GARY, Ind. – This gritty steel-making city where Michael Jackson got his start playing on street corners with his brothers and competing in talent shows said goodbye to the King of Pop with a show that featured experienced homegrown talent, as well as youngsters who hope to follow in his footsteps.
More than 6,000 people showed up for Friday's upbeat memorial event, which included performers singing and dancing to his hits, video montages of Jackson and comments from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Gary's mayor and people who knew Michael Jackson when his family lived in the city located 30 miles southeast of Chicago.
People in the crowd said the celebration was fitting for the King of Pop.
"It brought back a lot of memories," said Betty Nicholson, 52, of Gary, who said she used to perform at some of the same talent shows as Jackson and his brothers. "The show was fantastic."
Some of the biggest applause came before the three-plus-hour event started, when Jackson's hits were playing over the public address system at the Steel Yard, Gary's minor league baseball park, and young children and teenagers went out to the dugout and mimicked his moves.
Two Gary natives — Chester Gregory, who has appeared on Broadway, and Deniece Williams, known for her pop hit "Let's Hear It For the Boy" from the movie "Footloose" — sang music that wasn't Jackson's. Gregory sang Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Liftin' Me) Higher and Higher" because Wilson was a singer Jackson tried to emulate. Williams sang "Black Butterfly," a song about a caterpillar's struggles to change that she recorded in the early 1990s. She said it fit Jackson.
"Because that's what he did. It was a struggle through the pain, through everything. At the end of the day he still was a beautiful, beautiful creature with wings that flew and touched not only the United States but the world and will continue to touch the world forever," Williams said before her performance.
Jackson spent the first 11 years of his life in Gary, until the Jackson 5 struck it big in 1969. By that time, the steel industry, in which Jackson's father had worked, had started to decline. Over the following decades, the city's unemployment and poverty soared, crime increased and the population dwindled.
Jackson came back to Gary just once, in 2003. A speech he gave then was featured in one of the memorial's video montages. In it, Jackson finished by saying: "Gary, you are family, you always will be, I love you."
Mayor Rudy Clay said Jackson made the city known worldwide.
"He's going to put on those golden slippers and he's going to dance all over God's heaven," Clay said.
He later unveiled a 7-foot-high granite slab with an etching of Jackson standing on his tiptoes with the words "King of Pop" and his birth date and death date. Clay said it would be the first item in a Jackson museum he hopes to see the city build.
Organizers said more than 30 members of Jackson's family attended the event, including his father, Joe Jackson, who arrived surrounded by security just as Jesse Jackson was finishing speaking.
In his remarks, Jesse Jackson praised the pop icon's parents for the job they did raising their family while living in a small two-bedroom house in a working-class neighborhood.
"Today we thank and praise God for Michael and we praise God for the Jackson family," he said.