From Mouseketeer to megastar: The rise of Justin Timberlake

For more on Justin Timberlake’s rise to superstardom, tune in to CNN for “The Justin Timberlake Experience,” this Sunday, March 24 at 8 p.m. ET.

Story highlights

Justin Timberlake is being called a modern-day Bing Crosby.

The multi-talented star delivers not only in music but also in movies and on TV.

"The 20/20 Experience" is currently on pace to become the top-selling album of the year.

CNN  — 

Justin Timberlake is an Entertainer. That’s JT, with a capital “E”: Everyman, Everything and Everywhere right now.

With the long-awaited release of “The 20/20 Experience,” his first album in seven years, 32-year-old Timberlake has managed to endear himself to both women and men – crafting an amalgam of talents that have made him a character not seen in a generation or two in show-business: The well-rounded performer.

You won’t find anyone else like him in music, or Hollywood for that matter. It’s an organic chemistry of likability: equal parts movie star, debonair showman, TV comedian and successful businessman.

“My idols have always been the types of guys who could do anything,” Timberlake told “The Guardian” in 2011. “Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Sinatra, Dean Martin; and when you look up to people like that, you don’t accept that you need to be compartmentalized.”

“I wouldn’t call him Frank Sinatra,” “Billboard“‘s , Phil Gallo told CNN. “I’ll go Bing Crosby because Bing Crosby was more of the, A, wise investor, B, very specific vocal style that evolves – but you knew it was Bing, just as you know this is Justin. And the acting in the kind of movies they were – arty, but they told a good story and they appealed to the audience of the day.”

Timberlake’s business ventures are as diverse as professional sports franchises and golf courses, fashion, the Internet, and restaurants. Gallo added, “Here’s somebody who really understands popular culture – who knows a good project when it’s presented to him, that – that captures a certain zeitgeist.”

And then there’s the music. It, like the singer, oozes old school.

“I will not be the type of artist that puts out 10 to 15 albums,” Timberlake recently told “Rolling Stone.”

“That’s just not who I am. They’re really special to me. I write music all the time, but until you really feel that desperate need to shout from the rooftops and express yourself in that way, I just kind of keep it to myself. I enjoy making music so much that if it doesn’t come out, that’s OK.”

Once Timberlake decided that “The 20/20 Experience” was worth sharing with the world, he and close friend and producer Timbaland agreed, he told “Rolling Stone,” to make music “without all the hoopla of, like expectations. Let’s just make something that feels genuine … and … for me, it’s the best stuff I’ve ever done.”

Timberlake from Tennessee

Gospel is in his soul; Elvis is the King. Justin Timberlake is a kid from Memphis, after all. Home was actually north of the big city: Millington, Tennessee.

The grandson of a preacher and son of a choir director never passed up a chance to perform. Early videos of young Justin singing in church and in local shows reveal a boy who idolized Presley, and was himself becoming the performer with the something-special swagger.

Bob Westbrook, who gave 8-year-old Justin his first real singing lessons, told CNN Timberlake’s X factor comes from “his mannerism and his charisma, his hair, that whole bit, his natural stage feel.”

“People in the music industry always talk about this thing or that thing, but he definitely always had that thing. Always,” Trace Ayala, his best friend and William Rast business partner, added.

The adult Timberlake now jokes about his lack of formal training, but still thinks his sound is from the past, “Funny enough, I learned how to sing when I was a kid [by] imitating singers … like Al Green and Don Henley. I was an only child and was obviously really bored, so I would entertain my parents by imitating cartoon voices like Scooby Doo, Boo Boo and others. So, you know that about me now, I guess. I’m killing any cache of cool I’ve managed to build up over the years,” he told “Ask Men.”

Ayala believes their hometown informs everything they do.

“Memphis is a very, very, very musical town, everything revolves around music. From the time we were little kids, you’d go to dinner and the bar next door has a live band playing. So I feel like Memphis breeds that, or at least it brings it out in you, you know?”

N Sync to Solo

In 1993, Justin was singing, dancing and acting in the Disney Channel’s “The Mickey Mouse Club” alongside a group who would later become a who’s-who of teenage idols, including Ryan Gosling, Cristina Aguilera, J.C. Chasez and future girlfriend Britney Spears.

In 2000, ‘N Sync’s “No Strings Attached” was the top-selling album of the year and Justin Timberlake’s picture was hanging inside the locker of teenage girls around the world.

‘N Sync founding member Chris Kirkpatrick described to CNN what it was like working with him then: “It’s almost like he is a perfectionist, but there’s no work involved. You know, it’s really just boom, boom, done. It’s like, ‘There it is.’ One take Timberlake.’”

Timberlake’s writing skills were getting him noticed by other big acts, too. Michael Jackson wanted “Gone,” a JT-penned ‘N Sync song from their last album, “Celebrity,” Timberlake’s manager Johnny Wright told CNN.

“We were at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Michael’s people came and they said, ‘Hey, you know, I think Michael wants to record that record.’ I looked at Justin and I was like, You’re not giving that record away, because I knew how important that record was to him and what it meant for him as a writer to finally get songs.”

But by 2002, Justin’s high-profile relationship with Britney Spears was falling apart and ‘N Sync went on hiatus.

“Everybody was kind of figuring out, ‘What are we gonna do for the next six months?’” Wright recalled. “And then Justin kind of tapped me and said, “I know what I’m gonna do.” He says, “I’ve had this music inside of me for quite a while. I’m gonna take this time and I’m gonna go make a record.”

Then Justin launched the solo career that would define his next decade.

His debut album “Justified,” which spawned hits like “Rock Your Body,” “Cry Me a River,” and “Like I Love You,” soon became hot enough to land him on the biggest stage of all.

Super Bowl XXXVIII was broadcast live on February 1, 2004, from Houston on CBS. As “Billboard“‘s Gallo remembers it, “Justin Timberlake is at the Super Bowl performing with Janet Jackson and he reaches over and he pulls away her top and he has now, apparently, committed the crime of the century.”

A swift apology put Justin back on track, and his star continued to rise.

His sophomore album, the club-friendly “Future Sex/LoveSounds” gave us hits (and new vernacular) like “Sexy Back” and “What Goes Around … Comes Around” in 2006.

That was the last new music we’d hear from Timberlake until now, but in the meantime, his career would explode from Grammys to Emmys, music to movies, including the Academy Award-nominated “The Social Network.” He began investing in business ventures that interested him, became a must-see host of “Saturday Night Live,” and has shot films with major stars like last year’s “Trouble with Curve” with Clint Eastwood, and the upcoming Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and “Runner, Runner” with Ben Affleck.

Then came the last six months.

“Suit & Tie”

A fall wedding in Italy to actress and Hollywood crush Jessica Biel landed Timberlake back on magazine covers and back into water cooler conversation.

He followed that up with the new album, released March 19, led by the single “Suit & Tie,” featuring Jay-Z. “The 20/20 Experience,” which was completed in just four weeks, according to Wright, is currently on pace to sell 850,000 to 900,000 copies in its first week, likely knocking Mumford & Sons’ “Babel” out of the top-selling slot of the year.

On top of that, it was just announced that Timberlake will follow up the soulful album with an additional 10 tracks later this year.

An immensely successful “SNL” hosting gig preceded a week of instantly viral and hilarious appearances on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”

Not only is Timberlake making what Kirkpatrick refers to as “grown folks music,” he’s also “doing a great job at reinventing himself,” the former bandmate said.

“The one thing I always say about Justin is he always had an eye and an ear for what’s next. Not what’s cool, but what’s next.”