London (AFP) - From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke and Aladdin Sane, David Bowie was rock's ultimate chameleon.
A master of reinvention whose career spanned two generations, he dazzled millions with his taste for experiment, taking on everything from glam rock and soul to electronica and jazz.
Bowie's sexuality was an experiment too -- he played with gender on stage and remained ambiguous on the issue off stage.
He marked his 69th birthday on Friday by releasing his 25th studio album "Blackstar", hailed by many as one of his most innovative yet.
Delighted critics heralded a new musical era for the star.
But just two days later, Bowie's family made the shock announcement of his death Sunday via social media, revealing that the star had endured a secret 18-month battle with cancer.
Starting with "Space Oddity" in 1969, Bowie scored hit after hit over more than four decades, ranging from "The Jean Genie" and "Heroes" in the 1970s to "Let's Dance" and "Modern Love" in the 1980s to more recent hits like 2013's wistful "Where Are We Now?"
Many of these became era-defining hits around the world while successively defining what it meant to be a music legend.
Bowie was "an innovator who proved time and again that the only way to make music a vital part of our culture is to continue to break the rules," said Bowie's long-term producer Tony Visconti.
- From south London to superstardom -
Bowie sold an estimated 140 million records worldwide but the scale of his influence goes far beyond sales, with musicians from Lady Gaga to Blur citing the importance of his work for theirs.
Born David Robert Jones in Brixton, south London on January 8, 1947, his family moved out to the leafy suburb of Bromley when he was six.
He changed his name to avoid being confused with The Monkees singer Davy Jones.
Bowie's eponymous first album was released in 1967 but it was "Space Oddity" that first caught people's attention.
Then in 1972 with his first re-invention as the androgynous Ziggy Stardust, he hit the big time. He brought his love of mime, fashion and theatre to his music -- enabling him to challenge traditional views on style, gender and sexuality.
In 1973 he moved on to create the Aladdin Sane persona and two years after that made his breakthrough in the US with "Fame", co-written with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar.
The singer was living in the US with his wife Angie, but in 1976 he moved to West Berlin with his son Zowie, in a bid to escape a hedonistic life of drugs, drink and orgies. The marriage ended in divorce in 1980.
From 1976 to 1979, during his Berlin period, he produced a trilogy of albums with Brian Eno ("Low", "Heroes" and "Lodger").
His album "Let's Dance" in 1983, which yielded hits like "China Girl", conquered a younger audience on the dance floor and was his biggest-selling album to date.
His late-1980s hard-rock period with the band Tin Machine, received mixed reviews.
He married Somali supermodel Iman in 1992, with whom he had a daughter, Alexandria, and after a period living in Switzerland the family decided to split their time between London and New York.
- Web trailblazer -
True to form, he was an online musical pioneer, releasing his 1999 album "Hours" on the Internet and sharing his news and passions on a website.
Alongside his music career, Bowie took on regular film roles, from "The Man Who Fell to Earth" in 1976 to starring alongside Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson in the period film "The Prestige", months before his 60th birthday.
British media reports suggested he had declined a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2003. He did not confirm this but reportedly said of such honours: "I seriously don't know what it's for."
Bowie suffered a minor heart attack in 2004 which cut short his "A Reality Tour" concert schedule, after which he kept a relatively low public profile.
But to an ecstatic reception from fans, he released "The Next Day", his first album of new material for ten years, in 2013.
That became his first UK number one for 20 years and his highest entry on the US billboard charts, at number two.
"Blackstar", released on Friday, had also drawn critical acclaim, with many fans hoping it would lead to more new work in the coming years.