R.I.P. Michael Jackson

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He called himself the King of Pop, Fred Astaire called him "a hell of a dancer," Quincy Jones called him "Smelly," and his fans called him "amazing." Michael Jackson died suddenly on June 25, 2009, at age 50. Despite a string of personal ups and downs in his later life, Jackson was a consummate performer and musical innovator. More exhaustive biographical information can be found in the many obituaries that will be posted in the next few days; for now, mental floss remembers Michael with a few of the lesser-known quirky facts of his life.

Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'

Michael's father, Joseph, was a crane operator at a Gary, Indiana, steel mill when he started organizing his older boys into a musical group. Young Michael wanted to join, but his father said he was too young. Joseph reconsidered when five-year-old Michael received a standing ovation in his elementary school's talent contest with his rendition of "Climb Every Mountain." His mother worried, though, because from the very beginning Michael took rehearsing and performing so seriously; he never seemed to take time out to play and "just be a child."

Get on the Floor

Michael was a sponge when it came to learning moves and stage techniques from others. Back when the Jackson 5ive used to perform at the Apollo Theater, he would stand behind velvet drapes at the back of the stage and watch his idols (like James Brown) and try to memorize their various dance steps. He would then practice for hours on his own, long after his brothers had retired for the evening. Michael didn't invent the Moonwalk; he paid Soul Train dancers Geron "Casper" Candidate and Cooley Jackson to teach it to him. But he honed it and refined it and made it his own. Likewise, the Robot had been around for years, but Michael developed his own extreme version (and by the way, he and his brothers are playing and singing live in this clip, not lip-synching):

Thriller

Michael was 14 years old when he had his first solo number one hit, "Ben." The song was written for the movie of the same name, which was a sequel to the 1971 horror film Willard. Although it's not apparent from the lyrics, the film and song are both about a rat. In Willard Ben was evil and murderous, but in the sequel he befriended and protected a shy young boy. Jackson performed "Ben " at the 1973 Academy Awards show, but lost the "Best Song" trophy to "The Morning After."

 

Working Day and Night

During the summer of 1976 the Jacksons were given their own variety series by CBS. Michael hated the idea from the get-go; he was a perfectionist and preferred to be able to rehearse as long as he felt necessary before performing, but the demands of a weekly taping schedule wouldn't allow him to do so. He wasn't wild about having to take part in the comedy skits, either. But Jermaine had just left the group and the Jacksons had signed with a new record label, and Joseph felt the TV show would keep the brothers in the public eye and make for a smoother transition. So Michael put on his game face and did his best:

Beat It

mj2Michael was something of a late bloomer in many ways. Producer Quincy Jones noticed while working on Thriller that Michael rarely used profanity. If he disliked something, he dismissed it as "smelly." After a while, Jones used the word as an affectionate nickname for Jackson. Donny Osmond once recalled playing practical jokes with Michael on members of their respective crews when the two families happened to be staying at the same hotel during a concert tour in the early 1970s. Donny also recalled that even though they were both in their early teens, because of their unusual upbringing - being celebrities since childhood - they shared a similar opinion when it came to girls. "They're too noisy - they just scream and pull your hair."

June 25, 2009 - 11:30pm
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