As one of pop's most respected performers, Michael Jackson was beloved by everyone from his heroes to his descendents. We've gathered a generation-spanning collection of tributes from R&B royalty to rock icons to the new school of chart-toppers inspired by his moves, pipes and unending compassion.
I first heard about Michael when he and his brothers were coming to Motown – and then I heard that voice. You couldn't help but be instantly moved by the way Michael sang a song like "I Want You Back" or "I'll Be There" or, later, "The Way You Make Me Feel," which is one of my favorites. One time, Michael and I were riding in an elevator together, and I was singing "The Way You Make Me Feel" to him, and we started going back and forth trading lines, and I told him how much I loved that part where he sang, "Go on, girl," and Michael told me that he took it from my song "Go Home," which made me feel pretty good. I remember we were on a kind of safari together once in a truck with bars to protect you from the lions. I could hear Michael telling the driver, "Can we get a little closer?" Then I heard a big roar and suddenly Michael got real quiet.
Michael was a master at making every song sound like it belonged to him – from "Human Nature," with all the different, kaleidoscopic parts, to "Billie Jean," with three chord changes, almost like a mantra. If you break down "Baby Be Mine," it's like John Coltrane, just disguised with pop lyrics and a pop arrangement.
I was 13 when I first met Michael Jackson. We instantly became friends. Nothing was jaded about him. I just was so impressed by his sweetness. He was thoughtful, sensitive, sweet, and had a funny sense of humor. If you got to talk to him about music or about the future of technology, his voice would get deeper, he would start talking, and it was as if he was this genius.
There were times when he would ask me to marry him, and I would say, "You have me for the rest of your life, you don't need to marry me, I'm going to go on and do my own life and have my own marriage and my own kids, and you'll always have me." I think it made him relax. He didn't want to lose things that meant something to him.
As he grew older and the more he started to change physically, the more asexual he became to me. It was easy for him to be a friend to me, because I was the most celebrated virgin ever; it's ridiculous, but I was America's virgin. You saw women who were more sexual, who wanted to throw themselves at him and feel like they were going to teach him; we just found each other, and we didn't have to deal with our sexuality. As I grew up and started having boyfriends, I would share with him, and he was like a little kid who talked about the bases – what first base was, what second base was, and it sounded very odd to the outside, I can imagine, but to the inside, to someone who's never really left his bubble, you can understand how he would be curious.
The last time I saw him in person was at Elizabeth Taylor's wedding, in 1991. He seemed like his own funny self. We snuck in and took pictures of ourselves next to her dress. We always seemed to revert to being little kids. It was a sanctuary for him, because he knew I never wanted anything from him but his happiness.
I remember before [we performed at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration], Michael sent somebody to find out if I had any foundation make-up he could borrow. I was using some light Chanel foundation at that time, and Michael sent back a note to say, thanks, but the foundation wasn't quite light enough for him. He meant that in show business, the stage is everywhere — it's when you leave the parking lot, when you go to the mall. It's about trying your best to be as perfect as possible. It's the reason Michael was like royalty. There's no other person like that, because the era of performers — the Frank Sinatras, the Elizabeth Taylors, the Sammy Davis Jr.s — is over. He was the last emperor.
When we made the "Bad" video, he was open to everything. Like that scene in the hallway when Wesley Snipes says, "Are you down, or what?" We did that maybe 40 times. Wesley is a formidable presence, but Michael stood up to him. The main thing that struck me was the extraordinary power of his almost shamanistic persona. I was mesmerized by his dancing. In the first shot, when his face is looking up toward the camera, there was a sense of loneliness and victimization. Those images had a resonance to them.
Across the street from where we shot a scene in Harlem, the buildings were torn down or condemned. He took me aside: "Do people live here?" He was overwhelmed by what he saw. In an apartment on the ground floor of the building where we were shooting, there was an unfortunate person in bed, coughing and on his last days. Michael said, "Do you see what's in there?" I said, "Yeah, I know." But even the guy who was sick in bed knew who Michael was.
One of the cool things about Michael is he just let me do my thing. We were doing a show in Italy, and Jennifer Batten, his guitar player, wanted me to follow these choreographed moves that she was doing. And I wouldn't have it, there was no way. We were in the dressing room and she's complaining and runs to Michael. It was the first time I'd seen him get shrewd and serious and bossy; he told her to fucking just leave Slash alone.
I would just get up and do my thing, but every so often I would look up and be dazzled by how naturally and how fluidly he worked. He was genuinely great to witness in person. He could have 80 people onstage all doing the same dance move, but he was the one guy who had that natural flow that nobody could match.
I spent a great deal of time with Michael when he was 10 or 11. A Motown artist named Bobby Taylor and I would take Michael to the golf course just to ride around on the cart while we played. If I hit a bad shot, he'd just laugh and tell me how I should've hit it. He never caddied or took a single swing in his life – he just came along and critiqued.
The first single on Thriller was "The Girl Is Mine," with Paul McCartney; I was a huge fan of Paul McCartney. And Michael knew this. I was working in the same studio where they were recording the song at one or two in the morning, and he called and said, "Lionel, come on over." I thought he wanted me to hear a track, and I go into the studio, and Paul McCartney was there. Needless to say, I ended my session for the night. I think Quincy went home that night because we were talking so much. Paul and Michael had so much in common in terms of the fame, and Michael was such a sponge. He asked every question. I think Paul had a blacked-out Suburban, and by the time Paul left, Michael had one too.
The irony of it is that Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones and myself had friends before we were 21. We all had to fight on the playground before we were 21. We all had a girl leave us before we were 21. We went through regular-guy growing-up experiences. But when it came to Michael, you couldn't get to "regular." From seven or eight years old, this brother was singing. I remember him coming right home from tutoring and going right to the studio. They wouldn't have playground time. Jackie and Jermaine had a little bit more of a real experience because they were older. But that door closed early for Michael.
With his whole being, he only wanted to be the biggest and the best there was. But in the later years, it wasn't the playground singing "Wacko Jacko" – it was the whole world saying it. How do you get over that? It tears you down. And the result is, we saw a major artist crumble right in front of our very eyes.
The first time around I pursued Michael Jackson about a song parody, it was a shot in the dark. We're talking about the most popular and famous person in the known universe, and here I was, this goofy comedy songwriter. He not only returned our phone calls, but he approved it. He thought it was a funny idea. Then when we did the second parody, "Fat," he was nice enough to let us use his subway set for the video, so he's always been very supportive.
The first time I met him in person was long after I had gotten permission to do "Eat It" back in 1984. There's a contract somewhere that has his signature next to mine, proving that we are the co-writers of "Eat It," which is surrealistic in and of itself. The first time I actually ran into him was backstage at one of his concerts, this was maybe four years later, when Even Worse came out with my second parody, "Fat." I went backstage, and he was seeing a lot of people, but I brought along a gold record of Even Worse to present to him, and he was very gracious and thanked me for it and said some nice things. After the fact, I thought, "That's probably the last thing Michael Jackson needs, another gold record for his storage locker." Seeing him in person was amazing, it was otherworldly. He was and continues to be so iconic, it's hard to even conceive of him as a human being. He always was bigger than life.
Our second meeting was a TV show taping. He was performing "Black or White," and I remember Slash was onstage and I talked to [Michael] briefly afterwards. He told me he would play my movie, UHF, for his friends at Neverland Ranch, and he was very soft-spoken, very quiet, but always very friendly to me.
I considered parodying "Black or White" around that time. Michael wasn't quite so into it, because he thought "Black or White" was more of a message song, and he didn't feel as comfortable with a parody of that one, which I completely understood, and in a way, he did me a huge favor, because I was already getting pegged as the guy who did Michael Jackson parodies, and because he wasn't so into it, I decided to go with Nirvana, which wound up revitalizing my career. I don't know what kind of career I would have today if it hadn't been for Michael Jackson. In a very real sense, he jump-started my career. "Eat It" basically changed me from an unknown into a guy that got recognized at Burger King.
The main memory I have of Michael Jackson is from when I was a kid. When you're a child and you see another child on TV with other brothers who are basically children — and I had two brothers — and you see what they're doing, and listening to the music they're making, it kind of knocks you out. That was the initial impact, that that was even possible. Especially being a kid from Seattle, where you're nowhere near any sort of media center and have no understanding of that type of popular culture and where it comes from or how it's created. You think it comes from some other planet.
The next thing that had a clear impact was when I was already a musician, probably about 18 years old, and was working in restaurants but was also starting different bands at the time, and was obviously watching MTV all the time, just to see what was on it. I wasn't a fan of most of it. Then, "Thriller" happened, and to see that shift from pretty much an entirely white audience watching an entirely white music channel change because of this one guy — he didn't just get some videos sent there, like me and my friends did on 120 Minutes at 1 a.m. on a Sunday — he took over. His videos were played the same amount Madonna videos were played. I remember the first two, especially, had an amazing energy. "Beat It" was an incredible video. Here is this guy who used to seem so shy and quiet comes out super-aggressive and there's actual gang members in it. It opened the door for Prince and Run-DMC to suddenly be in the living rooms of white people across the nation.
The brilliance of "Billie Jean" came to me when I was reading the lyrics for the first time, which was around the time that I was doing that arrangement, and the idea came from a conversation I had with my wife about the art of the cover song, because she would bring up ideas about songs I should cover, and I would always shoot 'em down, and I would explain the art of it: You can cover a song by an artist you are obviously influenced by and you will reproduce it, paying homage to it, and sticking close to the original. That's one way, the other way is Johnny Cash doing "Rusty Cage," which on paper sounds like the most ridiculous fucking idea you'll hear in your life. It did to me.
So she sort of challenged me with, what would that song be for you, and I thought well, who would be the least likely artist for me to attempt to cover and the first name that popped into my head was Michael Jackson. I liked "Billie Jean" because it had that little keyboard line in it, which I thought I could turn into an electric guitar line. And it was just embarrassingly awful. When I started reading the lyrics, I realized it's a lament, not a dance track. His moon walking and the video as well, as just the bass line and the beat, took precedence over the meaning. The lyrics are brilliant, and the way that the way the lyrics are put together. The story isn't spoon-fed to you, it's poetic.
I met Michael at the rehearsals for the Bad tour in 1987, when I was hired as a backup singer. I was surprised by how shy he was. We were rehearsing the duet "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," and we had a funny joke between us – we were doing a love song and pretending to be very shy about it, and we'd giggle when we touched each other. To see that youthfulness out of somebody who's the most important entertainer in the world was surprising.
Our first three weeks on the road, we played Tokyo in front of 75,000 people. Michael broke into "Human Nature," and he did the sideways moonwalk. I remember standing by the side of the stage thinking, "I'll never see this kind of talent again in my life." I don't care what kind of music you're into – there's something special in him that isn't of this world.
I was raised in the projects, and when you're around violence and people dying and going to prison, the only thing you have for an escape is music. Michael Jackson was the spaceship that launched me to a different place – I'd listen to Off the Wall and Thriller and zone out.
Around 2005, he called me out of the blue and said, "We should work together." For six months, we talked on the phone at least once a week. We recorded new vocals for "P.Y.T." and "The Girl Is Mine." He vocal-trained for three hours to record a 20-minute session in my living room! I know he was depressed and sad about how the world looked at him, but to still be excited about doing music – going to countless rehearsals, flying around the world, knowing that people were going to judge him and criticize him . . . the dude was superhuman.
Around the same time I was working with Michael, I had the pleasure of working with James Brown. I told Michael how it was: I asked James to take a picture, he clapped his hands two times, and a lady jumped out of the corner and started combing his hair. Michael said, "Isn't show business amazing?"
Michael admired the transformation from human to wolf in An American Werewolf in London. He called me to ask if I would make a film where he "could turn into a monster." Michael was hardworking and very cooperative. I explained to him why the line "I'm not like other guys" would get a laugh, and he was fine with it. I was hired on "Black or White" years later because Propaganda, the company contracted to produce the videos for Dangerous, was having trouble getting Michael to show up. I was much more an employee on that one. It was Mike's money, and I was on a weekly salary attempting to realize his ideas without making him look too crazy.
Michael was the biggest kid in the world, a real prankster. When we were working, he shot off a tear-gas gun in the studio. He screamed, "Everybody get out!" We all ran outside, scared as hell, and we saw Michael driving a black van down Ventura Boulevard, laughing his butt off. Another time, he was upset because someone in the press had quoted him as saying that "Africa stinks." He said, "I don't think Africa stinks; I love Africa. Tomorrow, I'm going to bring in some of my friends from Africa." The next day, this African man and woman came in, and it was like Coming to America, with the rose petals, gold lion medallions and everything. They were talking about the hospitals that Michael Jackson built in Africa.
Michael was very sweet, but he was a huge competitor. He invited me and my partner, Babyface, to the Neverland Ranch in 1991. He was working on Dangerous and asked us to write for the album. We took a helicopter to his house, and it was a very bumpy ride. I must have had a look of terror on my face, and Michael started laughing at me and told me I was soft.
The first record I ever owned was "The Love You Save." I was 10 years old and just getting interested in girls and the song made me feel like love and sex must be a very complex and risky proposition because it required elaborate traffic-safety metaphors. I played it over and over. When I was making the "Scream" video with Michael, I kept thinking, life is so strange, because if you had told the 10-year-old version of me that one day he'd get to meet and work with the little boy singing on that record he'd have thought you were completely insane.
I remember getting to chat with Michael between takes of shooting "Scream." You got over his unusual appearance pretty quickly, and he just seemed like a cool, easy-to-talk-to guy. He really focused his attention on you, which is something that very charming people do. We talked about our favorite movies. I was impressed with his knowledge of foreign cinema. When it came time to perform for the cameras, the transformation from this relatively regular guy to some sort of divinely possessed super-being was really astounding, metaphysical — hard to fully comprehend. The chance to experience the phenomenon of his gift from only a few feet away gave me chills. It was the treat of a lifetime.
Michael was one of those mega-gifted artists who obviously valued the craft of what he did very highly. When you bought a Michael Jackson album, you knew that it would sound pristine, that listening to it would be a rich, sonic experience. He always worked at a state-of-the-art level of craftsmanship — seemingly without compromise. Artists like that are so rare. I find them hugely inspirational. It seemed like his career was perhaps on the verge of taking a cyclical up-turn — that maybe he was about to make some really great new music. I'm sure a lot of people feel cheated by this lost possibility. I know I do.
When videos first started, we didn't know what to do, we just jumped around in front of a camera. Michael was the first one to take it seriously and said, OK, I'm gonna make these extravaganzas. He raised the bar for everybody in the '80s. On "We Are the World" we were all in the room together. He sort of clung to Diana Ross pretty much, but at one point I was off to the side and he came over to me and said, "I hope you don't mind, but I stole 'Billie Jean' from you," and I said, "It's all right, man, I just ripped the base line off, so can you!"
Michael Jackson created a style that was unique to him, he was incredible. And he didn't lip synch. While he was doing all those dances, he was signing, everybody else should take note.
Thriller is two years older than I am, but it was omnipresent when I was a kid. "Billie Jean" was a huge thing — legend has it that there were 80 layers of snare drums on that snare drum. Being a drum-obsessed kid, that was a big deal for me. The great thing about Michael Jackson is that he never gave a shit about his music being categorized: "Beat It" has a straight rock riff. It wasn't incongruous for my pop-punk band to cover it. It's the only song we've ever played that everyone knows all the words to, worldwide, guaranteed.
When we worked with the Jacksons, they'd just left Motown and signed with Epic. Michael was about 17 years old, and he wanted to write songs and learn how to produce, so we brought him into all of the sessions. As a kid, he was always happy, so [producing partner Leon] Huff came up with the title of [the Jackson 5 song] "Think Happy."
Years later, Michael called me when he was going through the trial and said he wanted to talk, so I went to meet him in New York – I remember they had put a dance floor in his hotel suite, so he could practice his steps. It broke his heart when people turned against him. It made him more reclusive. He felt like he couldn't trust people.
The Osmonds and the Jackson 5 had hit records at the same time. We were once playing a big show in Canada. The ironic thing is we were both teen idols, and all we wanted to do was go back to the hotel, and – while Joe and Katherine were talking to my father and mother – we went to the other room and played with toys.
I remember a few years ago, I went to Stevie Wonder to play him a cover I had recorded of his song "I Wish." And Stevie said, "Please, please, get close to Mike, because he really needs a friend right now." So right after that, I went off to Mike's house, and I played the track for him. This is right before everything hit the fan with all the trials. And I said, "We have always been linked in a parallel universe, with us and our families, but we've never actually done anything together." And his face lit up and he said, "What are you thinking?" And I played him "I Wish." And he loved the track with these two kids who are now adults talking about "I wish those days would come back once more." And he said, "I love it, let's do it." We were going to do a duet, and then he called me up as soon as that thing hit, and said, "I've got to pull out.
When I first met him I didn't feel nervous because I kind of felt all my life was leading up to that moment. As a fan, he was always in my life. I was 15 years when I went to the Grammy Awards and saw him win all his Grammys at the Shrine. He asked me, "What songs do you like?" and if I wanted to do a video. And I said, "OK, well, can we put black people in the video?" [Laughs] I was challenging him. And he said, "Whatever you want." He was cool with me because I was straightforward with him, and I felt that everybody was always goose-stepping around him and never telling him the real deal. And this was from the perspective of a young black kid growing up admiring Michael Jackson, being inspired by the vision that he had not only in music but in his life. To be able to hang out with him and call him a friend was an honor for me.
On the set [of the "Remember the Time" video] he was mischievous. My choreographer in that video was Fatima Robinson, and the three of us got together and she did the routine with him. It was really a great vibe. Just seeing how he would get every little move, bit by bit by bit, the whole routine, like we were putting on a Broadway show. He said, "Whatever you want to make this as cool as possible, let's do it. Let's get Eddie Murphy. Let's get Magic Johnson." Magic Johnson was going through his thing where he'd just revealed he had HIV. Michael said, "We have to put Magic in this video." I'll always remember that.
He was a very visual guy. They weren't videos to him. They were short films — visualizing the funkiness of what he was trying to accomplish in the music. He was always trying to set the bar higher.
I was hoping he was going to finish his album. He's got umpteen tracks that he's done over the six or seven years. He was so meticulous about what he did. He had hit songs on reserve that he would never even let out, and he'd work with all these different producers. If you were somebody of any repute in the music business, Michael Jackson would call and ask to work with you. People would come. But he would never release any of the stuff.
I've eaten the Jackson 5 cereal, I've played the 45 records, I watched the cartoon when I was a little kid, I went to the concerts, I was at the Victory concert. I had a glitter tie, which I hate to admit. [Laughs] I will love him forever.
Michael's death was the shock heard around the world. He was the biggest entertainer in the world, on par with Elvis.
I saw him live a bunch of times over the years with the Jackson 5, then on his own. They were the best shows I've seen in my life by anyone. Electrifying from downbeat one. He's grimacing, you can feel the pain, he's singing "She's outta my life," he's crying, you have the drama, you have the theater performance, and this incredible passion that shines through him with this unbelievable singing ability, and unbelievable dancing ability. All that singing and dancing, he was doing it for real. And all these people, all these pop stars today, they're not really singing onstage and they're kind of prancing around — there were no Pro Tools then, there were no singers prancing around with wireless mics, not singing. They're faking it, he was real. That's why it's a shock heard around the world: this is the real deal. This is no fake. We will never see anything like this again in our lifetime. The best performer in the world is Michael Jackson.
I met him backstage at a show, in my hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was on tour with the Jacksons, and he was unbelievable. I was in awe, because I knew I'd met one of the greatest of our lifetime. He was really cool. Kinda shy, he said, "Oh, hey, ya know, I'm glad you liked the show."
Every artist I've ever worked with has been somehow been touched and inspired by Michael Jackson. You can't be a performer today, or any day, that sets foot onstage and didn't watch some of those performances, some of those videos, some of that magnetism, some of that whatever about him, and put that into your own show. If they're saying they aren't, then they're lying.
My first meeting with Michael was when I was 22. Michael Jackson called me and said he was coming to see me — I was recording at the Hit Factory and he was working on an album and needed some music. He's the only person in my life where, when I saw him, my whole voice-box went. I didn't know what to say. My hands were trembling. He seemed a little shy, but very approachable. He talked about how he went to Jamaica when he was young and he said I reminded him of somebody there with the long hair. I was like, "Are you talking about Bob Marley?" And he was like, "Yeah!" He thought I was from Jamaica.
I have memories of dancing around my house to his music. There's video of me somewhere lip-synching "Beat It" when I was probably seven, with a flashlight on my face. The first time I saw the "Thriller" video, I was so excited. I have such a fascination with Halloween and he was tapping into the whole Halloween zombie vibe. For one Halloween I had to be a werewolf. I remember going to Disneyland to see Captain Eo, which was the coolest thing in the world. His imagination was leaps and bounds beyond most of the other artists around. A lot of kids of my generation really connected with him because he was so magical in that way. He was like a big kid in the way he wanted to play dress up and create.
"Rock With You" was my first audition song [for American Idol]. It's cool, it's dancey, it has a great vocal, it's really dynamic in the range. I had actually never performed a Michael Jackson song before. Paula was really grooving out to it. When we had to do our Michael Jackson show this year, I was thinking, "What song should I choose?" They're all so good. It was either "Black or White" or "Thriller," but I wanted to make more of a statement the first time out, and "Black or White" comments on culture and racial harmony in a very eloquent way. It also means a lot of other things. To me, personally, it was it doesn't matter if you're straight or gay, either. It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman. I loved the sentiment there. What was really cool about Michael is that he straddled a really fine line of race and sexuality. There was something very androgynous about him, and very race neutral. People criticized him for lightening his skin or whatever, but he was like his own race. A lot of people saw it as bad, but it was kind of fascinating. And very original.
For the Idol finale, we were rehearsing at his space in Burbank and so were the Michael Jackson dancers. And I happen to know their choreographer, and he pulled me over into the rehearsal space and I watched a number. They were rehearsing "Jam," and it looked incredible. The dancers were amazing. I was really excited for Michael: I thought, good, he's got a chance to do a comeback. I was told he was really interested in meeting me and I'm really disappointed that we never made it happen.
We were in the middle of rehearsing the tour when we heard the sad news. I was singing "Whole Lotta Love" and Lil Rounds ran into the room and whispered something into the producer's ear. And we were all like, "What's going on?" I kept singing and looked over at them with a confused look on my face and one of the producers mouthed to me, "Michael Jackson just died." I went, "What?" and stopped singing. Everybody just stopped. We canceled rehearsals for the rest of the day. No one could really believe it. He affected us through entertainment. What he was capable of as a showman, and what he brought to the world, outshone any controversy.
I never met him, but he was probably the single most important musical influence for me. I would say even before I got into the Beatles, I was into Michael Jackson. If you were living in 1984 and you were five years old, that was your world. Wearing the glove, dancing around the living room. That was your life. He was so all-consuming at the time. That was probably the biggest he ever was. His death has launched a lot of retrospectives and people are celebrating his music, but, I haven't stopped celebrating Michael Jackson since 1984. I've been blasting since the '80s. He was a very rhythmic kind of singer and writer, so his melodies were all very rhythm based. He played off of the drums a lot and I learned how to do that from Michael Jackson. There's no way it could have been from anyone else. He started that whole type of writing.