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From Smalltown to Motown

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From Michael Jackson’s earliest days, music ruled his life. His father, Joseph, a crane operator in blue-collar Gary, Ind., played guitar in a local band to earn extra money. The kids—Michael, born Aug. 29, 1958, was the seventh of nine—often harmonized songs with their mother, Katherine. Yet Michael, with his soaring vocals and perfectly mimicked moves of soul legends Jackie Wilson and James Brown, stood out from the start. “Little Michael started taking over the show in kindergarten,” says Gladys Johnson, a retired principal at Michael’s elementary school. Joe formed the boys into a singing group, demanding perfection (see box). Even on school nights, they often performed at seedy clubs as far away as Chicago. The hard work paid off in 1968, when they landed an audition at Motown Records. While founder Berry Gordy didn’t like signing such young performers, he was overwhelmed by their talent and charm—especially Michael’s. “He had a knowingness about him,” said Gordy, “that was incredible.”

And irresistible. In 1970 the Jackson 5’s debut single, “I Want You Back,” hit No. 1, as did their next three releases—a feat no pop group had ever matched. Girls mobbed them everywhere, with Michael, who also scored solo hits like “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben,” at the center. He enjoyed the adulation, but as an adult often lamented that it came at the price of his childhood.

By the mid-1970s, the brothers wanted greater control of their careers, so they (except for Jermaine) left Motown for Epic Records. In 1978 Michael starred as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, and he befriended the film’s musical director Quincy Jones. By this time Michael and his brothers had scored six Top 10 albums. But the collaboration with Jones would make Michael a bigger star than even he could imagine.