Remembering Michael Jackson, 'King Of Pop'

Michael Jackson: Full NPR Music Archive

Many Americans first saw Jackson's revolutionary new Thriller moves in an electrifying performance of "Billie Jean" on a 1983 TV special. Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank hide caption

Watch Video: The Night That Made Jackson The King Of Pop
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The Call To The Los Angeles Fire Department

We watched Michael Jackson grow up: He was a baby-faced boy with a captivating smile and an amazing voice who stole the show right out from under his big brothers.

We saw him morph into a modern-day song-and-dance man, so light on his feet he seemed to be moving on air.

We danced to his beat until he began to change and we weren't sure what to make of it. Then we witnessed his long, strange fall from grace.

"He's like Elvis," said Ann Powers, music critic at the Los Angeles Times. "He's that big."

For her, the death of Jackson has a special poignancy.

"The first album I bought was Jackson 5's Maybe Tomorrow. I grew up with him as an icon," she said. "The thing in my head right now is "I'll Be There" — that tender, delicate yet strong voice of Michael Jackson's."

Early Hits Culminate In 'Thriller'

Jackson was not even 6 years old when his father set out to make his sons famous singers. By 1968, the Jackson 5 had been signed on to the Motown label and had a string of hits. But Michael was clearly the star, and eventually he set out for a solo career.

While making the film version of The Wiz in 1978, Jackson met music producer Quincy Jones, who recalled the experience in an interview with NPR.

"I saw another side of him and so I said, 'I'd like to take a shot at your album,' " Jones said.

The collaboration with Jones unleashed Jackson's creativity as both a singer and a dancer, culminating with the 1982 release of the hugely popular album Thriller.

It stayed atop the Billboard charts for 37 weeks, and Jackson's performances of the songs on video and television were — well, thrilling.

"I think the word you've got to use is 'electrifying.' It was absolutely electrifying," said Jason King, music professor at New York University. "He wasn't just singing about 'Thriller' — he actually was a thriller in every sense of that term."

"I think it's the voice in conjunction with that incredible sense of rhythm and timing and innovation that made him the icon that he will always be," said King. Thriller provided the dance beat of the '80s with hit singles like "Beat It" and "Billie Jean."

Scandal Distracts From Talent

Jackson's next album, Bad, sold 22 million copies around the world, but — despite his fame and wealth — Jackson was never able to duplicate the success of Thriller. In the 1990s, his strange behavior began to draw as much attention as his talent. Finally in 2005 he was tried on charges of child molestation.

Though acquitted, Jackson's reputation and finances never fully recovered.

"He didn't seem able to live in the world," Powers said. "That does not exempt him from anything he did that was a horrible thing. But at the same time, I think we feel uncomfortable even thinking about that aspect of Michael Jackson because there is a sense of like, 'Did we do this to him? Did we damn him to this fate?' "

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