Happy Birthday to Michael Jackson, Who Gave Us 'Thriller,' 'Off the Wall' and Musical Magic

Michael Jackson performs during his "HIStory World Tour" concert in Vienna on July 2, 1997. Jackson, who died in Los Angeles on June 25, 2009, would have been 59 next week. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/Files

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "The Peter Pan of Pop" on January 10, 1983. To commemorate what would have been Michael Jackson's 59th birthday, Newsweek is republishing it.

It's a giddy and glamorous sound. Hands clap, horns blare. A carnival of percussion erupts. Electric guitars chatter like a corps of African talking drums. A voice gasps and then chants a chorus. So go the first few seconds of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," six minutes of musical frenzy from a new Epic album called Thriller. The show-stopping style could come from only one star—Michael Jackson.

For nearly 14 years Jackson has been making his own breathless brand of show-business history. He first burst into view in 1969, as the 10-year-old dancing dynamo who dipped, spun and sang for the Jackson 5, a quintet of buoyant young brothers. Over the next decade he helped sell more than 90 million records, both with that group and as a solo artist. Heir to a great tradition of black stagecraft, he has become a whirling dervish of the modern recording studio. In 1979, he helped bring black music into the '80s with Off the Wall, a luminous set of high-tech dance hits, including four Top 10 singles—the most from any one album by any solo performer in the history of recorded music.

Supercharged: Now, at 24, Jackson seems poised for another surge. He wrote and produced Diana Ross's recent Top 10 hit, "Muscles." He narrated and sang a song for the storybook album of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. And for Thriller, his long-awaited sequel to Off the Wall, he has fashioned a supercharged pop classic for the '80s—flashy, futuristic, floridly upbeat.

Despite his showy style, Michael Jackson remains something of an enigma. Onstage in one of his sequined jump suits, he's a flamboyant picture of grace, a sleek jaguar ready to pounce. In photographs he's a creature of sweet sensuality, beguiling, angelic, androgynous. In person, though, he's quiet and reserved, a gangling young man of cagey reticence, with a childlike aura of wonder.

He lives with his mother and two younger sisters in a Tudor-style estate in the San Fernando Valley. On the grounds he keeps a small menagerie that includes a llama named Louis, a boa constrictor named Muscles and a sheep named Mr. Tibbs. "I think they're sweet," says Michael in his willowy whisper of a voice. "I like to pry into their world and watch the way they move about. I just stare at them." He is equally fascinated by the world of children: "When I'm upset about a recording session, I'll dash off on my bike and ride to the schoolyard, just to be around them. When I come back to the studio, I'm ready to move mountains. Kids do that to me. It's like magic."

Magic is the key. It's a word that Jackson uses with disarming frequency, as if to conjure up a never-never land of constant enchantment. Beethoven, Rembrandt, Charlie Chaplin—all these things to him are magic. It was certainly magic when he met E.T.: "He grabbed me, he put his arms around me. He was so real that I was talking to him. I kissed him before I left." And the magic doesn't stop there: "I have dreams to this day about flying," he says, explaining his love for Steven Spielberg's airborne extraterrestrial. He pauses and leans forward: "We can fly, you know. We just don't know how to think the right thoughts and levitate ourselves off the ground."

Michael Jackson as Peter Pan? The notion sounds ridiculous -- until you consider Michael's point of view. His saga has the flavor of a modern-day fairy tale.

Growing up in the dingy ghetto of Gary, Indiana, the fifth child in a family of eight, he virtually stepped from his crib to the stage. He was coached by his father, a crane operator who had once played with the Falcons, an early rock band. "There was a big baseball park behind our house," recalls Michael. "You could hear the cheers of the crowd. But I never had any desire to play baseball. I would be inside working, rehearsing." At the age of 5 he played his first paying gig with the Jackson 5. "When we sang, people would throw all this money on the floor," says Michael—"tons of dollars, 10s, 20s, lots of change. I remember my pockets being so full of money that I couldn't keep my pants up. I'd wear a real tight belt. And I'd buy candy like crazy."

Rewarded: The group began to win talent shows. Back home in Gary they took time to perform at benefits for Muigwighania, a local black-pride organization led by a man named Richard Hatcher. When Hatcher later became the city's first black mayor, he rewarded the Jacksons by spotlighting them at a 1968 civic "Soul Weekend" starring Diana Ross and the Supremes. "He won me over the first moment I saw him," Ross told Newsweek in 1970. "I saw so much of myself as a child in Michael. He was performing all the time. That's the way I was. He could be my son." She convinced her boss, Berry Gordy, to audition the group for his legendary Motown label.

By 1968 Gordy's company had become one of the largest black-owned enterprises in the United States—an empire built on black music sweetened for white ears. The Jackson 5 were the perfect Motown act: a band of boys so cuddly and cute that no one could feel threatened by their sexy antics or their black skin. Best of all, their pint-size lead singer had mastered every nuance of the soul singer's art—the heartfelt histrionics of Jackie Wilson, the pleading romanticism of Smokey Robinson, the kinetic energy of James Brown. Gordy carefully groomed the group and then handed them "I Want You Back"—one of the greatest rock 'n' roll tracks ever made. The record explodes like popcorn. Americans of all ages went scrambling in response, snapping up more than 2 million copies of the single and turning the Jackson 5 into instant superstars.

Michael was now 11, a seasoned trouper and a fan-club pinup at a time when most boys still dream only of idling away summer days on a sandlot. He was whisked from the sooty snow of Gary to the smoggy glitter of Hollywood. "When we got there, we went to Disneyland," he recalls. "It was freezing in Indiana. It's freezing right now in Indiana. The sun, the swimming pools, a whole other image, a whole other life. It was magic."

In fact, the "magic" involved a lot of hard work, hammering out hits on Motown's assembly line of soul. "We're labeling it 'soul-bubblegum'," declared Gordy in 1970. "It's a style that appeals to the younger teens." The exact formula was, as usual, strictly controlled by the company. "We provide total guidance," explained a Motown vice president. "We provide their material, set their basic sound and work out the choreographic routines." They also set a 9:30 curfew.

Influence: For three years the regimen worked. The Jackson 5 became the fastest-selling act in Motown's history, eclipsing such solid-gold predecessors as the Supremes and Miracles. For several years Michael could watch his own animated self frolic on a Saturday-morning network-television cartoon show, The Jackson 5. Despite such vivid proof of his own astonishing influence, Michael throughout these years remained wrapped in a cocoon, surrounded by bodyguards, tutors and his immediate family circle—a child at sea in a world of adults, expected to sing love songs he could scarcely understand. Growing up in this fantasyland of make-believe romance and real-life adulation left its mark. "I hate to admit it," says Michael, "but I feel strange around everyday people. 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."

"Jacksonmania" gradually subsided. As he grew older, Michael's plangent soprano plunged an octave. Finally, in 1976, the group left Motown for a new label, Epic. In 1978 Michael made his movie debut, playing the Scarecrow in The Wiz. That year the Jacksons' sagging musical career also got a fresh boost from a record called Destiny—the first album entirely written and produced by the group itself. The dance hit "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" featured Michael, 19 and newly confident, filling the air with impatient squeals. A few months later, when the veteran jazz arranger and film composer Quincy Jones produced Off the Wall, Michael's first solo album in five years, he added a classy veneer of urbane elegance to the singer's nervous new style. The album sold more than 5 million copies—and suddenly Michael Jackson was back at the forefront of American popular music.

Try as he might to escape it, he has been in the limelight ever since. Rumors surround his every passing romance. Three years ago the talk concerned Tatum O'Neal. This year it's about Brooke Shields. Michael himself has hinted that he'd like to marry Diana Ross. He maintains close friendships with a dazzling—and unusual—array of stars: Katharine Hepburn, Liza Minnelli, Jane Fonda. Yet he leads a sober and disciplined life, fasting every Saturday and dancing for 30 minutes by himself every Sunday. He doesn't drink, smoke or swear: since even the word funky seems to him a little off-color, he uses the word jelly instead. He has followed in his mother's faith and become a practicing Jehovah's Witness, convinced, as he sings on his 1979 solo hit "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," of "the force" within--a divine, pure, healing instinct for love, expressed through his own musical gifts. "The thing that touches me is very special," he says. "It's a message I have to tell. I start crying and the pain is wonderful. It's amazing. It's like God."

Enthusiasm: "Michael's a truth machine," says Quincy Jones. "He's got a balance between the wisdom of a 60-year-old and the enthusiasm of a child." At a recent recording session, Michael spent five hours fine-tuning an upcoming single, patiently jotting down technical notes for his engineer, carefully calibrating the sound. Finished at last, he leaped up, yelled, "It's jelly time!"—and started a food fight.

He remains painfully shy. During a reporter's visit to his home, the doorbell rang. Michael froze in his seat, remembering that his bodyguard and assistant were both away. Cautiously, he approached the door and peered through the peephole. He went to the window and peeked through the blinds. His voice trembled. "I never do this," he said, opening the door. On the step a messenger had left a package of new sheet music.

Put this timorous man-child onto a stage, though, and he will bring 50,000 people out of their seats. Give him a sotto voce note at the end of a ballad and he will steal their breath. "That note will touch the whole audience," says Michael. "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."

The same impish delight—and musical command—shines through on Thriller, Michael's new album. The title track sets the tone. With a "rap" by Vincent Price, Hollywood's master of the macabre, and the use of elaborate sound effects—a creaking door, a whistling wind—the song evokes a child's laughing dash through a haunted house. And this isn't the only roller-coaster cut. The entire album is a farrago of startling tricks: phased synthesizers, swirling voices, a bevy of what sounds like sing-along chipmunks.

These grabby stunts soon pale—and we're left to marvel at Michael's four new compositions. Each one is quirky, strange, deeply personal, with offbeat lyrics that hint at Michael's own secret world of dreams and demons.

Wicked Vixen: His most seductive new song, "Billie Jean," is about a paternity suit pressed by a cunning temptress. "Billie Jean is not my lover," wails Michael, singing as if his life depended on it; "the kid is not my son." The same wicked vixen—"talkin', squealin', spyin'"—appears in "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," a roiling lyric full of screwball lines. For example: "You're a vegetable/Still they hate you.... You're just a buffet.... They eat off of you." "Beat It," a blustery foray into macho hard rock, counsels the listener to run away from bullies—advice sung to the accompaniment of a bullying guitar solo. And then there is the current Top 10 hit, "The Girl Is Mine," a duet with Paul McCartney. It sounds very pretty and perfectly innocuous—until you begin to think about the lyrics. Have American radio stations ever before played a song about two men, one black and the other white, quarreling over the same woman?

Every one of these lyrics could be faulted for elliptical lines, awkward phrases, even the occasional malapropism. But as Paul McCartney pointed out last spring, shortly after recording "The Girl Is Mine," such complaints miss the point. "The song I've just done with Michael Jackson, you could say that it's shallow," McCartney explained. "There was even a word—doggone—that I wouldn't have put in it. When I checked it out with Michael, he explained that he wasn't going for depth—-he was going for rhythm, he was going for feel. And he was right. It's not the lyrics that are important on this particular song—it's much more the noise, the performance, my voice, his voice."

And what a voice Michael Jackson has. On ballads he is hushed, reverent, trembling, his tenor arching into a supple, pure falsetto. On up-tempo dance tunes he's hoarse, ecstatic, possessed—his singing an awesome repertoire of pops, clicks, squeaks, gurgles, moans, almost any sound that can be juggled rhythmically. Michael's voice haunts these songs, gives them heart. It transcends all the electronic gimmickry. It is what will make this music endure.

On their last tour together, in 1981, the Jacksons opened each concert by showing a videotape made under Michael's supervision. Set to the music of "Can You Feel It," a hymn to human unity composed, in part, by Michael himself, the tape consists of images inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Busby Berkeley's gilded Depression-era musicals. At one point we see the Jacksons drift to Earth, each encased in his own bubble. In another sequence, the Jacksons, portrayed as superhuman giants, lift a rainbow, light the heavens and sprinkle stardust on the cities of the Earth, causing small children of all colors to glow with gratitude, bathed in rainbow hues, reaching out to touch and hold one another. These images, which betray a naive megalomania, have an undeniable poignancy. Here is a black giant who sacrificed his childhood to become a pop idol, a demigod detached from his fellow men, now sealed in a transparent bubble—a lonely prophet of salvation through the miracle of his own childlike, playful, life-giving music.