5 Freddie Mercury
Flamboyance personified, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury poured electricity into every ballad he sang. His unmistakable voice, which spanned four octaves, was the driving force behind “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You.” Often performing shirtless and in skintight black leather with suspenders, the always-intense and ever-passionate Mercury was such an extraordinary showman that his performance at Live Aid in 1985 is widely considered to be among the greatest rock performances of all time.
4 The Harlem Globetrotters
Part circus acrobats, part comedy act, part sports franchise—100 percent performers. Using their trademark blend of aggressive street ball mixed with personality-driven comedic theatrics, the Harlem Globetrotters have been dazzling basketball fans since the ’20s. The exhibition team’s extraordinary displays of raw athleticism and finesse humiliated opponents in contests both staged and serious. The Globetrotters were the jumping-off point for future NBA greats such as Meadowlark Lemon and Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain. How long can YOU spin a ball on your index finger?
3 George Carlin
The godfather of modern comedy, Carlin’s performance lineage can trace a direct line from Lenny Bruce to 21st century Comedy Central. The first comic to understand the power of cable TV, Carlin left comedy fans with 14 one-hour HBO specials. His most famous routine, “Seven Dirty Words,” challenged obscenity laws all the way to the Supreme Court. Sometimes silly, sometimes vicious, sometimes political, always honest, Carlin’s stage presence has been imitated countless times but never duplicated. “You ever notice that anyone going slower than you on the highway is an idiot, but anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” Yes, George. Thanks to you, we do.
2 P.T. Barnum
Of all the great American showmen, only one invented the circus. The 19th century huckster, grifter, performer, author, philanthropist and businessman was the mind behind the Ringling Bros. franchise and the father of the circus sideshow. The Fee-Jee mermaid, General Tom Thumb, Siamese twins Chang and Eng and Jumbo the elephant would not be part of the American imagination if it weren’t for the man who is believed to have coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
1 Michael Jackson
The Moonwalk. The sparkly glove. The red leather jacket. The crotch grab. When America was introduced to Michael Jackson’s adorable little face when The Jackson 5 debuted in 1964, the fuse was lit on the most explosive career of all time. The King of Pop is not just the most successful entertainer in history, but the man who defined music, dance and fashion through four decades. With 400 million records sold, the most awards ever achieved, the No. 1 selling album in history and “Michael Jackson’s Thriller”—the MTV mainstay that remains the bar by which all videos are judged to this day. There can only be one king.