ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In 1967, Michael Jackson, not yet nine years old, packed into a beat-up old Volkswagen with his father and brothers and set off from home for New York City. Their destination was Harlem's storied Apollo Theater and its amateur night contest. The Jackson 5 won the contest and now the Apollo is honoring Jackson's life with a two-day memorial service started this afternoon.
NPR's Neda Ulaby was there.
(Soundbite of cheers)
NEDA ULABY: I'm looking at the Apollo Theater's big red art deco sign flashing the words, "In Memory of Michael Jackson, an Apollo Legend."
(Soundbite of song, "Man in the Mirror")
Unidentified People: (Singing) It's gonna feel real good. Come on. Change...
ULABY: Jackson was not an Apollo legend in the manner of Ella Fitzgerald or James Brown, but this theater is one of the country's most significant landmarks of African-American culture and it's become a magnet for Jackson's fans.
Ms. LATEEFAH SMITH: We've been here since 12 yesterday in the morning. And we've been up, we haven't slept yet or eat, but it's worth it, he's worth it.
ULABY: Friends Evannah Johnson and Lateefah Smith, both 18, are among the first in line. Johnson says she shares a crush on Jackson with her mother. But she never had the illusion his was a happy life.
Ms. EVANNAH JOHNSON: Him dying is better for him because he had a very stressful and hard life, so I guess he died of this pain and misery.
ULABY: So, you think it was better for him to die?
Ms. JOHNSON: No, not that, but just that from hearing all the things about him not having a childhood and working his whole life, I think he was tired.
ULABY: A blisteringly hot afternoon did not dissuade hundreds and hundreds of fans, jammed behind blue police barricades. It's telling that most of the Michael Jackson pictures you see on the posters, pins and keychains peddled by Monica Yvonne Jones show the star as a child.
Ms. MONICA YVONNE JONES: You know, they was really kids then, and they started getting older, as they started getting older, their life started changing. You know, I guess it's for the better. This is what they want.
ULABY: Jones says the Jacksons felt like her family growing up, when a black family on national TV was rare. But that doesn't stop the street vendor from expressing a dash of pragmatism.
Unidentified Man: He's dead, he's gonna make more money, and he's still popular. He's dead.
ULABY: I made a mistake and asked how much Jackson paraphernalia Jones has sold since Thursday.
Ms. JONES: I don't consider it paraphernalia, his memories, his love. You call it what you want. I call it three dollars.
ULABY: Later this month, the Apollo Theater will hold another Jackson memorial, a concert teeming with stars. Unlike today's tribute, that one will not be free.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Harlem.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.