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Michael Jackson: A beloved artist, an enigmatic life

He was never ordinary

Michael Jackson, 50, died Thursday in Los Angeles as sensationally as he lived, as famous as a human being can get. He was a child Motown sensation who grew into a moonwalking megastar, the self-anointed King of Pop who sold 750 million records over his career and enjoyed worldwide adoration.

But with that came the world’s relentless curiosity, and Jackson came to be regarded as one of show business’s legendary oddities, hopping from one public relations crisis to another.

There were two sides to the record: the tabloid caricature and the singer his fans will always treasure.

There were those whose devotion knew no bounds, who visited the gates of his private ranch north of Santa Barbara, Calif., arriving at Neverland on pilgrimages from Europe and Asia, and who were among the first to flock to UCLA Medical Center as news of his death spread Thursday afternoon. Those were the same kind of fans who camped out at the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse, to show their support during his 2005 trial. They released doves and wept when he was acquitted.

Then there was the other kind of fan, who preferred to keep memories of the singer locked firmly in his 1980s prime: Today’s young adults have memories of being moonwalking grade-schoolers. Even the hardest rockers will easily confess to the first album they ever bought: “Thriller.”

“I am just de-va-stated,” said Bridgette Cooper, 44, of Mitchellville, Md., who was driving her children to math tutoring when her 12-year-old got the news by text. “I don’t ever remember not loving him. I have been a fan forever. Even through the turmoil and the public spectacle, I still loved him and his music.”

Jackson’s death set off a media frenzy. Web sites began reporting that the singer had been taken to the hospital. Soon, streets in the Westwood neighborhoods around the hospital were closed and crowds of onlookers formed. Soon enough, they were dancing and playing Jackson’s music.

The singer suffered an apparent heart attack at one of his residences in Bel-Air. Paramedics said Jackson was not breathing when they arrived at 12:26 p.m. Pacific time. He was pronounced dead at UCLA Medical Center.

“For Michael to be taken away from us so suddenly at such a young age, I just don’t have the words,” producer Quincy Jones said. “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 … talent, grace, professionalism and dedication. He was the consummate entertainer and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever.”

“On the one hand, it’s shocking,” said Alan Light, a journalist who has edited Spin and Vibe magazines. “On the other, everybody had the sense that there was not going to be a happy ending to this story. … It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact he had on popular music and popular culture. He really defined what the music video could be. He was the ultimate crossover figure, bringing black music and rock ’n’ roll together. He is someone who will be remembered as an absolute superstar.”

Jackson’s career began as a family business in Gary, Ind. As the Jackson 5, the group moved from local talent contests to national stardom, with the encouragement of established artists including Gladys Knight. Driven by their father in a borrowed van, the Jackson 5 appeared in Chicago, at New York’s Apollo Theater and as the opening act for the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Motown owner Berry Gordy signed the group to a contract in 1968.

Jackson’s first solo collaboration with producer Jones, “Off the Wall” (1979), sold 9 million copies and had four Top 10 hits. In 1982, Jackson released his next, “Thriller,” which was also produced by Jones. It became an instant phenomenon, selling more than 40 million copies and yielding seven Top 10 hits, including “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and the title track.

“Thriller” won eight Grammy Awards, but it was Jackson’s breathtaking performances on music videos accompanying the album that became instantly memorable. He choreographed the exciting dance routines, which featured his show-stopping moonwalk, acrobatic moves and uncanny precision. He started wearing a white glove on one hand, which became one of his sartorial signatures.

His 1987 album, “Bad,” sold 22 million copies and produced five No. 1 singles. By the time of his 1991 album, “Dangerous,” Jackson had parted ways with producer Jones. Although the album sold more than 20 million copies, it was seen as something of an artistic letdown.

In his 30s, Jackson started to become more enigma than entertainer. He straightened his hair and nose, beginning a process of self-reconstruction that ultimately reached bizarre lengths. In time, Jackson’s skin turned from brown to a pale white, his nose shrank from plastic surgeries, and his frame remained gaunt. He wore outlandish costumes in public and spoke in an airy, high-pitched whisper.

He built a private playland, the sprawling Neverland, to which he invited scores of underprivileged children. He was accused of abusing a child in the 1990s; the case was settled out of court in 1994 for a reported amount between $15 million and $24 million.

In the early 2000s his fortunes and recording contracts waned, and an album, 2001’s “Invincible,” sold only 10 million copies worldwide. Jackson lashed out at his record label and claimed, at an appearance with the Rev. Al Sharpton, that he was the victim of racism. The hits kept not coming, but the headlines did: In November 2002, Jackson appeared to dangle his infant son over a Berlin hotel balcony while greeting fans and paparazzi below, which brought outrage.

He was briefly married to Elvis Presley progeny Lisa Marie Presley. After that marriage he became a father to three children: Prince Michael I, who is now 12, and Paris Michael, 11. His youngest child, Prince Michael II, is 7. He is also survived by his siblings and his parents, Joe and Katherine Jackson.