On this day in 2009, Michael Jackson, one of the most commercially successful entertainers in history, dies at the age of 50 at his home in Los Angeles, California, after suffering from cardiac arrest caused by a fatal combination of drugs given to him by his personal doctor.
Jackson released his first solo album, “Got to Be There,” in 1972, while continuing to sing with his brothers. Six years later, in 1978, he made his big-screen debut as the Scarecrow in “The Wiz,” an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name. Directed by Quincy Jones, the film starred an all-black cast that included singer Diana Ross as Dorothy. Jones collaborated with Jackson on his 1979 album “Off the Wall,” which sold some 7 million copies worldwide. The pair teamed up again for Jackson’s now-iconic 1982 album, “Thriller,” which went on to sell 50 million copies around the globe, making it the best-selling studio album of all time. “Thriller” is credited with jump-starting the era of music videos and playing a key role in the rise of then-fledging cable TV network MTV, which launched in 1981.
In 1983, Jackson created a massive sensation on a live Motown anniversary TV special when he performed his now-signature Moonwalk dance step while wearing a black fedora and a single white glove covered with rhinestones. According to The Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hillburn, the performance served as 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.”
Jackson’s next solo effort, “Bad,” debuted in 1987. It sold 8 million copies and featured a music video from acclaimed movie director Martin Scorsese. By this time, however, Jackson had paid a high price for his massive success. According to The Los Angeles Times: “He became so accustomed to bodyguards and assistants that he once admitted that he trembled if he had to open his own front door.”
By the 1990s, Jackson’s life was near-constant tabloid fodder. In 1993, he was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy who had been a sleepover guest at his home. Jackson denied the allegations and the criminal investigation was dropped; however, the singer later settled a civil lawsuit with the boy’s family for a reported $20 million. In 2003, Jackson was accused of molesting another boy. Following a highly publicized trial in 2005, he was acquitted of all charges. (Both allegations were reexamined—and given credible weight—in a 2019 documentary, Leaving Neverland.) During these years, Jackson also faced intense media scrutiny over his radically altered physical appearance, which included an ever-lighter complexion (which he attributed to a skin condition) and multiple plastic surgeries. Although Jackson himself was mostly close-mouthed on the topic, media sources alleged that Jackson developed an obsession with cosmetic surgery, in part, following an accident he suffered in January 1984 while shooting a Pepsi commercial. During filming, a pyrotechnics mishap set the singer’s hair on fire, and he suffered burns on his head and face that required reconstructive surgery. In the aftermath of the surgery, Jackson reportedly suffered from an addiction to prescription painkillers.
Jackson also made headlines with his brief marriage (1994-1994) to Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of singer Elvis Presley. From 1996 to 1999, he was wed to Debbie Rowe, the former assistant of his dermatologist and the mother of two of his three children. (Jackson’s youngest child, a boy, was reportedly born via a surrogate.)
On June 25, 2009, Jackson, who after a lengthy time away from the public spotlight was preparing for a series of summer concerts in London, was discovered unconscious in his Los Angeles mansion. The Los Angeles coroner’s officer later ruled the pop star’s death a homicide after lethal levels of the powerful sedative propofol, as well other drugs, were found in his system. Jackson’s personal physician, who was at the singer’s home when he died, had been giving him propofol as a sleep aid for a period of weeks.
On July 7, 2009, more than 20,000 fans attended a public memorial for Jackson at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Over 30 million viewers tuned in watch the event on cable TV, while millions more viewed it online.