Michael Jackson, King of Pop, Dies at Age 50

June 25, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Pop star Michael Jackson died Thursday evening after arriving at a Los Angeles hospital in a deep coma. Jim Lehrer talks to USA Today music critic Steve Jones about the singer's career.

JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, remembering pop singer Michael Jackson.

The Los Angeles Times and others reported Jackson was pronounced dead this evening after arriving at a Los Angeles hospital in a deep coma. Jackson first came to fame as a child star as a member of the Jackson 5 and then became one of the most successful solo artists of all time, winning 13 Grammys, selling tens of millions of records, including the biggest-selling album of all time, “Thriller,” which sold 50 million copies.

Here’s a clip from his 1982 video “Thriller.”

MICHAEL JACKSON, Pop Singer: (performing “Thriller”)

JIM LEHRER: In more recent years, Jackson became just as renown for controversies and allegations in his personal life.

Joining us now is Steve Jones, who’s music critic for USA Today. He has covered Michael Jackson for 15 years.

Steve Jones, welcome. And, first of all, can you add anything in terms of what the cause of death may have been?

STEVE JONES, USA Today: No, we’re still reporting that. All I know right now is what I’m seeing on television at the moment.

Rumors about Jackson's health

JIM LEHRER: Was there any reporting about any recent illnesses of any kind?

STEVE JONES: Well, I'd actually done a story about his upcoming tour, concerts in London, and supposedly they had put him through vigorous physical exams so that he'd be able to handle the rigors of putting on this extravagant concert they were planning.

JIM LEHRER: And what were they saying was the problem, the physical problem that might have kept him -- what the concern was about the rigors of the tour?

STEVE JONES: Well, he hasn't toured for about 12 years, and there's always been rumors about his health. So before they committed to it, they wanted to make sure that he was physically able to actually handle it. And they said he passed with flying colors and was in the process of rehearsing.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, but there was no history of specific ailments, is what I'm trying to get at, is that correct?

STEVE JONES: None other than his skin disorder than I know of.

Jackson 'revered and reviled'

JIM LEHRER: Steve, you wrote a story a while ago that has gone out for your newspaper, USA Today, in which you say this: "Probably no celebrity has been as revered and reviled over the past 40 years as Michael Jackson." Why do you say that?

STEVE JONES: Because he's been a constant source of fascination since he first hit the scene back in 1970. You know, entertainers, even young entertainers today still look at his accomplishments, and they're kind of a goal for all of them to try to reach, and he opened a lot of doors.

I don't think that Madonna and Prince and people like that would have had the careers that they had, had Michael Jackson not redefined what a pop star is supposed to be or could be.

On the other hand, you know, with all of his peculiar behaviors and the various allegations about child sexual abuse, he also became, you know, sort of a source of ridicule.

Jackson had 'great imagination'

JIM LEHRER: What was the key to his talent?

STEVE JONES: He was just gifted. He had a great voice. He had a great sense of rhythm and timing. And he had a, you know, deep professionalism and a great imagination.

JIM LEHRER: In what way? Give me an example of his imagination at its highest.

STEVE JONES: Well, the whole way that he would -- he'd study people like Jackie Wilson and James Brown, and he understood the energy that was required to bring to a show. And he was always trying to do more and more and be more extravagant, bigger and better at all times.

If you look at a lot of the dance moves that he put on and the way his videos became almost like stories, instead of just footage backed up by a recorded track, he changed a lot of things.

JIM LEHRER: And that is -- and he did this himself. In other words, there was nobody behind the scenes manipulating or actually creating Michael Jackson. He created himself.

STEVE JONES: Pretty much. I mean, obviously, he had a lot of help. He worked with a lot of talented people, but the driving force behind all of it was him.

Jackson's eccentricities, character

JIM LEHRER: Yes. And the music that he -- how would you describe his music? As you know, there were millions and millions of people, you know, really appreciated his music and appreciated him, but there were detractors as well who didn't get it. What is it that was there about him that made him so special?

STEVE JONES: Well, he managed to always appeal to as broad a range of people as possible. He had his roots in soul music, and he just knew how to reach out and touch people, and also kind of -- he had a vulnerability about himself where he wasn't afraid to kind of let people touch him through the music.

JIM LEHRER: What was he like? You've talked to him. You covered him for 15 years. I assume you knew him.

STEVE JONES: Not very well, but he was -- you know, he was very, I would say, eccentric in a certain way, but at the same time he was very much a caring person. He cared about children, guy gave millions to charities. And he was very sensitive about personal feelings. But at the same time, he also wanted to be known as the King of Pop.

JIM LEHRER: Did he deserve to be called the King of Pop?

STEVE JONES: If you look at the record sales and the way he impacted the industry for years to come, I would say yes.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Steve Jones, thank you very much.

STEVE JONES: OK. Thank you.