The tragedy of Michael Jackson’s death at age 50, reportedly from cardiac arrest, pales in comparison to the tragedy of his life. To understand all that Jackson had and lost requires wiping away three decades of plastic surgeries that deformed him, erratic behavior that made his name synonymous with the warping powers of fame, and a 2005 trial for sexually abusing a child that, even though he was spared of any finding of wrongdoing, made him a pariah to all but the most brainwashed of fans.
But if you can forgive or forget all that, underneath was one of the most talented entertainers of the 20th century. Quincy Jones, who produced Jackson’s quintessential solo albums, was devastated by the news of his passing. “I’ve lost my little brother today,” Jones said in a statement. “Part of my soul has gone with him.” Added Jones: “Divinity brought our souls together … and allowed us to do what we were able to throughout the ’80s. To this day, the music we created together on Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad is played in every corner of the world, and the reason for that is because he had it all.”
Jackson was born in 1958, the seventh of nine Jackson children, and before he had reached age 6, he had joined his brothers in the Jackson Five. By age 8, he had taken over lead-singing duties with brother Jermaine, but there was no question who was the star of the group. Little Michael was the best dancer and singer of the bunch, and he also had the mysterious thing that record bosses and studio chiefs crave: star power. Michael appeared to be his best and most interesting self when everyone in the world was watching.
As Michael aged into adolescence, the Jackson Five, renamed the Jacksons after departing from Motown Records, inevitably lost some of its charm. A solo career followed, and after a steady stream of middling hits that attempted to milk the last bit of innocence from Jackson’s voice, Jackson had the good fortune to hook up with Jones while filming The Wiz. The two shared a vision for what Jackson’s career as an adult might be, and on 1979’s Off the Wall, they executed it beyond even Jackson’s dreams. With songwriting help from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, Off the Wall spun off four Top 10 hits and two No. 1s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You.”
At 22, Jackson became not only one of the most admired pop musicians in the world, but one of the globe’s most famous people. And his fame only increased with the 1981 release of Thriller, which was to become the best-selling album of all time . Seven of the record’s nine tracks made the Top 10, and the Jones-produced hooks remain awe-inspiring. In a cover story about Jackson and Thriller, TIME described Jackson as “a one-man rescue team for the music business. A songwriter who sets the beat for a decade. A dancer with the fanciest feet on the street. A singer who cuts across all boundaries of taste and style and color too.”
While Jackson had few ambitions at the time beyond global domination, it’s worth noting that “The Girl Is Mine” established interracial love as a pop-music theme, and “Beat It” bridged arena rock and soul four years before Run-D.M.C. met Aerosmith. On March 25, 1983, Jackson may have reached the very peak of his fame when he unveiled his signature dance move, the moonwalk, live on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special.
The years after Thriller, however, were marked by a slow descent into what was at first dismissible as eccentricity. Jackson attended the Grammys on a triple date with Emmanuel Lewis and Brooke Shields, purchased a chimpanzee named Bubbles and was given a diagnosis of vitiligo, a condition that he said was responsible for the steady lightening of his skin. But his songwriting genius remained undeniable. With Lionel Richie, he co-wrote “We Are the World,” a 1985 charity single that raised an estimated $50 million for famine relief in Africa and ushered in the era of celebrity philanthropy.
After the release of 1987’s Bad, a disappointing follow-up to Thriller, Jackson purchased the 2,800-acre Neverland Ranch in California, and his public weirdness became almost aggressive. In his biography Moonwalk, Jackson wrote of childhood abuse at the hands of his father and multiple plastic surgeries, subjects he returned to in a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey that was one of the most watched non-sports programs in American history.
Shortly after, Jackson was accused of child sexual abuse in a suit brought by Evan Chandler on behalf of Jordan, his then-13-year-old son. Jordan told a psychiatrist and police that he and Jackson had engaged in sexual acts that included oral sex; the boy gave a detailed description of Jackson’s genitals. The case was settled out of court for a reported $22 million, but the strain led Jackson to begin taking painkillers. Eventually he became addicted.
To counteract the stigma that came with the allegations of pedophilia, Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley in a relationship Elvis’ only daughter later dismissed as a sham. Two years later, they divorced.
Given the tumult in his personal life, it’s no surprise that the 1990s were a barren period for Jackson creatively. In 2001 he managed to pull himself together enough to release Invincible and stage two concerts celebrating his 30th anniversary as a performer at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The shows, held a few days before Sept. 11, were a capsule of all Jackson had become. There were bizarre cameos from friends Marlon Brando, Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor. Macaulay Culkin sat next to Jackson in a royal box. But several hours after the proceedings began, when Jackson finally took the stage, all the years of Wacko Jacko melted away. Then in his early 40s, he could still dance and sing better than almost anyone in the world, and he still had star power. The Jackson on display in those concerts was one the world admired and the one that will be missed.