It hardly seems possible—Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, dead at 50.
My mouth dropped open in stunned silence when a friend told me the news that the musical and fashion icon had died of apparent cardiac arrest. It couldn’t be. He was to start performing again in July with legions of fans anticipating his return to the concert stage.
Jackson, the seventh of nine children, became a bona fide global star despite his humble working-class beginnings.
The little black kid from Gary, Ind., crossed racial and musical lines to make his indelible mark on the world. I’ll never forget the excitement and pride of seeing him and his four brothers—the Jackson 5—for the first time in 1969 on CBS’ “Ed Sullivan Show,” decked out in wildly colorful costumes, performing precision choreography and belting out their first No. 1 hit, “I Want You Back.” They became instant idols for me and my friends and the fresh face of what became known as “bubblegum soul.” We knew all the songs, from “ABC” to “The Love You Save” to “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and tried to mimic Michael’s stellar dance moves.
But nobody—repeat, nobody—could dance like Michael Jackson. He could seemingly defy gravity with his effortless Moonwalk, the slow-motion leans, the quick kicks, the blinding spins and fancy footwork. His music videos were like short movies and took the medium to new heights. I was especially mesmerized by the intricacies of the “Thriller” video and watched it over and over again. Michael was absolutely electrifying as an entertainer.
Along with the rest of the world I watched this extraordinary performer grow from the charismatic, sweet-faced boy into a cute but awkward teen, still racking up the hits. He broke away from his brothers and blossomed as a talented solo artist, breaking sales records wide open. But Jackson, as a young adult enjoying tremendous worldwide success with “Off the Wall” and the breakout “Thriller” albums, began to show signs of veering off into a bizarre sphere. He left us scratching our heads and wondering what was happening as his appearance started to morph into gargoyle-like weirdness. He began hanging out with young children and a chimp named Bubbles. He built an amusement park on his lavish Neverland estate and owned a host of exotic animals. He was plagued by scandals, lawsuits and court trials—a true enigma and the butt of jokes for late-night comics.
But despite all that Michael undeniably remained a superstar. I was always amazed at how he could sell out monstrous arenas around the world in minutes and fill them with adoring, screaming and crying fans of every race, creed and color. And they gathered around the world as news of his death spread to shed tears and celebrate his life. Say what you will about him, but Michael was able to touch people with his music. His songs became the soundtrack of our lives. To this day, whenever I hear “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” or “Billie Jean,” I’m back at a house party among friends, dancing my heart out like there’s no tomorrow.
Unfortunately, there will be no more tomorrows for Michael here on this earth. The thriller has been silenced. May the King of Pop rest in peace.
Barbranda Lumpkins Walls is features editor at the AARP Bulletin.