Even if you managed to somehow get through your life and not hear the album, Thriller, you have certainly listened to music (not to mention musicians and songwriters) influenced by this best selling album of all time.
Michael Jackson, born in Gary, Indiana on August 29, 1958, began performing at a young age, performing at school recitals and then joining his older brothers as a back-up singer and percussionist. He, along with brother Jermaine, eventually took on the lead vocals and the group, by then renamed “The Jackson 5,” played the many black nightclubs and music venues of the Midwest.
After two years of touring and honing their act, the Jackson 5 signed with Motown records in 1968, making history as their first four singles all hit Number One on the Billboard Charts. Michael also made four solo studio albums while with Motown and scored several Top Ten singles on his own, including the Number One hit, “Ben.”
The group left Motown in 1975, renaming themselves “The Jacksons” and signing with what would become Epic Records. By this time, Michael was the Jacksons’ primary songwriter, often writing and arranging songs by singing out parts and recording them.
While working on The Wiz, a modern take on The Wizard of Oz in which he played the scarecrow, Michael went into partnership with Quincy Jones, who was arranging the music for The Wiz. Together, they co-produced Michael’s 1979 solo album, Off the Wall, which went on to sell over twenty million copies as well as win the twenty-one-year old a Grammy for “Best Male R & B Vocal.”
For an encore, Michael and Quincy Jones teamed up again to produce Thriller, an album that, at one point, had seven singles on the Billboard Hot 100 list at the same time. Effortlessly mixing rock, R & B, hip hop, pop and soul, Thriller ultimately sold over one hundred and four million copies and is still inspiring many a producer, musician and songwriter. The 1984 Grammy Awards saw Michael walk away with eight trophies, a record he shares with Carlos Santana’s 2001 album, Smooth.
Besides revitalizing a music industry that had taken a bit of a downturn in the early 1980’s, Thriller also galvanized the music video business, and you couldn’t watch MTV for any length of time without seeing a Michael Jackson video.
In 1985, Michael and Lionel Richie co-wrote We Are the World, a song inspired by Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldorf’s Band Aid, particularly the single Do They Know It’s Christmas? We Are the World was performed by thirty-nine artists whose work crossed all genres, from Steve Perry to Kim Carnes to Willie Nelson to Dionne Warwick. The proceeds from the single, as well as its companion album, poured millions of dollars into famine relief.
Bad, released in 1987, certainly didn’t out perform Thriller in terms of sales. But the tour in support of Bad set attendance records worldwide and was the highest grossing tour of all time at the time. Michael would subsequently break his own record with the tours for Dangerous (1992-1993) and HIStory (1996-1997), the latter selling close to four-and-a-half million tickets outside of the United States. And, had he lived, he probably would have eclipsed those records as well, with his plan to perform fifty shows at London’s O2 Arena, which were scheduled to start July 13 this year (over seven hundred thousand tickets were sold in the first four hours).
While his music has brought happiness to a lot of the world and will undoubtedly continue to bring together listeners from all walks of life, Michael’s personal life was one of contradictions and controversy. And while many people cannot seem to separate the person, the artist, the singer, the dancer, the songwriter, the producer, the businessman and the philanthropist out (and, to be fair, that’s a matter of selection for most people – otherwise we couldn’t love our family and friends as we are all masses of contradictions), I hope that we can all agree to wish that Michael may have finally found peace.