Michael Jackson, Pop Icon, Is Dead at 50
LOS ANGELES — For his legions of fans, he was the Peter Pan of pop music: the little boy who refused to grow up. But on the verge of another attempted comeback, he is suddenly gone, this time for good.
Michael Jackson, whose quintessentially American tale of celebrity and excess took him from musical boy wonder to global pop superstar to sad figure haunted by lawsuits, paparazzi and failed plastic surgery, was pronounced dead on Thursday afternoon at U.C.L.A. Medical Center after arriving in a coma, a city official said. Mr. Jackson was 50, having spent 40 of those years in the public eye he loved.
The singer was rushed to the hospital, a six-minute drive from the rented Bel-Air home in which he was living, shortly after noon by paramedics for the Los Angeles Fire Department. A hospital spokesman would not confirm reports of cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead at 2:26 pm.
As with Elvis Presley or the Beatles, it is impossible to calculate the full effect Mr. Jackson had on the world of music. At the height of his career, he was indisputably the biggest star in the world; he has sold more than 750 million albums. Radio stations across the country reacted to his death with marathon sessions of his songs. MTV, which grew successful in part as a result of Mr. Jackson’s groundbreaking videos, reprised its early days as a music channel by showing his biggest hits.
From his days as the youngest brother in the Jackson 5 to his solo career in the 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Jackson was responsible for a string of hits like “I Want You Back,” “I’ll Be There” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” “Billie Jean” and “Black or White” that exploited his high voice, infectious energy and ear for irresistible hooks.
As a solo performer, Mr. Jackson ushered in the age of pop as a global product — not to mention an age of spectacle and pop culture celebrity. He became more character than singer: his sequined glove, his whitened face, his moonwalk dance move became embedded in the cultural firmament.
His entertainment career hit high-water marks with the release of “Thriller,” from 1982, which has been certified 28 times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, and with the “Victory” world tour that reunited him with his brothers in 1984.
But soon afterward, his career started a bizarre disintegration. His darkest moment undoubtedly came in 2003, when he was indicted on child molesting charges. A young cancer patient claimed the singer had befriended him and then groped him at his Neverland estate near Santa Barbara, Calif., but Mr. Jackson was acquitted on all charges.
Reaction to his death started trickling in from the entertainment community late Thursday.
“I am absolutely devastated at this tragic and unexpected news,” the music producer Quincy Jones said in a statement. “I’ve lost my little brother today, and part of my soul has gone with him.”
Berry Gordy, the Motown founder who helped develop the Jackson 5, told CNN that Mr. Jackson, as a boy, “always wanted to be the best, and he was willing to work as hard as it took to be that. And we could all see that he was a winner at that age.
Tommy Mottola, a former head of Sony Music, called Mr. Jackson “the cornerstone to the entire music business.”
“He bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and pop music and made it into a global culture,” said Mr. Mottola, who worked with Mr. Jackson until the singer cut his ties with Sony in 2001.
Impromptu vigils broke out around the world, from Portland, Ore., where fans organized a one-gloved bike ride (“glittery costumes strongly encouraged”) to Hong Kong, where fans gathered with candles and sang his songs.
In Los Angeles, hundreds of fans — some chanting Mr. Jackson’s name, some doing the “Thriller” dance — descended on the hospital and on the hillside house where he was staying.
Jeremy Vargas, 38, hoisted his wife, Erica Renaud, 38, on his shoulders and they danced and bopped to “Man in the Mirror” playing from an onlooker’s iPod connected to external speakers — the boom boxes of Mr. Jackson’s heyday long past their day.
“I am in shock and awe,” said Ms. Renaud, who was visiting from Red Hook, Brooklyn, with her family. “He was like a family member to me.”
Dreams of a Comeback
Mr. Jackson was an object of fascination for the news media since the Jackson 5’s first hit, “I Want You Back,” in 1969. His public image wavered between that of the musical naif, who wanted only to recapture his youth by riding on roller-coasters and having sleepovers with his friends, to the calculated mogul who carefully constructed his persona around his often-baffling public behavior.
Mr. Jackson had been scheduled to perform 50 concerts at the O2 arena in London beginning next month and continuing into 2010. The shows, which quickly sold out, were positioned as a comeback, with the potential to earn him up to $50 million, according to some reports.
But there had also been worry and speculation that Mr. Jackson was not physically ready for such an arduous run of concerts, and his postponement of the first of those shows to July 13 from July 8 fueled new rounds of gossip about his health. Nevertheless, he was rehearsing Wednesday night at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. “The primary reason for the concerts wasn’t so much that he was wanting to generate money as much as it was that he wanted to perform for his kids,” said J. Randy Taraborrelli, whose biography, “Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness,” was first published by Citadel in 1991. “They had never seen him perform before.”
Mr. Jackson’s brothers, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Randy, have all had performing careers, with varying success, since they stopped performing together. (Randy, the youngest, replaced Jermaine when the Jackson 5 left Motown.) His sisters, Rebbie, La Toya and Janet, are also singers, and Janet Jackson has been a major star in her own right for two decades. They all survive him, as do his parents, Joseph and Katherine Jackson, of Las Vegas, and three children: Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, born to Mr. Jackson’s second wife, Deborah Jeanne Rowe, and Prince Michael Jackson II, the son of a surrogate mother. Mr. Jackson was also briefly married to Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department said the department assigned its robbery and homicide division to investigate the death, but the spokesman said that was because of Mr. Jackson’s celebrity.
“Don’t read into anything,” the spokesman told reporters gathered outside the Bel-Air house. He said the coroner had taken possession of the body and would conduct an investigation.
At a news conference at the hospital, Jermaine Jackson spoke to reporters about his brother. “It is believed he suffered cardiac arrest at his home,” he said softly. A personal physician first tried to resuscitate Michael Jackson at his home before paramedics arrived. A team of doctors then tried to resuscitate him for more than an hour, his brother said.
“May our love be with you always,” Jermaine Jackson concluded, his gaze aloft.
In Gary, Ind., hundreds of people descended upon the squat clapboard house were Mr. Jackson spent his earliest years. There were tears, loud wails, and quiet prayers as old neighbors joined hands with people who had driven in from Chicago and other nearby towns to pay their respects.
“Just continue to glorify the man, Lord,” said Ida Boyd-King, a local pastor who led the crowd in prayer. “Let’s give God praise for Michael.”
Shelletta Hinton, 40, drove to Gary from Chicago with her two young children. She said they had met Mr. Jackson in Gary a couple of years ago when he received a key to the city. “We felt like we were close to Michael,” she said. “This is a sad day.”
As dusk set in, mourners lighted candles and placed them on the concrete doorstep. Some left teddy bears and personal notes. Doris Darrington, 77, said she remembered seeing the Jackson 5 so many times around Gary that she got sick of them. But she, too, was feeling hurt by the sudden news of Mr. Jackson’s death.
“He has always been a source of pride for Gary, even though he wasn’t around much,” she said. “The older person, that’s not the Michael we knew. We knew the little bitty boy with the big Afro and the brown skin. That’s how I’ll always remember Michael.”
Michael Joseph Jackson was born in Gary on Aug. 29, 1958. The second youngest of six brothers, he began performing professionally with four of them at the age of 5 in a group that their father, Joe, a steelworker, had organized the previous year. In 1968, the group, originally called the Jackson Brothers, was signed by Motown Records. The Jackson 5 was an instant phenomenon. The group’s first four singles — “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” — all reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 1970, a feat no group had accomplished before. And young Michael was the center of attention: he handled virtually all the lead vocals, danced with energy and finesse, and displayed a degree of showmanship rare in a performer of any age.
In 1971, Mr. Jackson began recording under his own name, while continuing to perform with his brothers. His recording of “Ben,” the title song from a movie about a boy and his homicidal pet rat, was a No. 1 hit in 1972.
The brothers (minus Michael’s older brother Jermaine, who was married to the daughter of Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder and chief executive) left Motown in 1975 and, rechristened the Jacksons, signed to Epic, a unit of CBS Records. Three years later, Michael made his movie debut as the Scarecrow in the screen version of the hit Broadway musical “The Wiz.” But movie stardom proved not to be his destiny.
A Solo Sensation
Music stardom on an unprecedented level, however, was. Mr. Jackson’s first solo album for Epic, “Off the Wall,” released in 1979, yielded four No. 1 singles and sold seven million copies, but it was a mere prologue to what came next. His follow-up, “Thriller,” released in 1982, became the best-selling album of all time and helped usher in the music video age. The video for title track, directed by John Landis, was an elaborate horror-movie pastiche that was more of a mini-movie than a promotional clip.
Seven of the nine tracks on “Thriller” were released as singles and reached the Top 10. The album spent two years on the Billboard album chart and sold an estimated 100 million copies worldwide. It also won eight Grammy Awards.
The choreographer and director Vincent Paterson, who directed Mr. Jackson in several videos, recalled watching him rehearse a dance sequence for four hours in front of a mirror until it felt like second nature.
“That’s how he developed the moonwalk, working on it for days if not weeks until it was organic,” he said. “He took an idea that he had seen some street kids doing and perfected it.”
Mr. Jackson’s next album, “Bad,” released in 1987, sold eight million copies and produced five No. 1 singles and another state-of-the-art video, this one directed by Martin Scorsese. It was a huge hit by almost anyone else’s standards, but an inevitable letdown after “Thriller.”
It was at this point that Mr. Jackson’s bizarre private life began to overshadow his music. He would go on to release several more albums and, from time to time, to stage elaborate concert tours. And he would never be too far from the public eye. But it would never again be his music that kept him there.
Even with the millions Mr. Jackson earned, his eccentric lifestyle took a severe financial toll. In 1988 Mr. Jackson paid about $17 million for a 2,600-acre ranch in Los Olivos, Calif., 125 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Calling it Neverland after the mythical island of Peter Pan, he outfitted the property with amusement-park rides, a zoo and a 50-seat theater, at a cost of $35 million, according to reports, and the ranch became his sanctum.
But Neverland, and Mr. Jackson’s lifestyle, were expensive to maintain. A forensic accountant who testified at Mr. Jackson’s molesting trial in 2005 said Mr. Jackson’s annual budget in 1999 included $7.5 million for personal expenses and $5 million to maintain Neverland. By at least the late 1990s, he began to take out huge loans to support himself and pay debts. In 1998, he took out a loan for $140 million from Bank of America, which two years later was increased to $200 million. Further loans of hundreds of millions followed.
The collateral for the loans was Mr. Jackson’s 50 percent share in Sony/ATV Music Publishing, a portfolio of thousands of songs, including rights to 259 songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, considered some of the most valuable properties in music.
In 1985, Mr. Jackson paid $47.5 million for ATV, which included the Beatles songs — a move that estranged him from Mr. McCartney, who had advised him to invest in music rights — and 10 years later, Mr. Jackson sold 50 percent of his interest to Sony for $90 million, creating a joint venture, Sony/ATV. Estimates of the catalog’s value exceed $1 billion.
Last year, Neverland narrowly escaped foreclosure after Mr. Jackson defaulted on $24.5 million he owed on the property. A Los Angeles real estate investment company, Colony Capital L.L.C., bought the note, and put the title for the property into a joint venture with Mr. Jackson.
A Scandal’s Heavy Toll
In many ways, Mr. Jackson never recovered from the child molesting trial, a lurid affair that attracted media from around the world to watch as Mr. Jackson, wearing a different costume each day, appeared in a small courtroom in Santa Maria, Calif., to listen as a parade of witnesses spun a sometimes-incredible tale.
The case ultimately turned on the credibility of Mr. Jackson’s accuser, a 15-year-old cancer survivor who said the defendant had gotten him drunk and molested him several times. The boy’s younger brother testified that he had seen Mr. Jackson groping his brother on two other occasions.
After 14 weeks of such testimony and seven days of deliberations, the jury returned not-guilty verdicts on all 14 counts against Mr. Jackson: four charges of child molesting, one charge of attempted child molesting, one conspiracy charge and eight possible counts of providing alcohol to minors. Conviction could have brought Mr. Jackson 20 years in prison. Instead, he walked away a free man to try to reclaim a career that at the time had already been in decline for years.
After his trial, Mr. Jackson largely left the United States for Bahrain, the island nation in the Persian Gulf, where he was the guest of Sheik Abdullah, a son of the ruler of the country, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Mr. Jackson would never return to live at his ranch. Instead he remained in Bahrain, Dubai and Ireland for the next several years, managing his increasingly unstable finances. He remained an avid shopper, however, and was spotted at shopping malls in the black robes and veils traditionally worn by Bahraini women.
Despite the public relations blow of his trial, Mr. Jackson and his ever-changing retinue of managers, lawyers and advisers never stopped plotting his return.
By early this year, Mr. Jackson was living in a $100,000-a-month mansion in Bel-Air, to be closer to “where all the action is” in the entertainment business, his manager at the time, Tohme Tohme, told The Los Angeles Times. He was also preparing for his upcoming London shows.
”He was just so excited about having an opportunity to come back,” said Mr. Paterson, the director and choreographer.
Despite his troubles, the press and the public never abandoned the star. A crowd of paparazzi and onlookers lined the street outside Mr. Jackson’s home as the ambulance took him to the hospital.
Reporting was contributed by John M. Broder from Washington; Randal C. Archibold from Los Angeles; Susan Saulny from Gary, Ind.; and Melena Ryzik, Ben Sisario, Brian Stelter and Peter Keepnews from New York.
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