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The King of Pop Leaves the Stage

07/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

His strong falsetto and iconic dancing made Michael Jackson the best-selling singer of all time, the self-described "King of Pop" who bought the Beatles catalogue and married Elvis Presley's daughter. But he spent his last years in arrears, reclusivity, court cases, and tabloid headlines. He died at the age of 50 of a heart attack on June 25, shortly before a planned July tour of Europe.

As the 11-year old lead singer of the Jackson 5, one of the most popular groups of the early 1970s, Mr. Jackson went to the top of the charts and the heights of celebrity, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

1982's "Thriller" generated 7 top-10 singles on its way to becoming the best-selling album of all time -- the title track itself was made into a Vincent Price-narrated music video that sold 10 million copies on VHS -- and his "moonwalk" dance step became a cultural touchstone, as he would glide backwards across the stage as if walking on air.

Soon afterwards, he bought the rights to much of the Beatles' back catalogue, outbidding Paul McCartney himself, cementing his position as the top entertainer in the world. His albums would go on to sell three quarters of a billion copies.

But within a few years Mr. Jackson's changing physical appearance turned him from an idol into a curio, known more for his bizarre behavior than for his music.

Frequent plastic surgery, numerous nose jobs, and skin bleaching that left his skin pallid made him a punchline for late-night comedians and cash cow for celebrity biographers, many of whom traced his problems back to his abusive father.

Mr. Jackson began inviting children to his multimillion-dollar home, the Neverland Ranch. Allegations of sexual abuse and numerous court cases followed shortly after, beginning in 1993 and lasting until a 2005 acquittal.

In 1994, he married Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis's only daughter, in a flashbulb wedding that united the families of the King of Pop and the King of Rock and Roll. Two years later, the marriage dissolved just as publicly.

So did his fortune, which vanished as he was described as "a millionaire who spends like a billionaire," and he slid into bankruptcy even after selling Neverland. His most recent tour was meant to pay his debts -- including $5 million owed to the Prince of Bahrain, who hosted him for a year.

For twenty years, each successive news story about Mr. Jackson seemed weirder than the last, as the singer descended from pop hero to self-parody, fame to infamy. Though his name never left headlines, public reaction to each successive story was marked by prurience and sadness, gradually giving way to indifference.

Mr. Jackson could find harmony in a studio but never at home. His songs, perfect pop confections like "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," are saddled with a strange backstory. The name of his home, Neverland, suggested a child who didn't want to grow up, and he lived that way.

He spent forty years on stage, twenty of them beset by scandal. His personal life overwhelmed his songs, even though he sold more songs than anyone else. By the end, he had lost nearly everything, except for the fame of his name. It might have been easier if he had lost that too.