Redemption Songs: Michael Jackson's Greatest Hits

 ON JUNE, 27 1999, Michael Jackson nearly died for his music. But the 70,000 screaming fans packed inside Munich’s sold-out Olympic Stadium that night had no idea he had just cheated death. They were all too caught up in the spectacle that was Michael Jackson & Friends, a televised extravaganza with elaborate staging.

While his fame in America had waned since child abuse allegations cut short his Dangerous tour in 1993, Jackson’s ‘96-’97 HIStory trek played to a record 4.5 million spectators, grossing more than $165 million. But only a few of those 82 concerts were staged in the United States. Taping this all-star concert in Germany was Jackson’s way of showing gratitude to the loyal European subjects who still revered him as the same King of Pop who sold more than 51 million copies of 1982’s Thriller.

After a greatest hits medley, Jackson launched into an 11-minute version of his green anthem “Earth Song,” which would culminate with a tank rolling on stage and Jackson standing in its path like a protester from Tiananmen Square. “Where did we go wrong?” he wailed from atop a metal platform 30 feet above the stage. “What about us?” a mighty choir answered as the audience wept and cheered. And then, somewhere in mid-song, the wires supporting the sturdy platform snapped.

“The local crew evidently put the wrong cable wire on the metal and the bridge came crashing down into the orchestra pit with Michael on it,” recalls the show’s producer Kenny Ortega, who would go on to direct Jackson’s critically-acclaimed concert documentary This Is It. “Michael felt the fall. He knew it was happening and timed his jump as the bridge hit the ground,” Ortega says, incredulous. “And he continued to do the show!”

The scrambling stagehands and tour executives were horrified. “Weren’t you trembling in fear?” Ortega asked him minutes after the gig. Jackson responded like he was reading a script from one of those endearingly cheesy 1930s’ musicals: “Well, Kenny, I always was taught that the show must go on.”

Jackson survived that fall just like he survived all the others—through a combination of talent, luck and fancy footwork. But the worst was yet to come. The first time allegations of child molestation threatened to tarnish his brilliant career, a private settlement of a reported $20 million between the singer and his young accuser was reached. (No charges were ever filed in the case.) But that was just one of many incidents that contributed to his so-called “Wacko Jacko” persona: the battles with addiction; the extreme plastic surgeries; the day he dangled his infant son Prince Michael II over a Berlin hotel balcony. But after his sensational 2005 jury trial in which Jackson was acquitted on a second accusation of child molestation, he appeared to be a broken man.

Michael was reportedly hundreds of millions in debt, resulting from lavish spending and legal problems. Michael Joseph Jackson had hit rock bottom. Ominous reports circulated that he was juggling doctors to sustain his addiction to prescription pain medicine—after a pyrotechnical accident during a Pepsi commercial burned his scalp—and that he would end up like another tragic music icon: Elvis Presley. At one point Jackson even told his then wife Lisa Marie Presley that he was afraid he would die of an overdose like her father.
Which is why his final gutsy comeback attempt ranks as one of the most tantalizing near-misses in pop culture history. The heartbreaking “what if” questions linger. What’s amazing is that he made it as far as he did. Chalk it up to his willpower, maddening determination and cursed pride.

Entertaining was all he had ever done until he became the best. Now he was going to get it all back—at any cost. Quite simply, Michael Jackson refused to lose. “I’m going to get them,” the embattled singer told longtime friend and musical collaborator Teddy Riley in late 2008 of his plans for a spectacular return. “I’m going to shock the world, just watch.”

“He was looking for a project to not just ‘Heal the World,’” Riley says, referring to his fluffy 1991 anti-poverty hit. “He wanted to kill the world’s hate. That was his plan.”

It began with a new edition of Thriller, in 2008, 25 years after its original release. Tracks from the best-selling album of all time were remixed by Kanye West, and Akon. The next phase of the plan included a new album and a landmark series of gigs at London’s O2 arena to be called This Is It. The groundbreaking concerts would feature never-before-seen High-Def 3-D special effects, live animals, mechanical puppets and Michael performing all the classics, from “Billie Jean” to “Jam.”

“It was such a huge undertaking,” recalls choreographer Travis Payne of the intense preparation for the 50-show spectacle. “So I asked MJ, ‘Do you ever get nervous?’ And he goes, ‘No . . . this is what we do. You have to leave it all on the stage. If I get nervous, it radiates through the group. And then we’ll have a bunch of nervous soldiers and you’ll never win a war that way.’”

The war Jackson hoped to win was an all-out battle to redeem his legacy. But he never got the chance to witness his final victory. The uniquely talented entertainer died on June 25, 2009 in Los Angeles at the age of 50. Michael passed away from cardiac arrest, brought on by a lethal amount of the anesthetic propofol given to the chronic insomniac by his personal physician Dr. Conrad Murray. (At press time, Dr. Murray had pled not guilty to an involuntary manslaughter charge.)

“I’m going to get them. I’m going to shock the world, just watch.” Within a year of his untimely death, Michael’s prediction has come true—he’s sold more than 30 million albums while the music industry is struggling to survive dwindling record sales. This Is It, a film made of tour rehearsal footage, has grossed more than $250 million worldwide, a staggering figure for a concert documentary. And in typical bigger-is-better fashion, Michael’s estate signed the largest recording deal in history with Sony Music Entertainment in March. Worth an estimated $200 million, the contract covers 10 projects over the next seven years, which could include DVDs, video games and more than 60 as-yet-unreleased Michael Jackson tracks.

“Our mission first and foremost is to preserve and enhance the legacy of Michael and to take care of his mother Katherine and his kids,” explains Jackson’s longtime entertainment lawyer John Branca, the estate supervisor. The kids are Michael’s children Prince Michael, 13, Paris Michael Katherine, 12, and Prince “Blanket” Michael II, 8, who now stand to inherit the bulk of MJ’s estimated $500 million empire.

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Lion Dream Records

is an independent label created by an artist to better produce and promote other artists. With the lack of publishers to help talented local artists to broadcast their music, it was important that some one take the first step and lead the way to a new generartion of self made artists.

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