Sixty years ago today in Gary, Indiana, Michael Jackson was born. In his lifetime, which came to a tragic end in 2009, the son of Joe and Katherine Jackson became one of the world’s most popular entertainers, first with his brothers in the Jackson 5, then as a solo artist whose 1982 Thriller LP is the world’s best-selling album of all time. Although Jackson’s ties to country music may not be instantly evident, they certainly existed, largely due to his mother, who led her young children, pre-stardom, in sing-alongs to country songs, where the youngsters honed their impeccable harmonies.
Five years before writing 1985’s “We Are the World” with Lionel Richie (the charity single featuring dozens of superstars, including country-music representation from Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Number One songwriter Kim Carnes), Jackson inspired a country cover with one of his hits from the Thriller predecessor Off the Wall. The tearful ballad “She’s Out of My Life” was a Top 20 hit in 1980 as “He’s Out of My Life,” a duet by Janie Fricke and Johnny Duncan.
In May 1984, with Jackson at the height of his post-Thriller popularity, the singer and his siblings joined Jackson family friends for a private celebration of his mother’s 54th birthday. Held at the Bistro Garden restaurant in Beverly Hills, the gathering included several surprise guests, including a Nashville legend. Pianist Floyd Cramer, whose “slip-note” style of playing distinguished dozens of Music City recordings beginning in the early Sixties, was flown in for the event by Jackson himself to honor his mother, who was reportedly one of Cramer’s biggest fans.
In a brief video from the very special event, Cramer can be seen accompanying the future “King of Pop” on a song penned by another Nashville icon, Kris Kristofferson, and famously recorded by Cramer’s fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member Ray Price. Introducing “For the Good Times” as “one of your favorite songs,” Jackson begins singing as Cramer’s distinctive piano accompaniment is heard in the background. Jackson’s command of the song suggests, rather poignantly, that an album of country-music covers by the gifted vocalist would not have been out of the realm of possibility.
Floyd Cramer was 64 years old when he succumbed to cancer in 1997. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003, the same year his efforts as a sideman were recognized with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Katherine Jackson is now 88 years old. Her husband, Joe, died in June at 89.