Mad, bad, or merely misunderstood? The bizarre life of 'Wacko'

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The Independent Online

Michael Jackson was born on August 29, 1958, the seventh of nine children in a working class family. His mother was a devout Jehovah's Witness while his father – a steel worker and guitarist in an R&B band – became known for the brutal work ethic he instilled in the the five Jackson boys – Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael, who first performed together at a talent show when Michael was just six, bagging first prize. By 1964 Jackson had joined his brothers' pop group as an instrumentalist but his boyish looks, sharp falsetto and exceptional talent often outshone his siblings.

Struck by Jackson's talent and timing, musicians Gladys Knight and Bobby Taylor later recommended the Jackson 5 to Motown producer Berry Gordy, a moment that many believe saw the Jackson's rise out of the nightclubs of Indiana onto the airwaves across America.

The group's first release on the Detroit label, "I Want You Back", rocketed to number one in 1969 – when Michael was just 11 years old. Over the next six years, the band churned out a string of hits including "ABC", "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There", with Michael Jackson almost always leading the vocals to applause. But it was 1978 when the seeds of Michael Jackson's solo career were sown. Playing the role of a scarecrow in The Wiz, Michael Jackson met Quincy Jones whom he asked to produce his first solo album, Off The Wall. The disco classic went on to sell 10 million copies.

Jackson was to reach even greater heights four years later when he released Thriller. The album became a smash hit yielding seven top-ten singles and shifting more than 60 million copies, becoming the biggest-selling album of all time.

As the album generated hit after hit – seven of its nine tracks made the charts – Jackson's career began to soar. He caused jaws to drop around the world when he unveiled the signature moonwalk at a Motown television special a year later.

But rumours of his lifestyle also began to circulate, amid claims that he slept in an oxygen tent and wanted to buy the remains of the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick. The "Wacko Jacko" name was coined shortly afterwards, and the star retreated into his newly-purchased Neverland ranch, complete with zoo and fun fair.

But his eccentricities didn't stop there. By 1987 Michael Jackson returned in a video for his next album Bad which saw him with distinctly lighter skin, leading to rumours of plastic surgery and skin bleaching. Many believe that the following album Dangerous, which contained several hits, was less well received, with fans and critics alike put off by the harsh rhythms and sparse arrangements.

The real problems for Jackson began in 1993 when the family of 11-year-old Jordy Chandler accused Jackson of molesting their son. The star categorically denied the charges, but later came to an out-of-court settlement with the family for an estimated $20m. The following year, Michael married Lisa Marie Presley in what many viewed as an attempt to repair his tarnished public image. The couple divorced 19 months later.

In a a surprise move in 1997, Jackson married nurse Debbie Rowe, who later said she was pregnant with his child, Prince Michael. The couple had a daughter, Paris Michael Katherine, the following year before divorcing in 1999. The singer retained custody of the children. His 2001 Invincible barely lasted six weeks in the charts and the singer's personal life continued to cause controversy. He drew scathing criticism when he dangled the 11-month-old Prince Michael II (also known as Blanket) from the window of a German hotel.

Police raided Jackson's Neverland ranch and, shortly afterwards, issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of molesting a 14-year-old boy, Gavin Arvizo. The star surrendered himself to police culminating in a five-month trial which ended in 2005 with Jackson found not guilty. Following the trial and amid rumours of bankruptcy, the elusive pop star moved to Dubai.

It was earlier this year when Jackson made a surprise appearance announcing a series of concerts at the O2 arena, which were due to start in a fortnight and were already sold out. "This will be it," he told a press conference. "When I say this is it, it really means this is it," he said, describing the series of shows as "the final curtain call". His words would carry a haunting significance unbeknown to anyone at the time.