When Eddie Van Halen Hit No. 1 on Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’
Pop and R&B star Michael Jackson was looking to broaden his audience base when he invited Van Halen guitarist Eddie Van Halen to play on a track from the album he was working on as a follow-up to his best-selling 1979 LP Off the Wall.
This unlikely pairing worked like a charm: The resulting track “Beat It” won multiple Grammys, launched an iconic video and became one of Jackson’s signature songs, landing at No. 1 on April 30, 1983.
The collaboration almost didn’t happen. When Van Halen received the initial inquiry about recording the track, he hung up, believing it was a prank call. In 2012 the guitarist recalled that he did much more than just play the guitar solo on the track.
“I listened to the song, and I immediately go, ‘Can I change some parts?’,” he said. “I turned to the engineer and I go, ‘Okay, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.’ Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.”
Incredibly, the guitarist did the gig as a favor, receiving no payment for his role in making Thriller, which went on to sell more than 30 million copies, becoming the most successful album in recorded history to that point. “Beat It” held the top spot in the Top 40 for three weeks, and won Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.
Though Van Halen’s record company prevented him from appearing in the video for the song, he did join Jackson onstage in Dallas to perform “Beat It” during the Victory tour.
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