'It's not easy firing your father': Michael Jackson's complicated relationship with late father Joe

Raechal Shewfelt
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Joe Jackson tries to stay close to his son at Michael’s 1984 induction into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In 1983, Michael Jackson had just released Thriller, the album that eventually became the all-time top-selling album by any artist. He had just debuted his signature moonwalk and won an astonishing seven Grammys. Michael could do anything — anything except go into a meeting with his father alone.

“It’s not easy firing your father,” Michael later told a biographer.

Joe Jackson, who died Wednesday at 89, was fired from being his son’s manager just as Michael became a worldwide superstar. The documents had been sent to Joe at home while Michael wasn’t around. When they finally met to discuss the matter, Michael brought along an adviser so that he wouldn’t have to be alone with Joe, according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 1991 book, Michael Jackson: The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story.

“The fact you can’t even talk to me unless you have this guy here,” Joe said. “It hurts me, Michael. Do you know how it makes me feel? You know how I feel about you. Why do I always have to say it?”

Michael quickly told his father that he’d never heard any such thing.

“After all I’ve done for you and your brothers?” Joe asked. “Think about it. It’s always been about you and your brothers. That’s how I say it.”

The relationship between Joe and Michael was a complicated one. Before Michael’s death in 2009, he had often spoken about how his father had abused him, both verbally and physically, when he was growing up. Joe also expected his sons to sing — perfectly — in the music group that he’d created, the Jackson 5, no matter how often they rehearsed — and they rehearsed relentlessly.

“If you messed up you got hit, sometimes with a switch, sometimes with a belt,” Michael wrote in Moonwalk, his 1988 autobiography. “Dad would make me so mad at him that I’d try to get back at him and get beaten all the more.”

Michael Jackson with brothers Randy and Marlon and their father, Joe, backstage at the Inglewood Forum in 1973. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Joe denied any abuse for years but later said that he had hit his children with a strap. He always gave excuses for his behavior. “I don’t [regret the beatings],” Joe told Oprah Winfrey in 2010. “It kept them out of jail and kept them right.”

It didn’t keep Michael well, though. Even as an adult, he was afraid of his father.

“I don’t know if I was his golden child or whatever it was,” Michael told Oprah in February 1993. “Some may call it a strict disciplinarian or whatever, but he was very strict. He was very hard. Just a look would scare you. There’s been times when he’d come to see me, and I would get sick. I’d start to regurgitate.”

The story the “Billy Jean” singer told about his father was more forgiving by 2000. He explained in an audio recording that later became a book, The Michael Jackson Tapes: A Tragic Icon Reveals His Soul in Intimate Conversation, that Joe became different as he grew older.

“He is so different now,” Michael said. “Time and age has changed him, and he sees his grandchildren and he wants to be a better father. It is almost like the ship has sailed its course, and it is so hard for me to accept this other guy that is not the guy I was raised with. I just wished he had learned that earlier.”

In 2001, Michael elaborated on his relationship with Joe in a speech about children and their parents.

“I have begun to see that even my father’s harshness was a kind of love — an imperfect love, to be sure, but love nonetheless,” he said. “He pushed me because he loved me. Because he wanted no man ever to look down at his offspring. And now with time, rather than bitterness, I feel blessing. In the place of anger, I have found absolution. And in the place of revenge, I have found reconciliation. And my initial fury has slowly given way to forgiveness.”

Joe appeared alongside Michael at the courthouse in 2005 when the singer was tried on charges of child molestation.

Michael Jackson and his father arrive at his trial in 2005. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

After Michael’s death in 2009, Joe said that Michael had tried to contact him shortly before he died from a deadly combination of drugs in his system.

“The saddest part about the whole thing was Michael tried to reach me,” Joe told CNN. “He says, ‘Call my father.’ This was before he passed. ‘He would know how to get me out of this.’ But they didn’t get in touch with me. They said they couldn’t find me, but I was right there.”

The Jackson family patriarch had kind things to say about his son in an impromptu news conference hours after Michael died.

“He tried his hardest to please everybody,” Joe said outside the Jackson estate. “He’d donate so much money to the sick. He helped the blind. He helped everybody that needed help, and he was glad to do it. … I was very proud of my son. The legacy of Michael will still go on. I promise you that.”

Joe might have been closer to Michael in his later years, but he still wasn’t included in the will that the superstar left behind. The realization that he wouldn’t benefit from the legacy that he had been so instrumental in building must have been as hurtful — and yet as necessary for Michael — as the star’s professional breakup with him all those years earlier.

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