One of the most popular singers in history was Michael Joe Jackson (born 1958). A performer since he was five years old, he was one of the few child stars ever to achieve greater success as an adult than as a child. Through his record albums and music videos he created an image imitated by his millions of fans, whose style of dressing and dancing was instantly recognizable all over the world.
Michael Jackson was born in Gary, Indiana, on August 29, 1958, the fifth of nine children. He was raised in a family that listened to music constantly and sang continuously, and regarded music as a ticket to success. Jackson's father ran a crane at a steel plant, but he dreamed of becoming a successful rhythm and blues musician. This dream eluded him, but relentlessly drove him to promote the careers of his children. The fact that he had marginal success with a group of his own caused him to attempt to exert control over his children's careers even after they were adults. The struggle for the control of the musical destiny of the Jackson family was a constant source of turmoil.
The Jackson 5 Is Born
The Jackson children were taught the gentler aspects of music by their mother, Katherine, who sang folk songs and spirituals to them. The boys sang along with her, and their joyful harmonizing took on a life of its own when the boys formed a family band that became a success at amateur shows and talent contests throughout the Midwest. From the age of five, Michael's amazing talent asserted itself; his dancing and stage presence caused him to become the focus of the group. The fame and popularity of the group spread until they were booked at the Apollo Theater in New York City's Harlem. While performing at the Apollo in 1968, they were discovered by Motown recording artist Gladys Knight and pianist Billy Taylor. Later that year Diana Ross, who would become a crucial figure in Michael Jackson's life and career, became associated with the boys during a "Soul Weekend" in Gary, Indiana. With the support of Ross, the Jacksons signed a contract with Motown Records. Berry Gordy, the legendary Motown mogul, became the caretaker of the Jacksons' careers, which he nurtured zealously. As the lead singer, Michael took his brothers to the top of the charts with the group known as the Jackson 5.
Destined for Solo Stardom
Almost immediately, Gordy recognized Michael's special appeal and released solo albums of the child. These solo albums sold as well as those of the Jackson 5. Two years later, in 1970, the Jackson 5 were topping the charts and riding a wave of youth adulation with such hits as "ABC," "The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There," each selling over one million copies. However, the longer the Jackson 5 existed, the more apparent Michael's importance to the group's success became. The group managed to survive his voice change and a bitter break with Motown Records in 1976. The squabbles among the siblings and between them and their father might well have caused Jackson to withdraw from his family, even as he continued to live with his mother.
Having been successful in his appearances in a television variety show and as an animated cartoon character, it was not surprising to Jackson's fans that his appearance in the musical film The Wiz (1978) was the only distinguished aspect of this African American version of The Wizard of Oz. He sang the only hit to emerge from its soundtrack album ("Ease On Down the Road") in a duet with the film's star, Diana Ross. His success as the Scarecrow may also be seen as a preview of what was to come in his videos, for Jackson seemed to care most about dancing. He dedicated his autobiography to Fred Astaire, and its title, Moonwalk, refers to a dance that he popularized.
Emergence of a Pop Icon
Jackson's work in The Wiz was also notable in that it introduced Jackson to producer Quincy Jones, who arranged and conducted the film's score. In 1979, Jackson and Jones collaborated on Jackson's solo album Off the Wall. The album sold ten million copies and earned critical praise. In 1982, Jackson and Jones again collaborated on the blockbuster Thriller album. Thriller fully established Jackson as a solo performer and his trio of hit songs from the album—"Beat It," "Billie Jean," and "Thriller"—made him the major pop icon of the early 1980s. Jackson was also notable as a crossover performer. The spectacular success of the Thriller album and video enabled him to break the color barrier of album-oriented radio stations and the powerful music video channel, MTV. By 1983, Jackson had established himself as the single most popular entertainer in America.
Although Jackson's next two albums, Bad (1987) and Dangerous (1991), did not produce the phenomenal results of Thriller, Jackson remained in the entertainment spotlight throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. In 1993, he was presented with the "Living Legend Award" at the Grammys and the Humanitarian of the Year trophy at the Soul Train awards. He also involved himself in many philanthropic efforts. In 1985, he reunited with Quincy Jones, this time on the vocal arrangement for USA for Africa's "We Are the World" to raise funds for the impoverished in Africa. In 1992, Jackson founded "Heal the World" to aid children and the environment.
Rocked By Scandal
Despite Jackson's popularity and philanthropic efforts, he became the subject of a major scandal. In 1993, a 13-year-old boy accused Jackson of sexually abusing him at the star's Neverland ranch. Jackson settled out of court, while always maintaining his innocence. The scandal cost Jackson his endorsement contract with Pepsi and a film deal. His sexual preference was called into question and his public image was severely damaged.
In 1995, Jackson was again the subject of scandal following the release of his new album HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I. One of the songs on the album, "They Don't Care About Us", seemed to contain anti-Semitic lyrics. Jackson publicly apologized and changed the lyrics. He told the Associated Press that the song was supposed to "say no to racism, anti-Semitism, and stereotyping." He wrote a letter to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, who had protested the lyrics, stating that "my choice of words may have unintentionally hurt the very people I wanted to stand in solidarity with. I apologize to anyone I might have hurt." Hier replied, "It's the ambiguity I'm concerned of when it [the song] reaches 20 million buyers around the world."
Marriage and Fatherhood
In May of 1994, Jackson stunned the world when he married Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of the late rock legend Elvis Presley, at a private ceremony in the Dominican Republic. Many critics of Jackson speculated that the marriage was an attempt to improve his public image. In August of 1996, Jackson and Presley divorced. Many of Jackson's fans were shocked when he announced, in November of 1996, that he was to be a father. The child's mother was Debbie Rowe, a long-time friend of Jackson. They married later that month in Sydney, Australia. On February 13, 1997, their son, Prince Michael Jackson, Jr., was born at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Despite the demands of fatherhood, Jackson continued to keep a busy schedule during 1997. He and his brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio on May 6, 1997. He also attended the showing of his 40-minute musical Ghosts at the Cannes film festival on May 8, 1997. Another album, Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix, containing re-mixes of songs from HIStory plus five new songs, was released on May 29, 1997. The album received good reviews from both the New York Times and Rolling Stone, although the New York Times preferred the new songs, calling the re-mixes the "least interesting" music on the CD. Village Voice reviewer Armond White said of the new material, "His singing … has never been so tormented, or audacious". As the 20th century draws to a close, it seems likely that the world will continue to be fascinated by the talent and career of Michael Jackson.
Further Reading on Michael Joe Jackson
Moonwalk (1988), Jackson's autobiography, is as good as any of the other books about him, perhaps better because it gives the reader insight into Jackson's "Peter Pan" image of himself; Dave Marsh, Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream (1985) is a most peculiar book. The author is highly critical of almost every aspect of Jackson's career and personality, yet he attempts to apologize to Jackson through open letters from himself to his subject. George Nelson, The Michael Jackson Story (1987) is a workman-like treatment of the basic biographical material. Jackson continued to be a mainstay of gossip columnists and was frequently featured in all sorts of periodicals from tabloids to newsweeklies in the 1990s. J. Randy Taraborrelli, Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness (1991) is a large (640 pages) unauthorized biography. A review of HIStory is in Rolling Stone (August 10, 1995). An interview with Jackson and Jackson-Presley is in Jet (July 3, 1995).