His extraordinary rise started in the tough steel mill town of Gary, Indiana.
The seventh of nine children, by age 5, Jackson was performing with his brothers, the Jackson Five - driven by his ambitious and demanding father, Joseph.
"Michael Jackson is one of the most gifted entertainers to ever live," said Motown legend Smokey Robinson. "He is the entire package. He has everything; he can sing, he's one of the best dancers around, he is charismatic."
The family was signed by Motown in 1968. Backed by thumping bass lines and catchy melodies, and led by Michael's soaring soprano voice, the band had a string of No. 1 one hits.
"It was four or five No. 1 records in a row when he first came out of the box. ABC,' 'I Want You Back' 'The Love You Save' - they all fantastic great records, amazing performances," said music critic Nelson George, who has followed Michael Jackson's career and profiled him in a book.
"He was this phenomenal child star," said George. "There's a whole generation of people who, in the 80s came of age as record buyers
who had grown up with Michael Jackson as part of their popular consciousness... People grew up with him and they an affection for him."
The Jackson Five took the country by storm, playing "The Ed Sullivan Show" and their albums going platinum.
It was in 1979, with producer Quincy Jones at his side, that Michael Jackson, now 21, really broke out. His album "Off The Wall" rang up $37 million in sales.
In 1982, it was "Thriller," which made $115 million. Nearly every single song on the album made it to No. 1.
"The sales of 'Thriller,' it was just unbelievable… it kept selling and selling and selling. I think they had seven No. 1 singles - it was some insane number of singles, unprecedented," said George.
And Jackson backed up his sales with electrifying performances.
"His appearance in the 'Motown 25' when he did the moonwalk was on par, probably with The Beatles and 'The Ed Sullivan Show' … everyone saw it…everyone was talking about it," said George. "It was one of those shared moments."
With the hits came, so did armloads of Grammy Awards and truckloads of money. And he created the new world of music videos.
"Michael was probably the first true music video artist. Michael took the video and made it into a huge extravaganza," said George.
But even as Jackson got richer and more successful, his personal life got stranger - from his face and his outfits, to his marriage and his lifestyle. And as the media zoomed in, he began to look more like a circus side show than a musical superstar.
By 2003, Jackson's record sales and popularity began to plummet.
While his income was dropping, Jackson made a spectacle of his personal life, living lavishly.
"The big shopping sprees, the $2 million watches, the $10,000 bottles of perfume. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that the spending has really run amok," Pulley said.
A British documentary showed how he racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in knick knacks and furnishings in one day.
Eventually, Jackson's lagging sales and wild lifestyle caught up with him.
He reportedly spent more than $50 million on the central California fantasy park, Neverland. It cost Jackson an estimated $4 million a year just to maintain.
Neverland went on the auction block in May 2008; he sold it for less than half of what he paid.
In spite of his problems, Jackson seemed always to be able to count on his fans - especially during the trial in 2003, when 48 Hours Mystery correspondent Harold Dow spoke to Smokey Robinson.
"Smokey, as you know, we all grew up with Michael Jackson, we witnessed his rise. Are we witnessing his fall today?" Dow asked.
"I don't know that we are, because a lot of the stuff that's going on now, see, I can't imagine Michael doing the stuff that they're saying he's doing," Robinson said. "The look or the demeanor of what's going on right now is more pointing towards his guilt rather than, 'hey, here's a guy who has been accused of something,' and he hasn't been proven guilty at all.'"
As it turned out, Michael Jackson was acquitted of child molestation in 2003.
For Quincy Jones, Jackson's long-time mentor, the news of his friend's passing is hard to express.
"I am absolutely devastated at this tragic and unexpected news. For Michael to be taken away from us so suddenly at such a young age, I just don't have the words."