Obituary: Michael Jackson / America's King of Pop thrilled fans worldwide
Michael Jackson sports his trademark glove as he performs "Billie Jean" during his "30th Anniversary Celebration, The Solo Years" concert at New York's Madison Square Garden, Friday, Sept. 7, 2001.
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Michael Jackson, whose star flashed from the pinnacle of pop music to the trash of tabloid headlines, is gone.
A singing sensation as a child, he grew up to become a sexy, sparkling showman, only to see his reputation and his fortune lost in a morass of lawsuits and flawed facial surgery.
He was preparing for a comeback performance when he died yesterday afternoon in Los Angeles of an apparent cardiac arrest. He was 50.
Mr. Jackson died at UCLA Medical Center after being stricken at his rented home in Holmby Hills. Paramedics tried to resuscitate him at his home for nearly 45 minutes, then rushed him to the hospital, where doctors continued to work on him.
"It is believed he suffered cardiac arrest in his home. However, the cause of his death is unknown until results of the autopsy are known," his brother Jermaine said. Police said they were investigating, standard procedure in high-profile cases.
As word of his death spread, MTV switched its programming to play videos from Mr. Jackson's heyday. Radio stations began playing marathons of his hits. Hundreds of people gathered outside the hospital. In New York's Times Square, a low groan went up in the crowd when a screen flashed that Mr. Jackson had died, and people began relaying the news to friends by cell phone.
Mr. Jackson's life was a curious but compelling story of success and excess. During the mid-'80s, when he ruled the pop music charts, it seemed that he could have had anything he wanted. He chose to live a secluded life on his Neverland Ranch, surrounded by young boys and exotic animals. Adored by swooning teenage girls, he had his face surgically remade to freakish results.
But the smear of tabloid stories and courtroom accusations could not blot out the memories of fans who saw him as a uniquely talented singer, songwriter and star.
Born Aug. 29, 1958, in Gary, Ind., he was the seventh child of Joseph and Katherine Jackson. Five of the boys -- Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael -- would become The Jackson 5, racking up a string of hits for Motown during the 1970s.
Michael, the lead singer on most of the songs, also was the young man out front. In 1974, during a performance on "Soul Train," he introduced a dance called the robot, made of moves that were mimicked on dance floors across the country.
"The music was danced to by everybody," recalled Eddie Edwards, the former owner of television station WPTT who was working as a disc jockey in Washington, D.C., at the time. "I recall the diverse audience. The Motown sound attracted a lot of white people as well as black people. But [Mr. Jackson] was one of those individuals that had the ability to produce music that would cross racial barriers. It was just incredible."
The Jackson 5 had an Oct. 14, 1979 performance at the Civic Arena, but the Pirates were playing a World Series game the same night. Even though the concert ticket prices ranged from $7.50 to $9.50, the final score was Pirates 50,920 fans, Jackson Five 7,406.
Mr. Jackson closed out the 1970s with his solo album, "Off the Wall," launching him as a superstar in his own right.
The 1980s, however, were his time to shine -- literally. In 1982, he released the monster album "Thriller," which became one of the best-selling albums of all time. Then, glistening in sequins and a single white glove, he blew away a 1983 national television audience in a salute to Motown with a jaw-dropping moonwalk during a performance of "Billie Jean." He followed that with a 13-minute "Thriller" video that dominated MTV.
"He had tremendous crossover appeal," said Larry Davis, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems. "It's fair to say that he had more white fans than black fans. Now, that may only be because there are more white people than blacks, but you cannot deny that he really transcended race."
On March 8, 1984, Mr. Jackson signed a contract with Frank Dileo, a Point Breeze native who had met the young artist at Epic Records. Mr. Dileo managed Mr. Jackson through two huge concert tours -- the "Victory" tour with his brothers and the "Bad" tour Mr. Jackson did to promote his next album.
In a profile that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, writer Jane Crawford credited Mr. Dileo with morphing his client's image "from a star-spangled Peter Pan to a studded street tough."
"There's an eccentric side to anybody who is a creative genius or a great artist," said Mr. Dileo, who isolated Mr. Jackson from the press and described him as "a cross between E.T. and Howard Hughes."
The partnership ended on Feb. 14, 1989 for reasons that neither party ever explained.
The two Dileo-orchestrated tours attracted massive turnouts, but only one of them came through Pittsburgh.
The Jacksons' 1984 Victory Tour was turned away because the union vendors at Three Rivers Stadium refused to turn over the sale of programs and souvenirs to the promoter.
The stadium authority made a buy-out offer that would have allowed the show to come, but the Teamsters Local 250 rejected it. Mayor Richard Caliguiri attempted to broker an 11th-hour deal, but it went nowhere. The Victory Tour went to Chicago instead.
But in 1988, Mr. Jackson appeared for three September dates in the Civic Arena. A record 50,000 tickets -- roughly $1.2 million worth -- sold out in seven hours.
The local media were agog as Michael-mania rolled in with 15 tractor-trailers, thousands of lights, giant video screens, and an entourage of 150 musicians, makeup artists and body guards.
Civic Arena spokeswoman Ida D'Errico said after the first show that people stood at attention.
"They didn't move," she said. "It's so obvious from the beginning that there's something different about this show."
Post-Gazette reviewer Scott Mervis wrote that the sell-out crowd of more than 17,000 fans saw "fantasy and reality blur, and that is what Jackson is all about."
"He lives out his fantasies," Mr. Mervis wrote. "We watch him."
"His poetry is not with words, but motion and, at last, we could see that there were no mirrors, no moving stages, and no ice skates. He did it all with what God gave him; he moonwalked, shuffled, twisted, twirled and, in very 'Bad' form, grabbed his crotch at every turn."
In conclusion, Mr. Mervis reminded readers that there were two shows remaining.
"Beg, borrow or whatever you have to do to get in," he said.
Peter B. King, writing for The Pittsburgh Press, wrote, "Yes, Jackson moonwalked -- the famous backward-forward step that floors everyone who sees it. But you know what? Seeing the flair he imparts to a simple forward swagger is almost as astonishing."
Sean Jones, a professor of jazz studies at Duquesne University, last night said that Mr. Jackson represented two things.
"First," he said, "was the constant pursuit of perfection. He made sure that every last thing that he ever did was polished and pristine. The result of that work is the greatest selling pop album that was ever made. That's because of his unbelievable work ethic.
"And, second, his music spoke to the core of our humanity. Our spirituality, our need for love, our physicality, our emotions, and our need to bring people together. He found something that everyone could relate to. His music was all about love. He didn't play music for a race. He played music for people."
The later years, however, saw reduced record sales and Mr. Jackson step back from the limelight. In 1993, in his first interview in 14 years, he told Oprah Winfrey that the change in his skin complexion was from a disorder called vitiligo. He also settled a lawsuit claiming that he seduced and abused a 13-year-old boy.
In 1994, he married Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. After two years, the couple divorced.
In 1997, Mr. Jackson married a nurse, Debbie Rowe, and the couple had two children. After their divorce, Mr. Jackson's third child was born to a surrogate mother. Then, in 2003, he faced charges of child molestation from visitors to his Neverland home. He was acquitted, but in the eyes of many, he was no longer someone to look up to.
Post-Gazette features writer Bob Batz Jr. tried to cover Mr. Jackson's 1988 visit to Pittsburgh. He didn't get close.
"Jackson's security is tighter than his pants," he wrote. "Which is fine: It's a tight world, especially for such a major -- and shy -- superstar."
Mr. Batz did learn that Mr. Jackson stayed on the 26th floor of the Vista International Hotel.
"Once he's gone," Mr. Batz wrote, "hotel officials may be able to say something about his stay. ... Maybe, 'Michael Jackson slept here.'"
First Published June 26, 2009 1:09 am