WASHINGTON - The sudden death of Michael Jackson, an American cultural icon for almost 40 years, sent immediate shockwaves through a country that watched him evolve from a breathtakingly talented little boy in his youth to a bizarre eccentric in adulthood.

"I'm 42 and he was my idol when I was a child," Vincent Curry, a New York advertising account co-ordinator, said Thursday shortly after hearing the news.

"He was everything. I saw the Jackson Five perform live in Birmingham, Alabama, when I was kid ... he meant the world to me then."

But Curry says his adoration of the pop star ended with allegations of pedophilia.

"Just this month he was trying to line up children to perform with him. He didn't have a problem he sought to overcome. He had a sickness and wanted no cure."

Jackson, 50, known around the world as the King of Pop, died Thursday after what some reports have said was cardiac arrest.

His demise comes after years of relative obscurity compared to the heights of fame he reached as a sweet-faced boy and young adult who possessed awe-inspiring singing, songwriting and dancing skills.

Shortly after his "Thriller" album became the best-selling pop album of all time, Jackson began a slow descent into eccentricity - and allegations of pedophilia - that haunted him until his death.

He altered his looks dramatically with plastic surgery and bought a massive property he christened Neverland Ranch, a child's paradise. There were suggestions he whitened his skin, although Jackson insisted his sudden paleness was the result of a medical condition.

By the end of his life, he was physically unrecognizable from the boy who wowed the world when he and his brothers burst onto the pop music scene in the early 1970s as The Jackson Five.

He was most recently in the news for a troubled attempt at a comeback. Fifty sold-out concerts in London were slated to begin on July 13, aimed at rescuing Jackson from the massive debt he'd accumulated during a lengthy hiatus from recording and performing.

But he was rumoured to have skipped out routinely on rehearsals in L.A., and his perfectionism had already forced the cancellation of the run's opening four dates.

"He's doing it mostly for his fans," Jackson's former spokesman, Dr. Tohme Tohme, recently told Rolling Stone magazine. "And he's doing it for his children and the children of the world."

As word broke of his unexpected passing just hours after another 1970s icon, Farrah Fawcett, succumbed to cancer, newspaper websites, message boards and the social messaging site Twitter were flooded with messages of grief and disbelief.

"OK. I am really having an emotional breakdown," tweeted Dinean Robinson of Elizabeth, N.J.

Crowds gathered outside the Los Angeles hospital where he died.

Like many fans, Curry said he stood by Jackson until he found it impossible to do so.

"When I was a teenager and my friends turned to Prince and mocked Michael Jackson as a 'sissy' and repeated the very well-known rumour in the black community about how he wanted to get a sex change and marry songwriter and actor, I stood alone in his defence."

But eventually Curry turned on him as well.

"There's a saying: 'Success lets you be who you really are.' And he embodied that. It allowed him to engage in his darkest impulses and they ultimately took him down."

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