Michael Joseph Jackson was born on August 29, 1958, in Gary, Indiana. Jackson has spent almost his entire life as a public performer. He was a member of the Jackson Five at the age of four, soon becoming the group’s lead vocalist and front man. Onstage, he modeled his dance moves and vocal styling on James Brown and portrayed absolute self-confidence that belied his shy, private personality.
The Jackson Five were signed to Motown Records at the end of 1968. Their early releases, including chart-toppers ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘I’ll Be There’, illustrated their 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. 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 ballad Got To Be There,” which became a major hit in both the UK and the US. He also had success with a cover of Bobby Day’s rock ‘n’ roll song “Rockin’ Robin,” which topped the US charts in 1972, and the sentimental film theme “Ben,” which achieved the same feat later that year. Motown took advantage of Jackson’s popularity by releasing a series of albums that mixed material aimed at the teenage market with some of the label’s classic songs. They also had many unreleased tracks, which were eventually released in the 1980s to capitalize on the success of his Epic recordings. As the Jackson Five’s sales declined in the mid-1970s, Michael’s solo career was put on hold, and he continued to focus his talents on the group after they rebranded as the Jacksons in 1976.
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 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 UK and USA and contained two number one singles, ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ (for which Jackson won a Grammy award) and ‘Rock With You.’ Meanwhile, Motown reissued a recording from the mid-70s, ‘One Day In Your Life,’ which topped the UK charts. 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 eternal childhood, surrounded by toys and pets, and insulated from the traumas of the real world. This image was consolidated when he narrated an album based on the 1982 fantasy film 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 a relatively subdued style. It reached number 1 in the USA and UK but merely set the scene for ‘Billie Jean,’ an effortless mix of disco and pop that 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. Its successor, ‘Beat It’, established another precedent, with its determinedly rock-flavored guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen making it the first black record to receive rotation airplay on the MTV video station. Its promo film involved Jackson at the center 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.