Michael Jackson: The One Who ‘Moonwalked’ on Earth

Michael Jackson: The One Who ‘Moonwalked’ on Earth

“One giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong remarked as he pranced on the moon. Michael Jackson didn’t have to go that far. He simply turned the earth into his moon, gliding across any stomping ground with a gravity-defying look that never ceased to make his spectators gasp with amazement.

Jackson wasn’t merely the biggest pop star of his era. He practically shaped the sound and style of the ’70s, ’80s, 90s, and even until his death in 2009, where he had just pre-sold 50 sell-out concerts in the U.K. He was one of the defining stars of the 20th century, a musician who changed the contours of American culture. While there are countless stories about Jackson’s enigmatic personality and eccentricity that added to the public obsession over him, this tribute is focused on his musical achievements, particularly his multi-million selling singles and albums.

A preternaturally gifted singer and dancer, Jackson first rose to stardom in 1969 as the 11-year-old frontman for his family’s band, the Jackson 5. As remarkable a run as the Jackson 5 had — at the dawn of the ’70s, each of their first four singles went to number one and they stayed near the top of the charts for the next five years — it all served as a preamble to Jackson’s solo career. Off the Wall, the dazzling 1979 album co-produced by Quincy Jones, announced Jackson as a mature talent, and the singles “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You” turned it into a blockbuster. Despite its success, Jackson believed Off the Wall was pigeonholed as an R&B record.

Determined to break through this glass ceiling, he reunited with Jones to create Thriller, the 1982 album that shattered every music record on the books. Thriller was designed to appeal to every audience and its diversity was evident by its guests: he enlisted Eddie Van Halen to play guitar on the hard rock of “Beat It” while inviting Paul McCartney to duet on the chipper soft pop tune “The Girl Is Mine.” Jackson also expanded the horizons of soul and dance music, producing pioneering masterpieces like “Billie Jean.”

This single provided Thriller with its 1983 breakthrough, thanks in part to its groundbreaking music video, which became the first clip from a black artist to enter steady rotation on the fledgling MTV. Jackson’s smashing of the network’s racial barriers was only one aspect of Thriller’s unprecedented crossover. Seven of its nine songs were Top 10 hits, it earned eight Grammy awards, and topped the Billboard charts for 37 weeks, matching its American success internationally to become the biggest-selling album of all time, earning 32 platinum certifications in the US and moving over 100 million albums worldwide.

Such a phenomenal triumph pushed Jackson into the stratosphere and Bad — the eagerly-anticipated 1987 sequel to Thriller, co-produced once again with Quincy Jones — kept him there, generating five number one singles on the Billboard charts and selling 30 million copies internationally, two thirds of which were outside of the US. Jackson parted ways with Jones for 1991’s Dangerous, another global blockbuster. HIStory, a 1995 double-disc set that paired a disc of hits with a new album, produced a couple of international number one singles. Invincible, his 2001 album, turned out to be his last. Health problems culminated in his untimely death in the summer of 2009, but at that point Jackson’s legend was safe: he stood alongside Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Miles Davis, and Bob Dylan as one of the musicians that created the sound of America in the 20th century.

Such heights came from modest beginnings. Michael was born in Gary, Indiana on August 29, 1958, the fifth son of Katherine and Joe Jackson. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness and his father a former boxer-turned-steelworker who played guitar on the side. Harboring aspirations of musical stardom, Joe shepherded his sons into a musical act around 1962. At that point, it was just the three eldest children — Tito, Jackie, and Jermaine — but Michael joined them in 1964 and soon dominated the group. Stealing moves from James Brown and Jackie Wilson, Michael became the epicenter of the Jackson 5 as they earned accolades at local talent shows and went on to play soul clubs throughout the Midwest, working their way toward the east coast in 1967 where they won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater. Returning to Gary, the group cut a pair of singles for the local imprint Steeltown in 1968 — “(I’m A) Big Boy,” “We Don’t Have to Be Over 21” — but their big break arrived when they opened for Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers at Chicago’s Regal Theater. Impressed, Taylor brought them to the attention of Berry Gordy, Jr., who signed the group to Motown in March of 1969 and then sent them out to Los Angeles, where he helped mastermind their national launch.

“I Want You Back,” a song written and produced by Motown’s new crew the Corporation, saw release in October 1968 when Michael Jackson was just 11 years old. By January 1970, “I Want You Back” rocketed to number one on both the pop and R&B charts, and the Jackson 5 became a sensation, crossing over from R&B to AM pop radio with ease. Two more hits followed –” ABC” and “The Love You Save,” both exuberant bubblegum soul — before “I’ll Be There” revealed Michael’s facility with ballads. All three of these sequels went to number one and, striking while the iron was hot, Motown spun Michael off into a solo act.

His first solo single, “Got to Be There,” arrived at the end of 1971, reaching number four on the Billboard Hot 100, and then a cover of Bobby Day’s chestnut “Rockin’ Robin” peaked at two in early 1972. Later that year, “Ben,” the title theme ballad to an exploitation movie about a killer rat, earned Jackson his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (he would lose).


Not long afterward, the careers of both Michael and the Jackson 5 slowed, victims of shifting tastes, adolescence, and creative battles with their label. One last hit for Motown arrived in 1974 — “Dancing Machine,” a single that brought the group in line with the disco explosion — before the group departed Motown for Epic in 1975. With the new label came a new name, along with a slight lineup change: Jermaine stayed at Motown to pursue a solo career and younger brother Randy took his place. Following a pair of albums produced by Philly soul mainstays Gamble & Huff, Michael emerged as the group’s creative director on 1978’s Destiny, co-writing their 1979 smash “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” with Randy. By that point, Michael had already made a considerable solo impression by starring as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, Sidney Lumet’s 1978 musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Working on the soundtrack — a record highlighted by his duet with Diana Ross on “Ease on Down the Road” — he met producer Quincy Jones, a titan of jazz and pop in the ’50s and ’60s who had yet to score a smash in the ’70s. The pair hit it off and decided to work on Jackson’s next solo endeavor, but first the Jackson 5 released Destiny, which raised the profile of both the band and Michael himself.

Triumph, Thriller

All this was preamble to Off the Wall, the 1979 album that definitively established Michael Jackson as a force of his own. Collaborating with producer Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton, Jackson consciously attempted to appeal to multiple audiences with Off the Wall, turning the album into a dazzling showcase of all his different sounds and skills. Anchored by a pair of number one hits — the incandescent “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You” — the record turned into a smash, peaking at four on the Billboard 200, selling millions of copies as it raked in awards, but losing the grand prize of Album of the Year at the Grammys, leaving Jackson with the lingering impression that he needed to cross over into the pop mainstream with greater force. Before he could do that, he had to complete one more Jackson 5 album: 1980’s Triumph, a record with three hit singles (“Lovely One,” “This Place Hotel,” “Can You Feel It”) whose title seemed to allude to Michael’s solo success and certainly benefitted from his heightened stardom.

After Triumph, Jackson reunited with producer Jones and songwriter Temperton to create the sequel to Off the Wall, crafting a record that deliberately hit every mark in the musical mainstream. Paul McCartney was brought in to underscore Michael’s soft rock leanings, Eddie Van Halen pushed Jackson into metallic hard rock, and the remainder of the album glided from disco to pop to soul in an effortless display of his range. “The Girl Is Mine,” the first single from Thriller, didn’t suggest its adventure — Jackson played it safe by releasing the McCartney duet as the album’s lead — but the second single, “Billie Jean,” forged ahead into new, unnamable territory. “Billie Jean” was a pop explosion, topping the charts in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada. Some of its success can no doubt be credited to its striking music video, the first to break the fledgling MTV’s then-unspoken racial barrier; after Jackson, the network began playing more black acts. Some of the single’s success is due to his sensational performance on Motown’s 25th Anniversary Special in 1983, a performance aired on May 16, 1983 where Jackson unveiled his signature moonwalk dance — a move that made it appear as if he was gliding backward — and announced himself to the world as a mature talent. “Beat It,” accompanied by an equally cinematic video, turned into an equally huge smash on MTV and helped push Thriller into the stratosphere. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Human Nature,” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” kept Thriller at number one and its last single was an extravaganza, with Jackson letting director John Landis turn the song into a short musical horror film. By the time the album wrapped up its two-year run on the charts, it had racked up 37 weeks at number one and sold 29 million copies, becoming the biggest-selling album ever.

Pipes of Peace

Even as Thriller was something of a pop perpetual motion machine, selling records of its own accord, Jackson worked hard. He once again teamed with Paul McCartney, singing “Say Say Say” for McCartney’s 1983 album Pipes of Peace, and he reunited with the Jackson 5 for 1984’s Victory, supporting the album with an international tour. Prior to its launch, Jackson suffered a serious accident while filming a Pepsi commercial designed to accompany the tour. During the shoot, pyrotechnics burned Jackson’s head, sending him to the hospital with second degree burns to his scalp; as he recovered, he started using pain killers for the first time.

Jackson earned accolades for his philanthropic work, especially his collaboration with Lionel Richie on the 1985 charity single “We Are the World,” but along with these positive notes, wild stories began to circulate in the tabloids. Some further bad press accompanied his acquisition of the Lennon and McCartney songwriting catalog in 1985, a move that severed his partnership with Paul McCartney. Jackson also flirted with becoming a movie star, working with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola on the 3D film Captain Eo, shown only at Disney’s IMAX theaters starting in 1986. Once this appeared, he started work on the task of following up Thriller.

Working once again with Quincy Jones, Jackson refined the Thriller template for 1987’s Bad. Like Thriller, the first single was an adult contemporary number — “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” a duet with then unknown Siedah Garrett — before it cranked out hits: “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “Dirty Diana” all reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1987 and 1988, with “Another Part of Me” just missing the Top 10 and “Smooth Criminal” peaking at seven. Bad didn’t dominate the charts in other countries but its singles reached the Top 10 internationally with some regularity, aided in part with a globe-spanning tour — the first solo tour of Michael Jackson’s career. The Bad World Tour broke records across the globe and in its wake, he started calling himself “The King of Pop,” a nickname that was something of a retort to Elvis Presley being known as “The King of Rock & Roll.” Once the tour wrapped up, Jackson returned to his new home — a Santa Ynez ranch that he purchased in March of 1988 and renamed Neverland, playing up his Peter Pan fixation

Jackson renewed his deal with Sony — the corporation that purchased Epic/CBS — in 1991 and then set to work on his next album. This time, he decided to part ways with Quincy Jones, choosing to work with a variety of collaborators, chief among them Teddy Riley, who helped usher Michael into the realm of New Jack Swing. “Black or White,” the album’s first video, caused some controversy, which helped generate initial press and sales and sent the single to number one. “Remember the Time” and “In the Closet” also made it into the Billboard Top 10 in early 1992, but subsequent singles “Jam” and “Heal the World” stalled in the low 20s, while “Who Is It” made it to 14. Jackson’s period of massive success was starting to end and, as it did, Jackson entered a rough personal period. In 1993, a 13-year-old boy accused Jackson of molestation. Over the next two years, the case played out in public and in the justice system, eventually settling out of court for undisclosed terms in 1995; no charges were ever filed. During all this, Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley in May of 1994; their marriage lasted just 19 months.

HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I

Jackson rebooted his career in 1995 with HIStory: Past, Present & Future, Book 1, a double-disc set divided into an album of hits and an album of new material. Preceded by a double-A-sided single containing the ballad “Childhood” and “Scream,” a duet with his sister Janet, the album underperformed compared to its predecessors but still generated big hits, highlighted by “You Are Not Alone,” the first single to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The subsequent singles “They Don’t Care About Us” and “Stranger in Moscow” underperformed in the U.S. but were Top 10 singles in the U.K., and HIStory also did well in other global international markets, aided in part by the lengthy accompanying global tour. In 1997, Jackson followed HIStory with Blood on the Dance Floor, an album that topped the U.K. charts but only reached 24 in the U.S.

By that point, Jackson had married his nurse, Debbie Rowe, who would soon become to the mother of two children: Prince Michael Jackson, Jr. and Paris Michael Katherine Jackson. Over the next couple of years, Jackson raised his family and performed at charitable events, starting work on a comeback planned for 2001. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a solo act that year (the Jackson 5 had previously been inducted) and he staged two major 30th Anniversary concerts in September 2001 to kick off the promo campaign for his new album, Invincible. Produced in large part by Rodney Jerkins, Invincible consciously evoked Off the Wall with its single “You Rock My World,” which reached 10 prior to the album’s October release. Invincible entered the charts at number one in the U.S. and U.K., but it didn’t have staying power and never generated another hit single.

Number Ones

Soon, music took a backseat to Jackson’s personal life. He had a third child, Prince Michael Jackson II in 2002, but the birth was overshadowed by erratic public appearances and legal problems, including an arrest in November 2003 for child molestation; in June of 2005 he was acquitted on all counts. As the case played out, Sony released the first-ever single-disc collection of Jackson’s peak, Number Ones, in 2003; it had a new song, “One More Chance.” Over the next few years, many catalog releases materialized: the 2004 box set The Ultimate Collection, the 2006 double-disc set The Essential Michael Jackson, a collectors box called Visionary in 2006, and his catalog saw deluxe reissues in 2008.

Jackson planned a major comeback for 2009 with a major tour called This Is It featuring a long run of shows at London’s O2 Arena. As he was in the midst of rehearsals in Los Angeles, he collapsed at home on the afternoon of June 25, 2009. Rushed to the UCLA Medical Center, Jackson was pronounced dead of a cardiac arrest at the age of 50. An extensive investigation later named his death a homicide due to prescription drugs; Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

The Michael Jackson: The Remix Suite

It didn’t take long for posthumous releases to begin to hit the shelves. Motown released The Remix Suite in October of 2009, and then a film documenting the 2009 concert rehearsals was released as This Is It, along with a soundtrack. Next came a DVD set called Vision, and 2010 brought Michael, a collection of outtakes, most dating from Invincible. In 2012, the 25th anniversary of Bad brought an expanded reissue of the 1987 album. Epic released Xscape in 2014, a record where L.A. Reid and Timbaland reworked demos recorded between Thriller and Invincible. Preceded by the single “Love Never Felt So Good” — an electronic duet with Justin Timberlake that went to The Top 10 — Xscape earned Gold certification. In 2016, Off the Wall received a deluxe reissue highlighted by an accompanying documentary directed by Spike Lee. Scream, a loosely Halloween-themed compilation, followed in 2017.

  • Stephen Thomas Erlewine for Allmusic / other sources


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