Pavarotti died at his home in Modena, Italy, at 5 a.m. local time Thursday.
The tenor had pancreatic cancer, the most virulent and deadly form of cancer, reported CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey. "Pancreatic cancer kills fairly quickly, and he died within a year" of the diagnosis, despite treatment last month, Pizzey added.
"The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer which eventually took his life. In fitting with the approach that characterized his life and work, he remained positive until finally succumbing to the last stages of his illness," a statement said.
For serious fans, the unforced beauty and thrilling urgency of Pavarotti's voice made him the ideal interpreter of the Italian lyric repertory, especially in the 1960s and '70s when he first achieved stardom. For millions more, his charismatic performances of standards like "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot" came to represent what opera is all about.
Instantly recognizable from his charcoal black beard and tuxedo-busting girth, Pavarotti radiated an intangible magic that helped him win hearts in a way Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras - his partners in the "Three Tenors" concerts - never quite could.
"I always admired the God-given glory of his voice - that unmistakable special timbre from the bottom up to the very top of the tenor range," Domingo said in a statement from Los Angeles.
"I also loved his wonderful sense of humor and on several occasions of our concerts with Jose Carreras - the so-called Three Tenors concerts - we had trouble remembering that we were giving a concert before a paying audience, because we had so much fun between ourselves," he said.
The tenor, who seemed equally at ease singing with soprano Joan Sutherland as with the Spice Girls, scoffed at accusations that he was sacrificing his art in favor of commercialism.
"The word commercial is exactly what we want," he said, after appearing in the widely publicized "Three Tenors" concerts. "We've reached 1.5 billion people with opera. If you want to use the word commercial, or something more derogatory, we don't care. Use whatever you want."
"Pavarotti is the biggest superstar of all," the late New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg once said. "He's correspondingly more spoiled than anybody else. They think they can get away with anything. Thanks to the glory of his voice, he probably can."
The British soprano Lesley Garrett described Pavarotti this way to CBS News: If Princess Diana was "the people's princess," then Pavarotti was "the people's tenor."
In his heyday, he was known as the "King of the High C's" for the ease with which he tossed off difficult top notes. In fact it was his ability to hit nine glorious high C's in quick succession that first turned him into an international superstar singing Tonio's aria "Ah! Mes amis," in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1972.
In the 1990s, Pavarotti's teaming with Domingo and Carreras became a music business phenomenon and spawned copycats such as the Three Irish Tenors.
Pavarotti starred in a film called "Yes, Giorgio" (though its failure scuttled his hopes for a Hollywood career) and appeared in a filmed version of "Rigoletto." He wrote an autobiography, "I, Luciano Pavarotti," and made more than 90 recordings.
From Beijing to Buenos Aires, people immediately recognized his incandescent smile and lumbering bulk, clutching a white handkerchief as he sang arias and Neapolitan folk songs, pop numbers and Christmas carols for hundreds of thousands in outdoor concerts.
His name seemed to show up as much in gossip columns as serious music reviews, particularly after he split with Adua Veroni, his wife of 35 years and mother of their three daughters, and then took up with his 26-year-old secretary in 1996.
In late 2003, he married Nicoletta Mantovani in a lavish, star-studded ceremony. Pavarotti said their daughter Alice, nearly a year old at the time of the wedding, was the main reason he and Mantovani finally wed after years together.
In the latter part of his career, some music critics cited what they saw as an increasing tendency toward the vulgar and the commercial.
He came under fire for canceling performances or pandering to the lowest common denominator in his choice of programs, or for the Three Tenors tours and their millions of dollars in fees.
He was criticized for lip-synching at a concert in Modena, Italy, his hometown. An artist accused him of copying her works from a how-to-draw book and selling the paintings.
The son of a baker who was an amateur singer, Pavarotti was born Oct. 12, 1935, in Modena. He had a meager upbringing, though he said it was rich with happiness.
"Our family had very little, but I couldn't imagine one could have any more," Pavarotti said.
As a boy, Pavarotti showed more interest in soccer than his studies, but he also was fond of listening to his father's recordings of tenor greats like Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Jussi Bjoerling and Giuseppe Di Stefano, his favorite.
Among his close childhood friends was Mirella Freni, who would eventually become a soprano and an opera great herself. The two studied singing together and years later ended up making records and concerts together, according to Elvio Giudici, an Italian opera critic.
In his teens, Pavarotti joined his father, also a tenor, in the church choir and local opera chorus. He was influenced by the American movie actor-singer Mario Lanza.
"In my teens I used to go to Mario Lanza movies and then come home and imitate him in the mirror," Pavarotti said.
Singing was still nothing more than a passion while Pavarotti trained to become a teacher and began working in a school.
But at 20, he traveled with his chorus to an international music competition in Wales. The Modena group won first place, and Pavarotti began to dedicate himself to singing.
With the encouragement of his then fiancee, Adua Veroni, he started lessons, selling insurance to pay for them. He studied with Arrigo Pola and later Ettore Campogalliani.
In 1961, Pavarotti won a local voice competition and with it a debut as Rodolfo in Puccini's "La Boheme."