At 13 years old, half the age he is today, Billy Gilman took the stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden to participate in Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary Concert. Taped on September 7 and 10, 2001, the special tribute to the King of Pop also featured Whitney Houston, Usher, Britney Spears, N Sync, and many others, performing songs made famous by Jackson, who also appeared and performed with his brothers during the network special.
For his part, Gilman sang a poignant version of Jackson’s first ever solo Number One hit, “Ben,” the title tune from the movie of the same name. A 1972 horror film about the friendship between a lonely boy and a rat may have been unlikely source material for such an affecting ballad, but Jackson’s age at the time he recorded it (13) made it work, as did Gilman’s delicate approach and youthful lack of pretension. Also in his favor was that his voice had yet to suffer the indignities of puberty. Jackson’s version of the song earned a Golden Globe award but lost the Oscar for Best Original Song to “The Morning After.”
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, which happened just hours after the second of the two tribute concerts, Gilman was among the special guests invited to perform on the Jackson-penned single, “What More Can I Give,” which was also to include Reba McEntire, Celine Dion, Beyonce and several others. Release of the charity single to benefit 9/11 was mired in legal issues, although Gilman and Jackson were among performers at a benefit concert in Washington, D.C., the following month. Jackson also reportedly continued to advise Gilman in his career for the next several years.