20 People Who Changed Black Music: Michael Jackson, the Child Star-Turned-Adult Enigma

06/14/2007 11:35 AM

06/14/2007 11:49 AM

When it comes to the history of black music - or simply music, period - very few people have achieved accolades, success and the adoration of fans throughout the world like Michael Joseph Jackson.

Not only has Jackson dominated pop and R&B charts over the course of five decades, he ushered in the MTV era, helping the burgeoning network draw viewers in the 1980s with his music videos that were more feature-film than a few minutes of smoke and mirrors to sell a song. The most awarded recording artist in history, Jackson is a double inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – as a member of the Jackson 5 and as a solo artist.

With his albums reaching platinum status multiple times over, Jackson has truly earned the symbolic Guinness World Records title "Most Successful Entertainer of All Time." And the electrifying dance moves he displayed in his sold-out shows - brilliantly captured in his Emmy Award-nominated, "moonwalk"-punctuated performance at "Motown 25" in 1983 - are still being imitated by today's R&B upstarts and impersonators across the world.

Yet despite Jackson's extraordinary talent, his personal life, including questionable behavior with children and an ever-changing physical appearance, has recently overshadowed his untouchable musical abilities. But true fans remain loyal.

"He is a super talent regardless of the stuff that's happened," said Niecy Davis, assistant programs director for Radio One in St. Louis. A self-proclaimed "die-hard Michael Jackson fan," Davis said she's followed the Gloved One's career for more than 30 years, from the "Jackson 5" cartoon of the 1970s to the famous video debuts of the 1980s and 1990s that were appointment television for everyone.

"I was glued to all of his videos. The choreography was always good, and the music just had a feeling to it," Davis told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "Michael Jackson has always been unique and daring. Man, he is just the bomb."

It all began for Jackson in the early 1960s. Touring with his brothers in their native Indiana, Jackson, and the group that would become the Jackson 5 won a local talent show in 1966. The winning song was a rendition of The Temptation's "My Girl," with Michael singing the lead. It was only a matter of time before the Jacksons would become label mates with the Temptations, signing with Motown Records in 1968. A string of hits would follow – "I Want You Back," "ABC," The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There." In addition to the success the group saw, Michael Jackson was a solo cash cow for Motown, releasing "Got to Be There" and "Ben."

Life wasn't all roses with Motown for the Jackson 5, and the group - with strict disciplinarian father/manager Joe Jackson leading the way - signed a contract with CBS Records. The move angered Motown, and a suit accusing the group of breaching their contract was filed. In the end, the group had to rename themselves The Jacksons and brother Jermaine - who was married to Motown head Berry Gordy's daughter - was replaced by the youngest Jackson son, Randy. From 1976 to 1984, Michael Jackson was more than a front man for The Jacksons. As the lead songwriter, he penned such hits as "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," and "Can You Feel It."

As the 1980s approached, Jackson was once again focusing on a solo career and, after appearing in "The Wiz" as the Scarecrow and performing songs produced by music impresario Quincy Jones, Jackson started a business relationship that would reap big rewards.

In 1979, Jackson released "Off the Wall," an international chart-topper that produced four Top 10 hits, including "Don't Stop 'Til You get Enough" and "Rock with You." The Jackson/Jones collaboration spent 48 consecutive weeks on the Top 20 charts, with song lyrics and music written by Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, to name a few.

The next year, Jackson won his first awards for his solo work. He won Favorite Soul/R&B Album (for "Off the Wall"), Favorite Male Soul/R&B Artist and Favorite Soul/R&B Single (for "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough") at the American Music Awards. That hardware would be followed by two Billboard Awards for Top Black Artist and Top Black Album and a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male (for "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough").

The Jackson 5-less Michael Jackson was a true phenomenon, said Al Payne, operations manager for Radio One in Richmond, Va.

"When Michael broke out on his own, it was obvious that he would take the world by storm," Payne told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "From his moves to his showmanship to his Quincy Jones-infused grooves, Michael was and really always will be a major force in R&B."

That force hit with vengeance in late 1982 on the wings of "Thriller," the biggest selling album in history, with worldwide sales totals that surpass 104 million. It delivered a slew of classic tracks - the first album to garner seven top-10 Billboard Hot Singles - including the title cut, "Beat It" and "Billie Jean," which was the first music video by a black performer to be aired on MTV.

Ironically, Jackson's entry into music video history would not come easily, despite his subsequent mastery of -- and influence on -- the medium.

An October 2005 article in Blender, lauding "Billie Jean" as its top pick of "The 500 Greatest Sings Since You Were Born, details how CBS Records heads Walter Yetnikoff "went ballistic" at the music channel's refusal to air the video. "I said to MTV, 'I'm pulling everything we have off the air, all our product. I'm not going to give you any more videos. And I'm going to go public and f---ing tell them about the fact you don't want to play music by a black guy.'" "Billie Jean" was promptly put in heavy rotation, and neither Jackson nor MTV ever looked back."

Even the critically-acclaimed, often-referenced video for "Thriller" was a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking: Directed by John Landis, it was 13 minutes long and even led to a VHS release entitled, "Making Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'," which become the best-selling music home video ever.

Davis says she can still remember racing home to catch one of Jackson's music videos, regardless of how many times she had already seen them.

"I was sitting in front of MTV everyday trying to catch the entire 'Thriller' video," Davis told BlackAmericaWeb.com.

The relatively new concept of music videos didn't hurt record sales; "Thriller" was the No. 1 song for 37 weeks and as a certified Platinum album 27 times over, stayed on the Billboard charts for 122 weeks - or slightly more than two years.

At an age where most people are beginning to find their way professionally, Jackson was being lauded in ways that many veteran musicians never see. The New York Times called Jackson a "musical phenomenon" when he was just 25, saying, "in the world of pop music, there is Michael Jackson and there is everybody else." While Jackson was easily a crossover act, appealing to white audiences as well as blacks, his success also helped black artists get mainstream radio play for the first time since the 1970s.

"Michael Jackson took the baton from James Brown and worked his own magic into it," Payne said.

Jackson also showed his humanitarian side, serving as one of the forces behind "We Are the World," sharing co-writing honors with Lionel Richie in 1985. With 20 million copies sold, "We Are the World" won Song of the Year honors at the Grammy Awards. Jackson also allowed "Beat It" to be used in anti-drunk driving ads and was honored at a White House ceremony for lending his song to the cause.

The 1990s saw Jackson marry and divorce twice - to Elvis Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie, and to Debbie Rowe, a dental hygienist. His union with Rowe produced two children, Michael Joseph "Prince" Jackson, Jr. and Paris Katherine, both of whom Rowe and Jackson say were conceived naturally.

And the 2003 documentary "Living With Michael Jackson" was the match that lit the fire under accusations that Jackson engaged in improper behavior with children. Jackson, who always seems to speak as if he's the childhood lead of the Jacksons, shared with camera crews that he would share his bed with young children. Later that year, he was charged with two counts of child molestation and acquitted of all charges in May 2005 after a highly-publicized trial.

Despite the controversy, Jackson remains one of the most popular musical icons of all time. He is especially beloved overseas, where throngs of fans appear whenever he is out in public. Even in the United States, Davis said, his star still shines bright, if not in mainstream circles.

"He is a super talent, regardless," Davis told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "Sometimes you find super talented people that are very eccentric, and that's Michael Jackson. People get wrapped up in his personal life. And at the end of the day, that's really none of our business."

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