There was one person on everyone’s mind on February 28, 1984, as the 26th Annual GRAMMY Awards unfolded within Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium: Michael Jackson.
Thriller, released in November 1982, was a bona fide sensation all through 1983, with “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” both topping the pop charts and featuring boundary-shattering short films that were added into rotation on the then-new MTV. But nothing prepared fans and critics for the events that ended Michael’s stellar year leading up to a truly impressive GRAMMY night.
In December 1983, Thriller’s title track was spun off as the album’s unprecedented seventh single. Like the six hits before it, “Thriller” reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. And like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” “Thriller” was accompanied by a short film—a 15-minute mini-epic featuring dazzling choreography and eye-popping special effects—which helped Thriller jumpstart its way to the top of the album charts again for another 17 consecutive weeks (37 weeks in all from the spring of 1983). The 12 GRAMMY nominations Michael received signaled the undeniable impact of Thriller, which had also just become the biggest-selling album of all time (a world record that still stands).
Michael’s public appearances were carefully orchestrated, and when GRAMMY night began, he knew how to make an entrance, dressing in his finest crystal covered blue-and-gold military coat (with matching crystal glove) and bringing actors Brooke Shields and Emmanuel Lewis as his guests.
Ultimately, Michael won eight GRAMMY Awards—still the most ever received by a single artist in one night. He took home trophies for Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance – Male (“Thriller”); Record of the Year, Best Rock Vocal Performance – Male (“Beat It”); Best R&B Song, Best R&B Vocal Performance – Male (“Billie Jean”); Producer of the Year – Non-Classical and Best Recording for Children (The E.T. Storybook).
The excitement was palpable with every trophy; when accepting Album of the Year, he invited CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff to the stage (who praised Michael as “the man who has shown us the way in music, in youth, in song and dance”) and dedicated his win to one of his idols, Jackie Wilson (who had passed away the month before). For his seventh trip to the stage (for Best Pop Vocal Performance – Male), Michael dramatically removed his sunglasses—a promise to his friend, actress Katharine Hepburn (and, he said with a smile, “for the girls in the balcony”); for his record-breaking eighth (Record of the Year), his enthusiastic embrace of Quincy Jones and joyous spin on the stage became an all-time magic moment in GRAMMY history.
“We were all in a state,” Michael later wrote in his 1988 memoir Moonwalk, years after that year’s GRAMMY telecast became the most-watched in history (a record that still stands). “Man! What a feeling! To work so hard on something, to give so much and to succeed!…I imagined that I felt like a long-distance runner must feel when breaking the tape at the finish line…I identify with that person because I know how hard he’s trained and I know how much that moment means to him…That’s powerful stuff. I can share that feeling because I know.”