, Indiana, USA. Jackson has spent almost his entire life as a public performer. He was a founder member of the Jackson Five at the age of four, soon becoming their lead vocalist and frontman. Onstage, he modelled his dance moves and vocal styling on James Brown, and portrayed an absolute self-confidence on stage that belied his shy, private personality. The Jackson Five signed to Motown Records at the end of 1968; their early releases, including US chart-toppers ‘I Want You Back’, ‘ABC’, ‘The Love You Save’, and ‘I’ll Be There’, illustrated his remarkable maturity. Although Michael was too young to have experienced the romantic situations that were the subject of his songs, he performed with total sincerity, showing all the hallmarks of a great soul artist. Ironically, his pre-adolescent vocal work carried a conviction that he often failed to recapture later in his career.

When MGM Records launched the Osmonds as rivals to the Jackson Five in 1970, and singled out their lead singer, 13-year-old Donny Osmond, for a solo career, Motown felt duty bound to reply in kind. Michael Jackson’s first release as a solo performer was the aching ballad ‘Got To Be There’, a major transatlantic hit. A revival of Bobby Day’s rock ‘n’ roll novelty ‘Rockin’ Robin’ reached number 2 on the US chart in 1972, while the sentimental film theme ‘Ben’ topped the chart later in the year. Motown capitalized on Jackson’s popularity with a series of hurried albums, which mixed unremarkable material angled towards the teenage market with a selection of the label’s standards. They also stockpiled scores of unissued tracks, which were released in the 80s to cash in on the success of his Epic recordings.

As the Jackson Five’s sales slipped in the mid-70s, Michael’s solo career was put on hold, and he continued to reserve his talents for the group after they were reborn as the Jacksons in 1976 after leaving Motown and signing with Epic Records. He re-entered the public eye with a starring role in the film musical The Wiz, collaborating on the soundtrack album with Quincy Jones. Their partnership was renewed in 1979 when Jones produced Off The Wall, a startlingly successful collection of contemporary soul material that introduced the world to the adult Michael Jackson. In his new incarnation, Jackson retained the vocal flexibility of old, but added a new element of sophistication and maturity. The album topped the charts in the USA and UK, and contained two US number 1 singles, ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’ (for which Jackson won a Grammy Award) and ‘Rock With You’. Other major songs were ‘She’s Out Of My Life’ and the title track. Meanwhile, Motown capitalized on his commercial status by reissuing a recording from the mid-70s, ‘One Day In Your Life’, which duly topped the UK charts in summer 1981.

Jackson continued to tour and record with the Jacksons after this solo success, while media speculation grew about his private life. He was increasingly portrayed as a figure trapped in an eternal childhood, surrounded by toys and pet animals, and insulated from the traumas of the real world at his idyllic 2700-acre Neverland ranch in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. This image was consolidated when he was chosen to narrate an album based on the 1982 fantasy movie ET - The Extra Terrestrial. The record was quickly withdrawn because of legal complications, but still won Jackson another Grammy Award.

In 1982, Thriller, Jackson’s second album with Quincy Jones, was released, and went on to become one of the most commercially successful albums of all time. It also produced a run of successful hit singles, each accompanied by a promotional video that widened the scope of the genre. ‘The Girl Is Mine’, a duet with Paul McCartney, began the sequence in relatively subdued style, setting the scene for ‘Billie Jean’, an effortless mix of disco and pop that was a huge transatlantic chart-topper and spawned a series of answer records from other artists. The accompanying video was equally spectacular, portraying Jackson as a master of dance, a magician who could transform lives, and a shadowy figure who lived outside the everyday world. It was the first black music video to receive rotation airplay on the MTV video station. Its successor, ‘Beat It’, also topped the US chart and helped establish another precedent, with its determinedly rock-flavoured guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen. Its promotional film involved Jackson at the centre of a choreographed street battle, a conscious throwback to the set pieces of West Side Story. However, even this was a modest effort compared to ‘Thriller’, a rather mannered piece of disco-funk accompanied by a stunning long-form video that placed Jackson in a parade of Halloween horrors. This promo clip spawned a follow-up, The Making Of ‘Thriller’, which in turn sold more copies than any other home video to date. The Thriller album and singles won Jackson a further seven Grammies; amidst this run of hits, Jackson slotted in ‘Say Say Say’, another duet with Paul McCartney which topped the US singles chart for six weeks.

Jackson accepted the largest individual sponsorship deal in history from Pepsi-Cola in 1983; the following year, his involvement in the Jacksons’ ‘Victory Tour’ sparked the greatest demand for concert tickets in the history of popular music. The over subscription for tickets resulted in the banking of huge sums of money. It was alleged that considerable interest was earned by the Jackson organisation before the money was returned to the unlucky applicants. Some sources quoted as much as $7 million. Jackson had by now become an almost mythical figure, and like most myths he attracted hyperbole. A group of Jehovah’s Witnesses announced that he was the Messiah; he was said to be taking a prescription ointment to bleach his skin colour to white; it was claimed that he had undergone extensive plastic surgery to alter his appearance; and photographs were published that suggested he slept in a special chamber to prevent himself ageing. More prosaically, Jackson began 1985 by co-writing and performing on the USA For Africa benefit single ‘We Are The World’, another international number 1. He then spent $47.5 million in purchasing the ATV Music company, who controlled the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, thus effectively sabotaging his musical relationship with his erstwhile partner. Later that year he took part in Captain Eo, a short film laden with special effects that was only shown at the Disneyworld amusement park; he also announced plans to write his autobiography.

Further non-musical projects were delayed while Jackson recorded Bad, another collaboration with Quincy Jones that finally appeared in 1987. It produced five US number 1 singles, among them the title track, which again set fresh standards with its promotional video. The album suffered by comparison with his previous work, however, and even its multi-million sales were deemed disappointing after the phenomenal success of Thriller. In musical terms, Bad certainly broke no fresh ground; appealing though its soft funk confections were, they lacked substance, and represented only a cosmetic advance over his two earlier albums with Jones. Unabashed, Jackson continued to work in large scale. He undertook a lengthy world concert tour to promote Bad, utilizing stunning visual effects to capture the atmosphere of his videos. At the same time, he published his autobiography, Moonwalker, which offered little personal or artistic insight; neither did the alarmingly expensive feature film that accompanied it, and which buttressed his otherworldly image.

The long-awaited Dangerous arrived at the end of 1991 and justifiably scaled the charts. This was a tour de force of gutsy dance-orientated pop, with Teddy Riley contributing to a number of tracks. Although the customarily sweet pop was sharpened to a hard point, it still displayed the unmistakable Jackson sound. By maintaining a leisurely working schedule, Jackson had guaranteed that every new project was accompanied by frenzied public anticipation. As a result, the lead-off single ‘Black Or White’ became a huge transatlantic number 1, topping the US charts for seven weeks.

Until 1992, Jackson’s refusal to undergo probing interviews had allowed the media to portray him as a fantasy figure, a hypochondriac who lived a twilight existence cut off from the rest of humanity. He attempted to dispel this image, and succeeded to a degree, with a carefully rehearsed interview with US chat host Oprah Winfrey in 1992. The televised show was shown all over world, during which viewers saw his personal funfair in the back garden, and watched as Jackson spoke of his domineering father. However, the unthinkable happened in 1993, just as Jackson’s clean image was at its peak. Allegations of sexual abuse were made by one of Jackson’s young friends and the media had a riotous time. Police raided Jackson’s home while he was on tour in the Far East and the artist, clearly disturbed, cancelled a number of performances due to dehydration. No charges were made and the matter was settled out of court in a multi-million dollar payout. Things began to quieten down until November 1993, when Jackson left the USA and went into hiding. Additionally, he confessed to being addicted to painkillers and was seeking treatment. After this admission, Jackson’s long-time sponsors Pepsi-Cola decided to pull out of their contract with the now damaged career of the world’s most popular superstar.

The media were handed more bait when Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley in May 1994, perhaps in an attempt to rebuild his image. Jackson had first met her when she was 6, and they cultivated a friendship that was based upon their similarly odd childhoods. The marriage collapsed 19 months later, giving further rise to allegations that it was merely a set-up to improve his soiled image. He did, however, enhance his reputation with HIStory: Past, Present And Future - Book 1. One half of the double set chronicled his past hits, but there was the equivalent of a new album forming the second half. Lyrically, the new material was strong, and Jackson very cleverly gave himself a forum to respond to his critics, most notably on the US Top 5 hit ‘Scream’ (a duet with his sister Janet Jackson). Although not breaking any new ground musically, the sound was refreshingly varied and, as ever, highly polished, with R. Kelly contributing the transatlantic chart-topper ‘You Are Not Alone’. The downside of this return was a sickening display of self-aggrandizement at the UK’s 1996 BRIT Awards. Controversy surrounded Jarvis Cocker (of Pulp), who invaded the stage in protest while Jackson, dressed in Messiah-white, was surrounded by, among others, worshipping children and a rabbi.

Despite the allegations of child abuse and the constant media attacks, particularly surrounding his unexpected second marriage to Debbie Rowe (which ended in October 1999) and the birth of three children, Jackson’s fans remained loyal to the ‘King of Pop’. In 2001 the singer celebrated his 30th anniversary as a solo artist, reuniting with the Jackson Five on stage and breaking a long recording silence in August with his new single, ‘You Rock My World’. The attendant Invincible paired Jackson with hotshot urban producer Rodney Jerkins, but was let down by a surfeit of weak ballad material. The album went straight to the top of the US and UK charts following its November release, although long-term sales indicated Jackson’s commercial heyday had well and truly passed.

Jackson returned to the spotlight in February 2003 when a controversial documentary filmed by the UK’s ITV1 television channel drew record viewing figures. Jackson’s admission that he shared his bedroom with children, although denying he slept in the same bed, prompted another of the singer’s young friends to press charges of child molestation the same November. The media frenzy leading up to the subsequent trial in Santa Maria, California, was scarcely believable, and after testimony began on 28 February 2005 the singer was rarely out of the headlines. On 13 June, a not guilty verdict was declared on all of the 10 charges laid against the singer.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.