June 26, 2009 at 1:00 am

From Motown to L.A., Michael Jackson left a lasting mark

Michael Jackson performs at Giants Stadium in 1984. The pop singer was set to launch a comeback next month. (Ebet Roberts / Redferns)

Michael Jackson, whose career started in Detroit when at 9 years old he dazzled Berry Gordy Jr. with a virtuoso performance at Motown's offices, was found unconscious by paramedics at his home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles on Thursday. Jackson was pronounced dead at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 50.

Jackson left three children -- sons Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., 12, Prince Michael, 7, and daughter Paris Michael Katherine, 11.

Ed Winter, the assistant chief coroner for Los Angeles County, confirmed his office would handle the investigation.

The pop star's death came just as he was launching a comeback, with 50 sold-out shows at London's O2 Center set to start July 13. He had reportedly been involved in intense rehearsals to get into shape to do some of his trademark dance moves.

Before he was the King of Pop, before the trial and Wacko Jacko stories, before the plastic surgery that made him almost unrecognizable, Jackson was the talented front man who, with his four brothers, helped revive Detroit's iconic Motown label at a time when its first wave of stars were starting to founder.

"Michael was and will remain one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived," Gordy said in a statement Thursday night. "He was exceptional, artistic and original. He gave the world his heart and soul through his music."

The Jacksons were from Gary, Ind., where they were discovered by, not Diana Ross, as the Motown PR machine had it, but by Motown singer Bobby Taylor, who suggested the label take a look at the brother act.

Deke Richards was the Motown producer tapped by Gordy to put together an elite team to craft the Jacksons' sound. Richards and the group holed up at the Hotel Pontchartrain and came up with "I Want You Back."

"Whatever it took to be able to take and mold and help to put together that piece of clay, I'll tell you something, it was like your hands were guided by God," Richards said from his home in Washington state Thursday. "I feel honored to have worked with a person like Michael who was a true genius. It's a sad day today."

"This is just shocking," said former Motown producer Clay McMurray. The Detroiter hadn't been in touch with Jackson for a while but remembered him fondly. "He used to draw faces on the lyrics sheets I gave him," he said. "I still have some of them."

On that summer day when they auditioned for Motown, Jackson and his brothers sang the Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and Jackson danced like James Brown. There is a grainy black and white video of the performance on YouTube.

The group's first four songs, "I Want You Back," (co-written by Gordy), "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There," all were No. 1 hits. In the summer of 1972, at 14, Motown launched Jackson as a solo artist with a bang, with the hit "Ben" from the movie "Willard."

When the Jackson 5 started to slow down in the mid '70s, the Jacksons left Motown for Epic Records. As a solo artist, Jackson recorded a series of albums with producer Quincy Jones that would cement his legacy as one of pop's most enduring talents.

"Off the Wall," in 1979, was their first collaboration. Their 1982 album "Thriller" included the blockbuster hits "Beat It," "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" and remains the biggest-selling album of all time, with more than 26 million copies. It was "Billie Jean," performed by Jackson in 1983 on the "Motown 25" reunion show that launched Jackson as one of the most important pop icons in the world. By some measures, he ranked alongside Elvis Presley and the Beatles as the biggest pop sensations of all time.

As years went by, many viewed him as increasingly bizarre -- his skin became lighter, his nose narrower, and he spoke in a breathy, girlish voice. He surrounded himself with children at his Neverland ranch, often wearing a germ mask while traveling and kept a pet chimpanzee named Bubbles as one of his closest companions.

In 2005, he was cleared of charges he molested a 13-year-old cancer survivor at Neverland in 2003. The case took a fearsome toll on his career and image, and he fell into financial trouble.

"I must confess I am not surprised by today's tragic news," said Michael Levine, the singer's former publicist, at a press conference Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif. Levine worked with Jackson in 1993 when the first allegations of molestation surfaced. "Michael has been on an impossibly difficult and self destructive journey for years."

Jackson was preparing for what was to be a comeback. He was in rehearsals in Los Angeles for the concert, an extravaganza that was to capture the classic Jackson magic: showstopping dance moves, elaborate staging and throbbing dance beats.

Associated Press contributed. swhitall@detnews.com">swhitall@detnews.com

Jackson announces plans March 5 for a series of concerts at the O2 Arena ... (Dave Hogan / Getty Images)
Michael Jackson thrills the crowd at the Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena, ... (Rusty Kennedy / Associated Press)
Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. hugs Jackson at the Motown museum ... (Steve Haines / The Detroit News)