Four steps. That was it. No pyrotechnics, no backup dancers—just a man, one glove and four steps. March 25, 1983, onstage at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium: Michael Jackson, then 24, sings a Jackson 5 medley with his brothers for the TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever. Then his brothers leave, and Jackson, in too-short pants, black loafers and sequined socks, takes over. “Yeah, those were the good old days … those were magic moments,” he said. “But, especially, I like the new songs.”
Suddenly, thunder: the thumping beat of “Billie Jean,” fans on their feet, screaming. Three minutes and 40 seconds into the song, Jackson takes four short, sliding steps backward—and moonwalks into history. “He knew he was going to change the world that night,” says singer Valerie Simpson, who was also on the show. “And he did.”
This is no exaggeration: Jackson’s surreal dance step—as otherworldly to watch as, say, a man shooting lasers out of his eyes—triggered a lasting transformation of music, dance and pop culture. Seen by 47 million people, the special created even more of a frenzy around Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller, helped him become perhaps the first African-American artist to truly own the mainstream and turned him into the biggest superstar of his and, possibly, any generation. For roughly 10 years starting in 1982, no celebrity could hope to approach Jackson’s level of global fame and influence, nor has any since. “It’s hard to explain, but he made you feel invincible,” says Wyclef Jean, one of many musicians to credit Jackson with opening up a new world of creative possibilities. “Michael was a muse to all musicians.”
Even though Jackson’s 1979 solo album Off the Wall went multiplatinum, that was mere prologue to the Thriller supernova. “I love to create magic—to put something together that’s so unusual, so unexpected that it blows people’s heads off,” Jackson said in 1982. “Something ahead of the times.” The moonwalk was just that, sending adrenalized kids scurrying to their kitchens in socks, trying to master the move. When “Billie Jean” aired on MTV in 1983, Jackson became the first African-American artist ever featured on the nascent channel and inspired fans around the globe to copy his leather-and-rhinestones style. Thriller went on to sell an estimated 100 million copies, making it one of the best-selling albums ever.
Just like that, Jackson was everywhere—on Brooke Shields‘ arm at the 1984 Grammys, leading a Who’s Who of megastars in singing 1985’s “We Are the World,” which he cowrote; in the wildly expensive “Thriller” video, in which his monster mutation mirrored his real-life transformation into a pop messiah. That unearthly aura was irresistible. When he went to the Oscars with Madonna, “it was pouring rain, the limo door opened and Michael got out first,” she told PEOPLE. “I got out right after him, and my bodyguard leaves with Michael under the umbrella. I was left standing in the rain. It was so fascinating to see how people responded to him.”
Jackson’s genius included a real knack for raking in cash. His over-the-top 1984 Victory tour became a colossal success, and in 1985 he paid $47.5 million for the publishing rights to most of the Beatles catalogue, a coup that earned him untold millions over the years. Jackson released Bad in 1987 and Dangerous in 1991, both monster albums by any standard other than his own (neither scored even half of Thriller‘s haul). Not long after, his offstage behavior became disturbing enough to do the impossible: overshadow his immense talent. He’d always be famous, to be sure, but after the early ’90s he did not command the world’s attention as he had so blindingly for a decade.
And yet, what a thing it was when it all came together so magically: the man, the music, the moves. Minutes after Jackson’s Motown moment, singer Nick Ashford found him backstage. “I tried to congratulate him for the moonwalk, but he couldn’t even speak,” says Ashford. “He’d given so much. He just sat down on the side of a prop.” He may have taken just four small steps, but Michael Jackson wound up in a brand-new universe.