Michael Jackson, Inc.
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Michael Jackson, Inc.

The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire

Zack O'Malley Greenburg

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eBook - ePub

Michael Jackson, Inc.

The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire

Zack O'Malley Greenburg

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About This Book

The surprising rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story of how Michael Jackson grew a billion-dollar business. Michael Jackson is known by many as the greatest entertainer of all time, but he was also a revolutionary when it came to business. In addition to famously buying the Beatles' publishing catalogue, Jackson was one of the first pop stars to launch his own clothing line, record label, sneakers, and video games—creating a fundamental shift in the monetization of fame and paving the way for entertainer-entrepreneurs like Jay Z and Diddy. All told, Jackson earned more than $1.1 billion in his solo career, and the assets he built in life have earned more than $700 million in the five years since his death—more than any other solo music act over that time. Michael Jackson, Inc. reveals the incredible rise, fall, and rise again of Michael Jackson's fortune—driven by the unmatched perfectionism of the King of Pop. Forbes senior editor Zack O'Malley Greenburg uncovers never-before-told stories from interviews with more than 100 people, including music industry veterans Berry Gordy, John Branca, and Walter Yetnikoff; artists 50 Cent, Sheryl Crow, and Jon Bon Jovi; and members of the Jackson family. Other insights come from court documents and Jackson's private notes, some of them previously unpublished. Through Greenburg's novelistic telling, a clear picture emerges of Jackson's early years, his rise to international superstardom, his decline—fueled by demons internal and external, as well as the dissolution of the team that helped him execute his best business moves—and, finally, his financial life after death.Underlying Jackson's unique history is the complex but universal tale of the effects of wealth and fame on the human psyche. A valuable case study for generations of entertainers to come and for anyone interested in show business, Michael Jackson, Inc. tells the story of a man whose financial feats, once obscured by his late-life travails, have become an enduring legacy.

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Atria Books

Chapter 1


Jackson Street isn’t the sort of place where houses have groundskeepers. The few inhabited homes on the rutted strip of asphalt in Gary, Indiana, sport overgrown yards and heavily fortified doors; the empty ones are marked by boarded or broken windows and crumbling roofs.
That’s not the case at 2300 Jackson Street, Michael Jackson’s childhood home—a squat box that looks more like an oversize Monopoly piece than a structure capable of housing a family of eleven. In the twilight of a summer Sunday, a middle-aged man in baggy black jeans and a sleeveless denim vest patrols the tidy front yard, gently brooming stray leaves into a bag on the walkway to the front door.
The house is surrounded by a wrought iron fence, its bars decked with roses, candles, and teddy bears left by years of visits by mourners from around the world. In one corner of the yard, a gleaming black monument towers over the greenery, looking like a monolith dreamed up by Stanley Kubrick, save for the inscription:
AUGUST 29, 1958
JUNE 25, 2009
“Never can say good bye”1
The groundskeeper looks up from his sweeping and ambles over to the gate. He extends his hand, introducing himself as Greg Campbell.
“That’s one hump, not two,” he says, letting out a deep guffaw. “You know, camels have humps.”2
When I ask Campbell how he came to be sweeping up in front of this particular house, he informs me that he grew up just four blocks away. He went to grade school nearby with Jermaine and La Toya Jackson, and spent many afternoons in front of 2300 Jackson Street singing with the brothers.
“We all started on the corner singing Temptations songs,” he says, and suddenly erupts into one of them—“I’ve got sun-shiiiiiiine!”— his pure tone ringing through the empty street. “It’s a lot of history.”
He looks back at the house.
“This is the beginning right here. Everybody got whupped, everybody played instruments.”
As it turns out, Campbell isn’t the only childhood acquaintance of Michael Jackson on the premises. Another man bounds out of the gated door of the house, thick braids coiled neatly into a ponytail behind him. He rushes up to greet me, identifying himself as Keith Jackson—Michael’s first cousin—and asks if I’d like to buy a T-shirt for twenty dollars. I decline.
Keith was only a toddler when the young King of Pop actually lived at the house, but he swears he remembers everything that happened in 1965 as though it occurred last Tuesday.
“For me, it was the music, man; just to sit there and watch them rehearse,” he recalls. “We had the privilege of being there inside the house while other kids was just trying to peek through the window. So that was a moment in time that I really enjoyed, just watching them when they first started. Right here. I mean, I was like two or three years old, but I still remember.”3
Nearly half a century later, though, Keith Jackson offers something else about his cousin—something having little to do with his well-documented musical prowess.
“Mike was very smart, man,” he says. “Outside of being an entertainer, he was definitely a great businessman as well.”

Michael Jackson’s father doesn’t do phone interviews, or at least that’s what I was told when I first tried to contact him. If I wanted to talk to Joe Jackson, I would have to come to Las Vegas—alone—and meet him at the Orleans Hotel and Casino, a sprawling faux-Cajun complex on the wrong side of Interstate 15.
When I arrived in the lobby, it wasn’t hard to spot the Jackson family patriarch. He was clad all in black—alligator loafers, slacks, dress shirt—with a lone red feather in his fedora. Bulky rings clung to his fingers like gilded barnacles. He removed his black-and-gold Prada sunglasses to reveal a pair of squinty eyes set toward the outer edges of his face, giving him the look of a nefarious disco piranha. Then he motioned me to a couch and we sat down. I asked if I could record our conversation; he nodded, but then reached for my device.
“Let me put this right here like this,” he said in a high, hushed voice, looking across the lobby at a middle-aged stranger. “I don’t want her to be hearing what I’m saying.”4
Joe Jackson has long been a suspicious man, but he hasn’t always lived gaudily. He and his wife Katherine bought their house at 2300 Jackson Street for $9,000 in 1949, with the help of loans from her parents. The couple’s first child, Maureen (nicknamed Rebbie), arrived the next year. She was followed by Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, La Toya, and Marlon (whose twin, Brandon, died shortly after birth), with barely nine months between each. And then, on August 29, 1958, came Michael Jackson.
“He was very hyperactive, couldn’t be still,” recalls Joe. “Those things made me think that he would be good in performing.”
The Jacksons would add two more children, Randy and Janet, and as their home’s purchase price suggests, accommodations were far from luxurious: the minuscule abode measures 24 by 36 feet.5
“When you look at the house and see how small it is, it’s like, ‘Where did you guys sleep?’ ” says Gary’s mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, who grew up in the city at the same time as the Jacksons. “There was a daybed in one of the rooms, along with maybe a dresser or some other piece of furniture, and it was crowded.”6
Still, a toddler’s imagination can make even the tiniest house seem spacious. “I had remembered it as being large,” Jackson wrote of his childhood dwelling. “When you’re that young, the whole world seems so huge that a little room can seem four times its size.”7
Michael’s mother worked part-time at Sears but mostly stayed home with the children, while his father earned $30 per day as a crane operator at nearby Inland Steel.8 Whenever the mill cut back on Joe’s shifts, he’d work in the fields harvesting crops. He never told his children when he’d lost work; their only clue was an uptick in potato-based meals.9
Michael Jackson’s musical talents can be traced in part to his parents. His mother grew up singing spirituals in church, while Joe played guitar in a Gary band called the Falcons as an adult.10 The Jackson boys absorbed their parents’ hobby, singing while washing the dishes every evening.11 Joe figured music could help keep his kids off the dangerous streets of Gary; if they were inside watching the Falcons, they couldn’t be outside getting involved with gangs.
Joe’s guitar was not to be played by anyone else, and he made this especially clear to his children. That, of course, only made them more eager to try. When Joe worked late shifts at the mill, the oldest brothers—Jackie, Tito, and Jermaine—would sneak into his closet and take turns strumming while a young Michael watched. They’d play the scales they were learning in music class at school, branching out to the soulful tunes they heard on the radio. Katherine eventually found them out, but in an effort to encourage her sons’ musical development, she said she wouldn’t tell Joe as long as they were cautious.
One day, Tito did the unthinkable while performing a song by the Four Tops with his brothers: he broke a string on the guitar. With their father due home any minute, the boys panicked—there wasn’t time to replace it. Joe was an avid practitioner of corporal punishment, and they knew this was just the sort of transgression that would result in a sound beating. Unable to come up with a plan, they placed the guitar back in Joe’s closet and hoped for leniency.
They got their wish, though not quite in the form they’d been expecting. When Joe noticed the broken string, he stormed into the boys’ room holding his guitar and demanded to know who was responsible. Tito confessed, but just as Joe grabbed him to begin administering his punishment, the youngster protested.
“I can play!”
“Play, then!” Joe thundered. “Let me see what you can do.”
Tito composed himself and started playing “The Jerk” by the Larks, with Jackie and Jermaine singing harmony while fighting back tears. When they’d finished, Joe left the room without saying a word—or lifting a finger. Two days later he returned from work with a red guitar for Tito and instructions for the other brothers to get ready to start rehearsing. And so the Jackson 5 was born.12
Though Jermaine started out as the group’s lead singer, the family already knew there was something remarkable about Michael. Even as a toddler, he moved and sang with the grace and fluidity of a veteran entertainer. “Michael was so talented,” recalls his father. “I don’t think he even knew his own talents . . . he didn’t know because everything he tried came out perfect.”13
Shortly after the boys started practicing as a band, they were playing for their grandmother when a curious thing happened: five-year-old Michael, who’d been playing the bongos and studying his older brothers, jumped in and started singing Jermaine’s part. His brothers complained, and Joe stopped the song. But Michael’s grandmother had heard something. She asked him to sing again, anything he wanted, and he launched into a rendition of “Jingle Bells.” Jermaine still remembers “the wide-eyed look on Joseph’s face.”14
Michael clinched his status as the group’s frontman shortly thereafter with a school performance of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” The famous tune from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music was his first solo in front of a big crowd, but that wasn’t apparent to those in the gymnasium watching him. “When I finished that song, the reaction in the auditorium overwhelmed me,” he wrote. “My teachers were crying and I just couldn’t believe it. I had made them all happy. It was such a great feeling.”15
Jackson’s business career had a less auspicious beginning. The singer’s childhood compatriots remember his ill-fated attempt to become a candy distributor—and his failure to grasp the concept of profit. “There was a store down the street somewhere up there,” says Campbell. “He’d go get them little malt balls for a nickel, and sell ’em for a nickel.”16
Indeed, Michael’s earliest years offer few clues that, within two decades, he’d become the visionary behind a billion-dollar empire. But there were hints he might one day be the sort of entertainer who’d donate millions to charity.
“Mike was always the giving type of guy,” says Keith Jackson. “I remember when he used to get his allowance from my uncle and my aunty Katherine, that he would actually go buy a bunch of can...

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