LOS ANGELES - -Michael Jackson, a seminal figure in music, dance and culture whose ever-changing face graced the covers of albums that sold more than a half-billion copies, died Thursday, shortly after going into cardiac arrest at his Holmby Hills chateau. He was 50 years old. He spent much of his life as among the world's most famous people, and to many, his death felt unthinkable and, oddly, inevitable.
"For Michael to be taken away from us so suddenly at such a young age, I just don't have the words," said Quincy Jones, who produced Thriller. "He was the consummate entertainer and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever. I've lost my little brother today, and part of my soul has gone with him."
Paramedics found Jackson in cardiac arrest when they arrived at his home shortly before 12:30 p.m., three minutes and 17 seconds after receiving a 911 call. His personal physician already was in the house performing CPR. Jackson was not breathing, and it appears he never regained consciousness. Paramedics treated Jackson at the house for 42 minutes, and he was declared dead at 2:26 p.m. at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, about two miles from his home.
Los Angeles police said detectives would launch an investigation of the death. But they cautioned that they do not believe Jackson was the victim of foul play and that the investigation is standard after the death of a person with this level of fame. Among the factors investigators said they would examine is any medication Jackson might have been taking; an autopsy will be performed today.
Jackson's death was confirmed outside the hospital by one of his brothers, Jermaine, who once performed alongside Michael as a member of The Jackson 5, a family act that began in the down-and-out steel mill town of Gary, Ind., before exploding in the music industry.
Jackson - who most famously resided in the Santa Ynez Valley at his Neverland Valley Ranch, named for the island where Peter Pan and the Lost Boys were in no danger of growing up - had taken up residence for the rehearsals in a seven-bedroom estate near Bel Air, which he rented for $100,000 a month.
He had come to town to rehearse for 50 sold-out concerts in London, a run of shows scheduled to kick off July 13 that had been dubbed "This Is It." The concerts were to have been the start of an ambitious career resuscitation designed to begin wiping out Jackson's staggering debt - he was at least $400 million in debt and would have earned $1 million a night - and return the singer to relevancy.
Jackson's backers, concert promoter AEG Live and financier Tom Barrack of Colony Capital envisioned the London shows as an audition of sorts for a reboot that would go on to include a world tour, movies, a Graceland-like museum, new music and revues in Macau and Las Vegas.
Those close to Jackson have said he had been working diligently to get in shape for his comeback. A year ago, he was gaunt and used a wheelchair, but recently he had been exercising with a trainer in addition to daylong rehearsals with dancers half his age. "He's in great shape," his manager, Frank DiLeo, said last month.
In order for promoters to get insurance for the London shows, Jackson underwent a four-hour physical with an independent doctor this spring. Rand Phillips, the chief executive of AEG Live, said that the medical screening uncovered "no issues whatsoever."
Jackson's monetary and legal woes turned him into an object of fascination, pity and revulsion in recent years. Still, it would be hard to overstate Jackson's effect on Western culture - although Guinness World Records tried, asserting that it had found, objectively, that Jackson was the "Most Successful Entertainer of All Time."
From the late 1960s, when he burst into popularity as a fresh-faced boy, Jackson's career was an engine that drove the maturation of American pop.
Over the years, the times and the tastes called for earnest ballads, then soul, then buoyant disco, then synthesizers, then dance tracks, and Jackson seemed hard-wired to deliver, particularly during the late 1970s and the 1980s, when he was dubbed "the King of Pop." When music videos became a backbone of the industry, Jackson delivered again, turning himself into a zombie during a 13-minute video for the song "Thriller" that opened new horizons for imagery used to accompany pop music.
The 1982 album that song came from, also called Thriller, produced seven major hits and remained in the top 10 of the pop charts for 80 weeks. Along the way, Jackson's moves and clothes became instantly recognizable - his moonwalk, his sequined glove, his faux-military jackets.
"It's almost impossible to top that kind of success," said Tommy Mottola, who oversaw Jackson's career for 16 years as a head of Sony Music.
But in later years, Jackson seemed to mirror, too, the newer, darker traditions of American celebrity - living in excess, in danger, in public.