LONDON — Michael Jackson was due to make his triumphant return to the stage in London next month – but instead his sudden death has left millions of fans feeling they’ve lost a lifelong friend.
The dramatic death of the brilliant singer seemed to obscure his recent controversies and kindle warmer memories of Jackson the child star and Jackson the show-stopping, moonwalking headliner.
The worldwide chorus of grief united the famous – statesmen and superstars alike – and the legions of ordinary people who grew up with “Thriller” and “Beat It.”
Word of Jackson’s death jolted nearly everyone, from a young man in Colombia who was named after the King of Pop, to Malaysians who named a soy drink for him, to a generation of people around the world who have tried, in vain, to moonwalk.
“It’s horrible news, so unexpected,” the Italian actress Sophia Loren told The Associated Press by telephone. “The world has lost an icon and music has lost treasures. He wrote songs that generations of yesterday, today and tomorrow will all keep on singing. What he wrote was amazing.”
Loren and her children had been frequent visitors to Jackson at his Neverland ranch in California, developing an enduring friendship.
“I hope that Michael will find that peace that maybe he did not have in the last 15 years.”
In London, shocked fans gathered at the Lyric Theatre, where a live show based on Jackson’s record-selling album “Thriller” is being performed, and waited for news about refunds for some 750,000 tickets to his sold-out, 50-night run.
A spokeswoman for AEG Live – the promoters for the London concerts – declined to say how ticket refunds would be handled. She spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she was not authorized to speak to the media.
There were poignant memories of his final public appearance when he came to London for a March news conference to announce his “This is it” concerts, which he said would mark his farewell to the London stage. A candlelight vigil at London’s Trafalgar Square was planned to honor the singer.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela issued a message through his foundation saying Jackson’s loss would be felt worldwide.
Jackson sang at a birthday concert for Mandela in 1998. In 1999, according to local media reports at the time, he lunched with Mandela at a small gathering at which the South African anti-apartheid leader celebrated both his 81st birthday and his and wife Graca Machel’s first wedding anniversary.
The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, UNESCO and the Red Cross were given proceeds from a huge benefit concert in Germany in 1999 that featured Jackson and other international stars.
Former Beatle Paul McCartney, who recorded with Jackson before they had a falling out over ownership of the Beatles catalogue, said his prayers went to Jackson’s family and fans.
“It’s so sad and shocking,” he said. “I feel privileged to have hung out and worked with Michael. He was a massively talented boy-man with a gentle soul. His music will be remembered forever and my memories of our time together will be happy ones.”
In Ireland, where Jackson made his temporary home in a castle south of Dublin in 2007, people remembered him as a kind and loving man. Eugene Lambert, Ireland’s best-known puppeteer, recalled his son’s puppet performance at a birthday party for Jackson attended by the singer’s three children.
“Michael and the kids seemed to enjoy the show equally,” he said. “My son sang happy birthday to Michael, who seemed genuinely touched by the attention. Michael rang me that night to thank me for the show. He said he hoped he’d be as happy at his work as I am at my age, and of course I’m 80.”
Former British child star Mark Lester, who is godfather to Jackson’s children, said he had visited with Jackson several weeks ago and believed the star was ready for the rigors of performing 50 live gigs.
“He was absolutely fine,” said Lester. “I can’t believe this, it’s such a shock. I’ll always remember him as being a very sweet, kind and loving man.”
Rocker Lenny Kravitz recalled working with Jackson in the studio on an unreleased track and finding the man far different from the eccentric recluse often portrayed in the media.
“It was the most amazing experience I’ve had in the studio,” Kravitz said. “He was funny. Very funny and we laughed the whole time. I also saw what a beautiful father he was. He was a beautiful human being. If not for him, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. He gave me joy as a child and showed me the way to go.”
Jackson’s death prompted broadcasters from Sydney to Seoul – where the news came early Friday – to interrupt morning programs, while fans remembered a “tortured genius” whose squeals and sliding moves captivated a generation and who sparked global trends in music, dance and fashion.
Several world leaders weighed in. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called it “lamentable news,” though he criticized the media for giving it so much attention. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who had met Jackson, said: “We lost a hero of the world.”
In Romania, where a tumultuous Jackson concert in 1992 helped mark the country’s new freedoms after the fall of the Soviet bloc, singer Lucian Viziru said he was stunned by the tragedy.
“I feel like crying,” he told the AP, rubbing his eyes. “I grew up with him, I learned his dances, his songs, everything. My first ever cassette was ‘Thriller.'”
A condolence board went up in downtown Bucharest. Radio and TV stations played his music and broadcast clips from the concert.
“My heart is heavy because my idol died,” said Byron Garcia, security consultant at a Philippine prison who organized the famous video of 1,500 inmates doing a synchronized dance to “Thriller.” The video has had 23.4 million hits on YouTube.
Garcia said the inmates in Cebu will hold a tribute for Jackson on Saturday with their “Thriller” dance and a minute of prayer.
The flamboyant former Philippine first lady, Imelda Marcos, who cheered Jackson’s acquittal on child molestation charges in 2005, said she cried on hearing the news.
“Michael Jackson enriched our lives, made us happy,” she said. “The accusations, the persecution caused him so much financial and mental anguish. He was vindicated in court, but the battle took his life. There is probably a lesson here for all of us.”
In Bogota, Colombia, a 24-year-old tattoo artist named Michael Tarquino said his parents named him after Jackson. He recalled growing up with electricity rationing for hours at a time and waiting for the power to return.
“When the light came back on I would play my Michael Jackson LP, and I’d stand at the window and sing along,” he said.
Japanese fans were always among Jackson’s most passionate supporters, and news of his death came as a huge shock. Michiko Suzuki, a music critic who met Jackson several times in the 1980s, said the country was likely to be mourning for some time.
“Everyone was imitating his ‘moonwalk’ when it was a hit. He was a true superstar,” she said.
Jackson also had a huge fan base in Seoul, South Korea, where his style and dance moves were widely emulated by Korean pop stars.
“He is my master and the prime mover to make me dance,” pop star Rain told the South Korean sports and entertainment daily Ilgan Sports. “Even though he is dead, he is an eternal performer.”
Aaron Kwok, one of Chinese pop’s most accomplished singer-dancers, said he was deeply saddened by the news.
“It’s so sudden,” Kwok said in a statement. “No one can replace Michael Jackson’s contributions to pop music.”