Jackson was the seventh of nine children, and by age 5, he was performing with his brothers in The Jackson Five – driven by his ambitious and demanding father, Joseph. Correspondent Harold Dow reports on Jackson's musical career and fortune.
"He is one of the most gifted entertainers to ever live," says says Motown legend Smokey Robinson. "He is the entire package. He has everything. He can sing, he's one of the best dancers around, charismatic and energetic and creative."
The Jackson 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 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,' 'Stop The Love You Save,' 'Boom, Boom, Boom' – all fantastic great records. Classic records, amazing performances," says music critic Nelson George, who has followed Jackson's career and profiles him in his latest book.
"He was this phenomenal child star, a Mickey Rooney or Judy Garland," adds George. "There's a whole generation of people who grew up with Michael Jackson. People grew up with him and they had an affection for him."
The Jackson Five took the country by storm, playing Ed Sullivan, their albums going platinum. But it was in 1979, with producer Quincy Jones, when Jackson, then 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.
"It was just unbelievable," says George. "It kept selling and selling and selling -- seven No. 1 singles. 'It was some insane number of singles, unprecedented."
And Jackson backed up his sales with electrifying performances.
"His appearance at Motown 25, when he did the moonwalk, was on par with the Beatles on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,'" says George. "Everyone saw it, and everyone was talking about it."
With the hits came armloads of Grammys and truckloads of money. And he created the new world of music videos.
"Michael was probably the world's first music-video artist, and made it into huge extravaganza," adds George.
Jackson, now a multi-millionaire, began to hone a sharp business sense, seeking out expert advice as Sir Paul McCartney told 48 Hours 15 years ago.
"We were chatting and he just came up to me and said, 'I'm going to buy your songs.' I said, 'Get out, great. A good one.' And we just carried on … It's a bit of an old joke, very funny. I still thought he was kidding. Just a few weeks later, somebody rang me up and said, 'Michael Jackson's bought your songs.'"
Essentially, Jackson now controlled the rights to most of The Beatles' music, an incredibly brilliant business acquisition which guaranteed him millions of dollars in income, basically forever.
"By our estimates, Michael has earned something in the neighborhood of $500 million dollars," says Brett Pulley, a senior editor for Forbes magazine. "We're talking a half a billion dollars."
But even as Jackson grew richer and more successful, his personal life took a strange turn: his face, his outfits, 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.
Against this backdrop, Jackson's record sales and popularity began to plummet. "It's been going on for a while, the fall in terms of his popularity," says George. "His impact has been at least a 10 -ear process."
And while his income was dropping, Jackson continued to live lavishly. "The real issue has been spending," says Pulley. "The big shopping sprees, the $2 million watches, the $10,000 bottles of perfume. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that the spending has run amok."
In a recent British documentary, Jackson racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of knick-knacks and furnishings in one day.
Jackson has reportedly spent more than $50 million on his estate at Neverland Ranch. Amusement park and all, it costs an estimated $4 million a year to maintain.
"The issue for Michael is how liquid is he? How much has he borrowed against Neverland, his ranch and his other real estate holdings," says Pulley. "We know he's shown this diminishing ability to sell records in recent years."
Is Jackson broke? "I don't think Michael Jackson is broke," says Pulley.
Whatever his financial status and legal problems, Michael Jackson has some very loyal fans, some so loyal that many will not believe the accusations being leveled against him today.
"Maybe the fans are right, maybe Michael didn't do any of this stuff. Maybe this kid is delusional," says George. "It's very possible that he is being set up."
We witnessed this superstar's rise. Are we witnessing his fall today?
"I don't know that we are," says Robinson. "I can't imagine Michael doing the stuff that they are saying that he's doing. The look or the demeanor of what's going on right now, is more pointing toward his guilt, rather than, 'Hey, here's a guy who has been accused of something.' And he hasn't been proven guilty at all."