Michael Jackson’s Life & Legacy: Wiz Kid (1958-78)

Jackson 5, solo hits and a star turn in 'The Wiz' defined Michael's early years.

In the wake of his untimely death on June 25, it’s hard to remember a time when [artist id="1102"]Michael Jackson[/artist] was not in our lives. The world-famous singer — who in the 1980s shattered all notions of what pop stardom could be — had been a major star since he was 10 years old, and by the time he released what is still the best-selling album of original material of all time, 1982′s Thriller, he was already a wily music-industry veteran.

Born Michael Joseph Jackson on August 29, 1958, into a musical family of less-than-modest means in the industrial Midwestern town of Gary, Indiana, Jackson began performing with his brothers professionally at the age of 5 in a group put together by his steelworker father, Joseph. It quickly became apparent that even among his musical siblings, Michael’s talents were on another level.

By age 6, Jackson was already gaining attention for his preternatural gifts for singing, dancing and performing a well-rehearsed medley of Motown, R&B and soul hits. The group, known first as the Jackson Brothers and then the Jackson 5 (the other members were Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon and Tito) hit the talent-show circuit, winding up on the famous stage of the Apollo Theater in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, where in 1967 they won an amateur-night competition.

As Jackson carefully studied the moves and musical phrasing styles of such contemporary masters as James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Sam and Dave, the group landed a recording contract with Motown in 1968. At that point, as a result of relentless pushing from Joseph Jackson — which, Michael would later reveal, included physical and emotional abuse — they were already a well-rehearsed machine thanks to four years of work on the “chitlin’ circuit” of black nightclubs, often opening for burlesque acts.

Thanks to personal attention from Motown boss Berry Gordy, the group was assigned a crack production team that helped write and record the songs that made them instant stars. Led by Michael, who handled nearly all the lead vocals and captivated audiences with his polished dance moves, their first four singles — “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” — all reached #1 on the Billboard charts, a milestone no group had ever accomplished before. As a testament to the star power of their youthful, energetic sound, dubbed “bubblegum soul” by the music press, “I Want You Back” sold 6 million copies worldwide and “ABC” replaced the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as the #1 single in April of 1970. That same year, the Jackson 5 were headlining shows in 20,000-seat venues and appearing regularly on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” They helped shatter mainstream perceptions of African-American families with an appearance on the cover of Life magazine in 1971. In a glimpse of things to come, Michael and his brothers were heavily merchandised on everything from stickers and jacket patches to posters, lunch boxes, coloring books and a Saturday morning cartoon on ABC that ran for two seasons beginning in 1971.

Even as the group was gaining worldwide fame, Michael was being pushed further out front as a solo artist. He released the Oscar-nominated single “Ben” in 1972 as the title song to a movie about a young boy and his homicidal pet rat. He released a series of four solo albums with Motown, scoring hit singles with “Got to Be There” and a remake of “Rockin’ Robin,” one of his most beloved early numbers, while appearing on shows like “The Dating Game” during his teen-heartthrob years.

By 1975, with their musical careers on the decline and looking to assert more creative control over their sound, the group split with Motown and renamed themselves the Jacksons, signing with Epic Records. They scored a short-lived variety show on CBS in 1976 (the first time a variety series was hosted by an African-American family), competing with ABC’s “Donny and Marie” (Osmond) show.

Though their first two post-Motown efforts were commercial duds, the family stormed back in 1978 with the disco-fied “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” which was written by Michael and Randy and sold more than 2 million copies. Michael took his boldest step yet away from the family business in 1978 when he appeared alongside longtime friend and Motown mentor Diana Ross in the funky big-screen remake of the Broadway musical “The Wiz,” based on the classic children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

Jackson was a revelation in the role of the rubber-legged scarecrow, holding his own in his first major acting role alongside such veterans as Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne. In a recent blog post, famed producer Quincy Jones, the music supervisor for the film, said he was reluctantly pulled into the project by director Sidney Lumet but is forever glad that he said yes.

“As the scarecrow, Michael dove into the filming of ‘The Wiz’ with everything that he had, not only learning his lines but those of everyone in the cast,” he wrote. The friendship the two formed while working on that film turned into a professional partnership that would soon change the face of popular music forever, first with Jackson’s Jones-produced Off the Wall solo album, and then with their collaboration on the landmark Thriller.

As the 1970s reached their end, Michael’s star was just beginning to rise …

NEXT: Off the Wall establishes Jackson as a solo star …

MTV’s live coverage of the Michael Jackson public memorial service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles will begin on Tuesday at 12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT.

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.