Onstage, Jackson seemed to know no fear.
By 1972, Jackson had his first solo album, "Got to Be There," which included the title hit as well as "Rockin' Robin." His first solo No. 1 single came the same year -- the forlorn theme song from the movie “Ben.”
He struggled to understand a world that he saw mostly while staring into spotlights and flashbulbs. Standing ovations greeted him onstage; parental slaps awaited him in the dressing room. Like his mother, he became a Jehovah's Witness, forswearing alcohol, cigarettes and foul language. He fasted on Saturdays and went door-to-door, wearing a disguise, to spread the faith. (He ended his association with the religion in the late 1980s.)
In 1978, Michael made his film debut as the Scarecrow in "The Wiz," a black-cast adaptation of "The Wizard of Oz." The movie launched a creative and commercial partnership with "Wiz" music director Quincy Jones.
The first fruit of their collaboration was "Off the Wall" (1979), Jackson's debut album on the Epic label. It sold 5 million copies in the United States and 2 million abroad and generated four Top 10 singles.
It was with Jones (as well as often-overlooked songwriter Rod Temperton) that Jackson shaped "Thriller," which was released near the end of 1982 and became the best-selling studio album in history and a cultural landmark. Its effect on the music industry and the music videos that came to define the then-nascent MTV was huge.
In a Motown TV special in 1983, Jackson, then 24, electrified the nation with his Moonwalk, a dance step that created the illusion of levitation. He took the stage in a black sequined jacket, silver shirt, black fedora and black trousers that skimmed the tops of his white socks. The final touch was a single white glove, studded with rhinestones.
Times critic Robert Hilburn, who observed the performance live at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, said the broadcast marked Jackson's "unofficial coronation as the King of Pop. Within months, he changed the way people would hear and see pop music, unleashing an influence that rivaled that of Elvis Presley and the Beatles."
His dance style combined the robotic moves of break-dancers, the quicksilver spins and slides of James Brown and the grace of Fred Astaire, whose routines he studied. The aging Astaire called him "a wonderful mover."
Not only did "Thriller" smash sales records as the bestselling album of 1983, but it made Jackson the first artist to top four charts simultaneously: It was the No. 1 pop single, pop album, R&B single and R&B album. It earned five Grammy Awards. Jay Cocks wrote in Time magazine that Jackson "just may be the most popular black singer ever."
The "Thriller" success enabled Jackson to negotiate what were believed to be the highest royalty rates ever earned by a recording artist. But it also put him in a cage of his own anxieties and obsession.
Jackson bonded with past pop-music royalty by marrying Lisa Marie Presley in 1994 and grabbing a major interest in the Beatles' catalog, an asset worth $500 million. The marriage was short-lived, however, and his wealth was imperiled by an extravagant lifestyle that included the 2,700-acre Neverland Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, where he lived with a menagerie of exotic pets.
Jackson became a prisoner of his own celebrity. He became so accustomed to bodyguards and assistants that he once admitted that he trembled if he had to open his own front door. He compared himself to "a hemophiliac who can't afford to be scratched in any way."
Notoriously shy offstage, onstage he was electric and acutely attuned to what his fans craved. Commenting once on a sotto voce note at the end of a ballad, he said: "That note will touch the whole audience. What they're throwing out at you, you're grabbing. You hold it, you touch it and you whip it back -- it's like a Frisbee."
"I hate to admit it, but I feel strange around everyday people," he said on another occasion. "See, my whole life has been onstage, and the impression I get of people is applause, standing ovations and running after you. In a crowd, I'm afraid. Onstage, I feel safe. If I could, I would sleep on the stage. I'm serious."
In better days, his wealth allowed him to fulfill personal fantasies -- including building his own amusement park -- and bankroll charities, particularly those involving children. Then came the dark whispers about the nature of his relationship with boys.
He was often seen with youngsters, both famous and those plucked from the mundane world to visit his playground estate. In 1993, he was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy who was a frequent overnight guest in his home. On tour in Asia when the charges were filed, he canceled his performances, citing exhaustion and addiction to painkillers as the reasons.
Jackson's attorney charged that the boy's father, a would-be screenwriter who had tried to obtain Jackson's backing for a project, was trying to extort money. The criminal investigation was closed after the boy refused to testify. A civil lawsuit was settled for a reported $20 million.