Obituary: Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson’s unique blend of soul, funk and rock made him the biggest pop act in the world.
Beyond this, his business acumen and intuitive understanding of the music market allowed him to showcase his remarkable talents.
Michael Jackson sold records by the million – and broke records too.
With the soulful vocal presence of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and the dance moves of James Brown, Jackson’s appeal crossed both national and racial boundaries.
His first break came in 1968, when the Jackson Five signed to the Motown label, and he was just 11 when the group released its first single.
Hits like I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, and I’ll Be There, which all went to number one in the United States in 1970, made the Jackson 5 the first group in pop history to have their first four singles top the charts.
Before long, the youngest member of the Jackson Five was beginning to outstrip his brothers.
A series of solo hits, including Got To Be There, Rockin’ Robin and Ben – the maudlin, yet chart-topping, paean to a rat – had shown that the promise of early years had come to fruition.
By the mid-1970s, both Michael’s, and his brothers’, careers were beginning to stall. Motown has ended its interest in the group, which had re-signed – as the Jacksons – to the Epic label.
But it was while Michael was working on the film musical The Wiz, an all-black retelling of the Wizard of Oz – in which he played the Scarecrow to Diana Ross’s Dorothy – that he met the man who would turn him into a superstar and transform the world of popular music.
Music producer, composer and arranger, Quincy Jones, who could already boast a formidable track record, having created hits for artists like Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin and George Benson, took Jackson’s raw talent and moulded it into an awesome new sound.
Their first collaboration, Off The Wall, released in 1979, became the first album to provide four top ten US hits for an artist: the title track, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, Rock With You and She’s Out of My Life.
Four years later came Thriller, the album which would define his career. A heady mix of disco, R&B and funk, its nine tracks spawned seven hit singles and became the best-selling album of all time, with at least 55 million copies bought to date.
Having already experimented with video on Off The Wall, Jackson now took the new medium to new heights.
The John Landis-directed film, accompanying the album’s title track, was a 16-minute big-budget extravaganza, featuring cutting-edge special effects and the voice of veteran horror actor, Vincent Price.
The Thriller video, and its companion, Beat It, also ended MTV’s neglect of black artists, while making the mini-musical blockbuster de rigueur for any self-respecting pop star.
Besides his successful solo career, Jackson also recorded a series of hit duets with Paul McCartney, who had written the Off The Wall track, Girlfriend.
The two stars appeared on one another’s albums with songs like The Girl Is Mine and the chart-topping Say Say Say.
The relationship soured, though, in 1985, when Jackson outbid both McCartney and Yoko Ono to secure the ATV music-publishing catalogue, which included the rights to more than 250 Lennon/McCartney songs.
Not for the first time, Jackson’s ruthless business streak had asserted itself.
The same year also saw the USA For Africa charity single, We Are The World, co-written by Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, reach number one in the US.
The Jackson phenomenon showed no sign of slowing down when, in 1987, he released the third, and final, Quincy Jones-produced album, Bad.
With five number one hits, including Man in the Mirror and Dirty Diana, the album also featured a 17-minute video, courtesy of Martin Scorsese, to promote the title track and a year-long world tour, at the time the largest-grossing in history.
Dangerous, Jackson’s 1991 outing, featured a more stripped-down sound than its three predecessors.
But the magic remained, and tracks like Heal the World and Black and White soon became worldwide hits, despite the tabloid headlines and court cases which now threatened to damage the singer’s reputation.
But his 1995 album, a compilation of old hits and new material entitled HIStory, failed to ignite the popular imagination.
Despite the biggest-ever publicity campaign for an album, estimated at $30m, HIStory enjoyed a brief appearance in the charts.
Whether this was due to the star’s increasingly erratic behaviour, continuing speculation about his private life or just the public turning increasingly to rap and hip-hop, is a matter for debate.
But one track, in particular – They Don’t Care About Us, with the lyrics, “Jew me, sue me” – outraged many people including Jackson’s long-time friend and supporter Steven Spielberg, who saw it as anti-Semitic.
And his appearance at the 1996 Brit Awards ceremony in London, surrounded by children and a rabbi, proved too much for some, most notably Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, who showed his displeasure by storming the stage and dropping his trousers.
Michael Jackson’s final album, Invincible (2001) was released at a time when he looked anything but.
A swirl of controversy, including Jackson’s repeated assertions that his record company, Sony, had asked for their money back – all $200m of it – and that the label’s chairman, Tommy Mottola, held black artists back, effectively drowned out the music.
It seemed an underwhelming end to what had been one of the most spectacular of all musical careers.
But the star was due to begin a series of sold-out comeback concerts, starting with an appearance in London next month.