Michael Jackson Memorial Service Moments That Meant More Than You Realize

When Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, it's safe to say that he left behind a complicated legacy — from child star to the King of Pop, from a groundbreaking musician to the subject of some of the most horrific accusations that could ever be spoken. Many people had no idea how they were supposed to feel when headlines started to report that he had died. 

His death would ultimately be as complicated as his life, from arguments over his estate and the fate of his children to the high-profile trial of his physician. Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2011, when a jury decided his negligence in providing Jackson with a cocktail of medications — including an anesthetic — that the star referred to as his "milk" had led to his fatal episode of cardiac arrest. 

Long before that verdict — on July 7, 2009 — somewhere around 31.3 million people tuned in to watch the two-hour memorial service held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Of the more than 1.5 million people who wanted to attend, 18,000 received tickets to an event that paid testament to Jackson's lasting impact. The memorial was important; Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University professor of African American studies, explained why to NPR, saying, "There is obviously a sense of mourning, but also a real sense of celebration as if... all these folks are marking a particular moment in their lives." For those who spoke and performed at the service, participation meant more than simply appearing on screen.

Brooke Shields

Brooke Shields and Michael Jackson had a complicated relationship, and she revealed in the 2023 documentary "Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields" (via EW) that although he had often claimed they were dating, she had never seen their relationship like that — even though he had suggested they adopt a child together. His claim that they were seeing each other when she was, in fact, dating Dean Cain had resulted in the friendship unraveling, but when Shields was asked to speak at his memorial service, she knew she wanted to say not what they'd written for her, but something deeply personal.

"Thinking back to when we met and the many times that we spent together and whenever we were out together, and there would be a picture taken, there would be a caption of some kind, and the caption usually said something like 'an odd couple' or 'an unlikely pair,'" she recalled in her eulogy. "But to us, it was the most natural and easiest of friendships. ... Both of us needed to be adults very early, but when we were together, we were two little kids having fun."

Afterward, she spoke with "Access Hollywood" about the memorial, saying (via Stuff) that she hadn't been told the coffin was going to be on stage. She'd done the whole thing thinking "that he was going to jump out and start the concert," but of course, that didn't happen. Shields went on to say she regretted losing touch, and not reaching out to him when he needed a friend. 

Smokey Robinson

When Smokey Robinson took the stage to memorialize Michael Jackson, he called knowing the Jackson family "one of [his] greatest blessings." He, too, was glad that so many people had turned out and tuned in to memorialize Jackson for his music, and added his belief that the pop star was going to live forever through his music and never be forgotten.

In 2011, "Access Hollywood" caught up with Robinson at the "Michael Forever" tribute concert (via Today) and spoke with him a little more about the ceremony. For Robinson, it wasn't just a matter of eulogizing a talented musician. "Michael was my little brother," he said. "I knew him since he was 10 years old. I've been watching talent and watching people perform and dance since I was probably 2 years old. ... The overall picture: He was the best I ever saw."

Robinson went on to condemn what had happened to Jackson, first saying that he sympathized with Dr. Conrad Murray, knowing that he wanted nothing more than to make Jackson happy. He later issued an amendment to his statement, saying that he agreed with the accusation that Murray had been negligent — and he also pulled no punches when it came to the media circus around Jackson's death and memorial. In the month following the memorial, speculative headlines dominated the media, and Robinson condemned them for making the grieving process even harder for Jackson's children (via EW).

John Mayer

John Mayer appeared on "Larry King Live" not long after stunning the audience at Michael Jackson's memorial service with his instrumental performance of "Human Nature," and he was absolutely honest about being asked to perform at the ceremony. Unlike others who were invited to perform or speak, he hadn't been close to Jackson. In fact, they'd never even met.

His first order of business was to confirm that the request had actually come directly from the family, which he said was "essential to ... sort of processing the honor." Mayer said that he'd really needed to take a step back to decide just how he was going to approach it. He had an interesting take on things, and he looked to "Thriller."

"I come from a generation that sort of gets told, one way or another, that we're born at the wrong time," he said. "To know that ... in my early years, and in my generation's early years, we were handed — sort of down through MTV, and the radio — something like 'Thriller' ... what a blessing to have the music that just streams through in your house be a master work." That connection, Mayer said, was what he needed to draw on to be able to play at the service, and he also touched on why he decided not to sing: He decided that he just wasn't up for it, and knew there was no way he could even come close to Jackson's work.

Queen Latifah

When Queen Latifah took the stage at the memorial, she lauded Michael Jackson for his relatability. She recalled seeing him perform, saying that he never felt like a celebrity up on high: "We felt like he was right there, right before us. You believed in Michael, and he believed in you. He made you believe in yourself," she recalled. 

The following day, she appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman," where she lamented never having been able to meet him. She did, however, hear that he had admired her cheekbones, which she took as a massive compliment. Her feelings on what it had meant to be able to speak at the memorial were incredibly poignant, and she shared that even though she'd never met him, he'd inspired her in incredible ways.

She called him not only a great entertainer, but a great person who was a huge influence on her: "Especially being a Black kid," she said. "It's like, this is where you realize that, wow, you can make it onto television. They had their own cartoon, they had their own variety show .... I was like, 'Wow! Black people, young, like me! Little girls, boys, we can do this! We can do this!' It was fantastic, because it was an inspiration and let you know that you can make it."

Kobe Bryant

When Kobe Bryant spoke at Michael Jackson's memorial service, he lauded Jackson not only for his music, but for his humanitarian work. It was eye-opening stuff: While many people might think of "Thriller" before they think of his work with charities, Bryant shared the important reminder that Jackson held a title in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most charities supported by a pop star. (As of this writing, it still stands: Jackson supported 39 charities, including the Volunteers of America, the American Cancer Society, and the Sickle Cell Research Foundation.)

When Bryant appeared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," he took the chance to share a bit about their long-standing friendship that started when Bryant was in his late teens. Jackson, he said, took the time to sit down with him and explain just how he'd created success for himself, who had inspired him, and how he'd used the lessons they taught him in his own life. "I thought I was working hard until I met him," Bryant said.

Bryant was on HBO's "Real Sports" (via USA Today) when he shared that their friendship started in 1998, when he picked up the phone to find Jackson on the other end of the line. "I was starting to get flack for being an introvert and being so serious all the time about the game," Bryant said. "And he wanted to call and give me encouragement and say, 'Don't change for them.'"


One of the most moving tributes at Michael Jackson's memorial service came from Usher, who performed Jackson's "Gone Too Soon." Not only was it apropos for the service, but it was a reminder of Jackson's ability to immortalize others: The song was written in memory of Ryan White, who became the face of the AIDS crisis before his death in 1990. Usher's version of the song was made even more powerful by the tears that came at the end, as he touched Jackson's coffin and embraced the members of the Jackson family.

When Usher sat down with "Nightline," he shared some fond memories of hearing his first Michael Jackson song: the Jackson 5's cover of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." He said he'd been a fan for as long as he could remember, but more than that, he'd respected the kind of performer and person Jackson was. The chance to take center stage at his memorial service wasn't just closing a chapter in Usher's life, it was paying tribute to a lifelong influence — and it was just as hard as it looked.

"This, I knew, was going to be one of the hardest moments of my musical career," he said. "I didn't make it through rehearsal because I really got choked up. But I knew this was an opportunity to pay tribute to Michael in a way that was very helpful. There will never be another Michael Jackson in this lifetime."

Mariah Carey

After Mariah Carey performed at Michael Jackson's memorial service, she made it clear that she hadn't been happy with her rendition of the Jackson 5 hit "I'll Be There." Afterward, she tweeted her apologies (via NBC Miami), saying, "Just recovering from the day. Still filled w/ sadness... I could barely keep myself from crying. I'm sorry that I wasn't able to pull it together and really do it right, but I was literally choked up when I saw him there in front of me."

Carey went on to say that as long as his music continued to be played — and it would be — that he was never really gone. While their friendship was well known, Carey shared some more details about her connection with Jackson in her memoir, "The Meaning of Mariah Carey." 

Carey wrote about one of those moments that had changed her life forever, and it involved a song that featured Michael Jackson. She recalled being around 14 years old when her mother, Patricia — who was a trained opera singer — sang Jackson's line from Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" with an operatic flair. It made her daughter laugh, and Mariah later wrote, "She stared at me until every bit of lightness faded. Almost growling, she said, 'You should only hope that one day you become half the singer I am.' My heart dropped. Still, to this day, what she said haunts me and hurts me."

Shaheen Jafargholi

Shaheen Jafargholi was just 12 years old when he took the stage at Michael Jackson's memorial service. He'd gotten to the finals of "Britain's Got Talent," and his rendition of the Jackson 5's "Who's Lovin' You" got Jackson's attention in a big way. Jackson had asked him if he'd perform onstage with him at London's O2 arena, a potentially career-changing opportunity that Jafargholi never got to experience: Jackson passed away before the concert could take place. Instead, the family asked him to perform at the memorial service.

Jafargholi told The Daily Mail, "It wasn't until I'd finished that I realized what I'd just done. Michael Jackson's coffin was in front of me. I felt quite sad. ... I thought, 'I got so close, now I'm even closer — and he's gone.' It was great to be able to stand there and sing his song knowing that, at least before he died, he knew who I was and knew I was a fan. When I said I loved him, it really was from my heart."

He went on to say that he and his mother had been invited to a reception afterward, and he found it odd that so many people were telling him how incredible his performance had been — particularly when Janet Jackson shook his hand and thanked him for his participation in the memorial. "I was thinking, 'I should be thanking you for giving me this opportunity to be here and say goodbye to Michael Jackson.'"

Al Sharpton

When Al Sharpton took the stage at Michael Jackson's memorial service, he lauded not only Michael, but the entire Jackson family for their dedication to following their dreams and refusing to be deterred by whatever negativity the world had to offer. "He never gave up dreaming," Sharpton said. "It was that dream that changed culture all over the world."

Sharpton has said that he saw it as his duty to defend Jackson's memory and honor. He had reached out to the family when the memorial and funeral were still in the planning stages, saying, "They told me, 'You've gotta keep out there and defend Michael.'" Even before the memorial, he spoke at a National Action Network rally, making his position clear: "If we can look past the shortcomings of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, then we can put into proper perspective any shortcomings Michael may have had."

After the memorial, Sharpton sat down with Essence (via CNN) to say that the facts of Jackson's life — the hit records, the magazine covers, the air time that his videos were given — shouldn't be overshadowed by the accusations, and he was going to make sure that Jackson was properly remembered. "To tell us that we shouldn't celebrate facts is to tell us that we must embrace this supremacist fantasy, and I don't think we should do that."

Pastor Lucious Smith

The opening address and closing prayer at Michael Jackson's memorial service was given by Pastor Lucious Smith, from Old Pasadena's Friendship Baptist Church. Smith told the Pasadena Star-News that after Jackson's death, he had reached out to Jackson's brother and church regular Randy Jackson, leaving a message promising that he — and the congregation — would be there to offer any support that was needed. When he was taken up on the offer, it was in a big way: Randy called him as a representative of the whole family, and asked him to do the closing prayer for the service.

Yes, the memorial would welcome 18,000 people in person, and yes, it would be viewed by millions more. But Smith said that he looked at it in another way: "I was honored and pleased to be a part of it. Not so much the event, but just to be asked by someone to honor his brother, who happens to be a superstar."

It was — unsurprisingly — the biggest group of people Smith had ever spoken in front of, but it remained a deeply personal experience that centered around a family who had lost a son, a brother, and a father. "It was reverent — I don't think 'somber' would be the right word, that's too heavy. But it wasn't really a celebration. It was an honorable, respectful atmosphere."

Who didn't show up... and why?

Everyone grieves in different ways, and while a very public, high-profile memorial service might bring comfort to some, others may want to weather the worst of their grief in private. That said, it's not entirely surprising that there were some famous faces that were conspicuously absent from Michael Jackson's memorial service, including his longtime friend Diana Ross (pictured).

Ross issued a statement (via ABC News) addressing her absence. It explained that her grief was a personal and private thing: "I am trying to find closure. ... I have decided to pause and be silent. This feels right for me. Michael was a personal love of mine, a treasured part of my world, part of the fabric of my life in a way that I can't seem to find words to express." She went on to express her wish that the memorial service would provide comfort for those who chose to attend or watch, and extended her heartfelt condolences to his family.

Her sentiment was echoed by Elizabeth Taylor, who tweeted, "I just don't believe that MIchael would want me to share my grief with millions of others. How I feel is between us. Not a public event." She went on to say that she cared too much for him to be a part of the memorial. When some columnists and writers condemned them for not showing up, it became an important reminder that grief doesn't take a single form, and a little kindness goes a long way.