Michael Jackson, in full Michael Joseph Jackson or Michael Joe Jackson (see), (born August 29, 1958, Gary, Indiana, U.S.—died June 25, 2009, Los Angeles, California), American singer, songwriter, and dancer who was the most popular entertainer in the world in the early and mid-1980s. Reared in Gary, Indiana, in one of the most acclaimed musical families of the rock era, Michael Jackson was the youngest and most talented of five brothers whom his father, Joseph, shaped into a dazzling group of child stars known as the Jackson 5. In addition to Michael, the members of the Jackson 5 were Jackie Jackson (byname of Sigmund Jackson; b. May 4, 1951, Gary), Tito Jackson (byname of Toriano Jackson; b. October 15, 1953, Gary), Jermaine Jackson (b. December 11, 1954, Gary), and Marlon Jackson (b. March 12, 1957, Gary).
Motown Records president Berry Gordy, Jr., was impressed with the group and signed them in 1969. Sporting the loudest fashions, the largest Afros, the snappiest choreography, and a youthful, soulful exuberance, the Jackson 5 became an immediate success. They scored four consecutive number one pop hits with “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There” in 1970. With Michael topping the pop charts as a solo performer with “Ben” and reaching number two with “Rockin’ Robin,” and with the Jackson 5 producing trendsetting dance tracks such as “Dancing Machine,” the family’s string of hits for Motown lasted through 1975. As Michael matured, his voice changed, family tensions arose, and a contract standoff ensued. The group finally broke with Motown, moving to Epic Records as the Jacksons. Jermaine remained at Motown as a solo performer and was replaced by his youngest brother, Randy Jackson (in full Steven Randall Jackson; b. October 29, 1961). As a recording act, the Jacksons enjoyed consistent success through 1984, and their sister Janet Jackson embarked on her own singing career in the early 1980s; however, Michael’s solo albums took on an entirely different status.
Jackson’s first solo effort for Epic, Off the Wall (1979), exceeded all expectations and was the best-selling album of the year (it eventually sold more than 20 million copies). Produced by industry veteran Quincy Jones, Off the Wall yielded the massive international hit singles “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You,” both of which showcased Michael’s energetic style and capitalized on the contemporary disco dance fad. Three years later he returned with another collaboration with Jones, Thriller, a tour de force that featured an array of guest stars and elevated him to worldwide superstardom. Thriller captured a slew of awards, including a record-setting eight Grammys; remained on the charts for more than two years; and sold more than 40 million copies, long holding the distinction of being the best-selling album in history. The first single on the album, “The Girl Is Mine,” an easygoing duet with Paul McCartney, went to number one on the rhythm-and-blues charts and number two on the pop charts in the fall of 1982. The follow-up single, “
Billie Jean,” an electrifying dance track and the vehicle for Jackson’s trademark “moonwalk” dance, topped the pop charts, as did “Beat It,” which featured a raucous solo from famed guitarist Eddie Van Halen. Moreover, “Beat It” helped break down the artificial barriers between black and white artists on the radio and in the emerging format of music videos on television. By 1984 Jackson was renowned worldwide as the “King of Pop.” His much-anticipated Victory reunion tour with his brothers was one of the most popular concert events of 1984. In 1985 Jackson and Lionel Richie co-wrote “We Are the World,” the signature single for the USA for Africa, an all-star project aimed at famine relief. Further solo albums—Bad (1987), which produced five chart-topping hits, and Dangerous (1991), much of which was produced by New Jack Swing sensation Teddy Riley—solidified Jackson’s dominance of pop music. In 2001 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the Jackson 5 were inducted in 1997. Jackson’s eccentric, secluded lifestyle grew increasingly controversial in the early 1990s. His reputation was seriously damaged in 1993 when he was accused of child molestation by a 13-year-old boy he had befriended; a civil suit was settled out of court. In 1994 Jackson secretly married Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis Presley, but their marriage lasted less than two years. Shortly thereafter Jackson married again, this marriage producing children, though it too ended in divorce. While he remained an international celebrity, his image in the United States was slow to recover, and it suffered even more in November 2003 when he was arrested and charged with child molestation. After a 14-week trial that became something of a media circus, Jackson was acquitted in 2005.
Michael Jackson, surrounded by family members, leaving a courtroom after being acquitted of child-molestation charges, 2005
In the wake of these events, Jackson suffered a financial collapse that resulted in the sale of many of his considerable assets, including, ultimately, his lavish Neverland ranch. He was preparing for a series of high-profile concerts he hoped would spark a comeback when he died suddenly of cardiac arrest on June 25, 2009—prompting a widespread outpouring of grief from his fans that culminated in a memorial celebration of his life and legacy on July 7 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, featuring tributes by friends and luminaries such as Stevie Wonder, Berry Gordy, Jr., Brooke Shields, and Al Sharpton. In August 2009 the coroner ruled Jackson’s death a homicide; the cause was a lethal combination of sedatives and propofol, an anesthetic. In November 2011 Jackson’s personal physician was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
The documentary film This Is It, which drew from more than 100 hours of footage compiled during rehearsals for Jackson’s scheduled 50-concert comeback engagement in London, premiered in October 2009. Also in 2009 Jackson’s 14-minute music video “Thriller” (1983), directed by John Landis, was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress—the first music video to be so honored.