Michael Jackson—crowned as the King of Pop—is the biggest pop star of all time, going from child superstar to adult megastar after decades of hits and millions of record sales. He was also a shrewd businessman with his moves in the publishing game and he was a philanthropist with his multiple humanitarian efforts across the world. Jackson has achieved numerous awards and accolades, including multiple Grammy Awards, Guinness World Records, and he has been inducted into multiple Halls of Fame, including a two-time induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born Michael Joseph Jackson on August 29, 1958 in Gary, Indiana, he was the eighth of ten children born to Joe and Katherine Jackson. Michael would go on to join his brothers Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon, and Tito to form the Jackson 5 in 1964. After a number of local performances, they signed to Steeltown Records in 1967 and the group’s debut single “Big Boy” was released in 1968. After the single’s release, the group left Steeltown Records and signed with Motown Records, where they became superstars as their first four singles for the label—“I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There”—all topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making them the first group to achieve this feat. Michael’s first solo single “Got to Be There” was released in 1971, while his debut album came early the following year. After several albums, the Jackson 5 left Motown for Epic Records in 1976 and became The Jacksons.
After starring as the Scarecrow in the 1978 movie The Wiz, Michael connected with record producer Quincy Jones and this duo’s magic began with Michael’s breakthrough fifth album, 1979’s Off The Wall. A mix of pop, R&B, funk and disco, Off the Wall produced four Top 10 hits, including the number-one pop hits “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You.” Off the Wall went on to sell over 20 million copies and won several American Music Awards and a Grammy Award.
In 1980, while preparing for his next album, Jackson was able to negotiate a royalty rate of 37 percent on album profits—the highest in the music industry. With that deal done, the Jackson/Jones duo proceeded to push Michael’s star out of the musical stratosphere in 1982 with the release of Thriller, a melting pot of R&B, pop, rock, funk and ballads that led to Thriller becoming the best-selling album of all time with sales of more than 70 million copies worldwide. The nine-track album produced seven Top 10 singles, including the number-one pop hits “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” The album topped the pop charts in multiple countries and stayed atop the US Billboard 200 for 37 weeks as it was the top-selling album of 1983 and 1984 while selling upwards of one million copies per week worldwide at its peak. Jackson won a record eight American Music Awards and a record eight Grammy Awards for Thriller, including Album of the Year.
One element that helped propel Jackson’s status during the Thriller era was the visuals. Thriller’s release coincided with the establishment of the cable channel MTV—Music Television—which began broadcasting in 1981. However, MTV was notorious for not featuring Black artists on their playlists, but Jackson broke through that color barrier with his videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and his mini-movie for “Thriller”—which was named by MTV as the Greatest Music Video Ever Made. Jackson and his style—such as his iconic Thriller jacket—soon permeated pop culture. He further established himself as an out-of-this-world figure as he unleashed the Moonwalk during a performance of “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special broadcast in May 1983.
In January 1985, along with Lionel Richie, Michael co-wrote and sang with an all-star cast on the collaboration single “We Are the World.” Released in March 1985, “We Are the World” topped the pop charts in multiple countries, won several awards and it is one of the best-selling singles of all time with over 20 million copies sold. The single’s proceeds raised nearly $65 million for famine relief in Africa.
In the summer of 1985, Jackson purchased the ATV Music Publishing catalog from Australian businessman Robert Holmes à Court for $47.5 million. The catalog included the rights to thousands of songs, including many from The Beatles' catalog. Paul McCartney was reportedly given first right of refusal to the catalog in 1981 for $40 million but he didn’t want to own the entirety of his compositions with his Beatles bandmate John Lennon, so he refused the deal when Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono wouldn’t split the cost, opening the door for Jackson to purchase the catalog. Ironically, McCartney gave Michael the idea to purchase music publishing but the ATV purchase caused a rift between the two over the commercial licensing of some Beatles songs.
In 1987, Michael released Bad, which was the first album to spawn five number-one pop hits—“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man In The Mirror,” and “Dirty Diana.” Bad topped the charts in multiple countries, sold over 40 million copies worldwide, and won two Grammy Awards. The album was yet another smash hit for the Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones partnership but it would be the last album they worked on together.
Jackson connected with producer Teddy Riley to add his signature New Jack Swing sound into the 1991 album Dangerous, which included the number-one single “Black or White” and the Top 5 hit “Remember the Time.” The album was another international chart-topper and sold over 30 million copies while also winning multiple American Music Awards and Grammys.
In 1993, Jackson performed at the Super Bowl XXVII Halftime Show. His appearance paved the way for A-list artists to perform at the Super Bowl Halftime Show as it was watched by 133.4 million viewers, many of whom only tuned in for his performance at the Rose Bowl stadium rather than watching the game itself. Jackson’s appearance was a massive success for the NFL towards tackling counterprogramming in previous halftime shows.
Jackson’s double album HIStory was released in 1995, and became the best-selling multiple-disc album of all time, moving more than 20 million units. It included some of his greatest hits along with the new singles “Scream” (a duet with his superstar sister Janet Jackson), “You Are Not Alone” (which was incidentally also the first single to enter the Billboard Hot 100 at #1), and “Earth Song.” He followed that collection with his final studio album, 2001’s Invincible, which debuted at the top of the pop charts in multiple countries and featured the singles “You Rock My World” and “Butterflies.”
In March 2009, Jackson held a press conference to announce his This Is It concert series that would take place at the O2 Arena in London, England, beginning on July 13, 2009 and running through March 2010. In the middle of preparing for the show, Jackson passed away on June 25, 2009 at the age of 50 due to an overdose of propofol, which he was using to help himself sleep. His personal physician at the time, Conrad Murray, was ultimately convicted in 2011 of involuntary manslaughter for Jackson’s death due to him improperly administering the propofol and he was released on parole after serving two years in prison. An internationally televised memorial service was held for Michael at Staples Center in Los Angeles on July 7, 2009. Following Jackson’s death, several compilations and posthumous albums were released, including 2014’s Xscape, which featured the Top 10 single “Love Never Felt So Good.” His earnings since his death have been reported to be over $2 billion.
Michael Jackson is an icon who has influenced several generations of artists the way artists such as James Brown, Little Richard, and Jackie Wilson inspired him to be an entertainer. Jackson has sold over 400 million records, won numerous awards such as the Grammy Legend Award and Lifetime Achievement Award, and he holds several Guinness World Records, including a record for being the most philanthropic pop star as he has reportedly donated over $500 million to multiple charities. He has individually been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame, and he’s the first musician inducted into the Dance Hall of Fame. He was also dually inducted as a solo artist and as a member of the Jackson 5 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.