Van Halen, who founded his iconic eponymous rock group with brother Alex in 1972, is widely regarded as one of the most talented guitarists in rock history and was a consistent presence in the group through several hiatuses and lineup shifts.
However, something casual fans might not know is that one of Van Halen's most memorable contributions to music history didn't have his name on it at all. The guitarist played an unpaid, initially uncredited solo on one of the biggest pop songs of all time: Michael Jackson's "Beat It."
"It just says, 'Guitar solo: Question Mark' or 'Guitar solo: Frankenstein,' Van Halen recalled to CNN in 2012, when he sat down to remember working with the late King of Pop. "I said to myself, 'Who is going to know that I played on this kid's record, right? Nobody's going to find out.' Wrong! Big-time wrong. It ended up being Record of the Year."
After initially thinking the request from Jackson producer Quincy Jones was a crank call, Van Halen agreed to meet Jones and Jackson at the studio. "And lo and behold, when I get there, there's Quincy, there's Michael Jackson and there's engineers. They're makin' records!"
Van Halen left his signature style on the song's guitar licks, but that wasn't all. He also shared that he put his own spin on the song's production behind Jackson's back!
"Michael left to go across the hall to do some children's speaking record. I think it was E.T. or something," he recalled. "So I asked Quincy, 'What do you want me to do?' And he goes, 'Whatever you want to do.' And I go, 'Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, 'Do anything you want!'"
"I listened to the song, and I immediately go, 'Can I change some parts?' I turned to the engineer and I go, 'OK, 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."
"I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in," he remembered. "And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We're all a little bit strange. I didn't know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, 'Look, I changed the middle section of your song.'"
"Now in my mind, he's either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he's going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, 'Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.'"
Jones shared a touching tribute to Van Halen following the news of his death. "RIP to the GREAT @eddievanhalen," the legendary producer wrote on Twitter. "Even though it took a couple calls to convince U it was actually me on the phone :) U killed it on Thriller, & your classic solo on Beat It will never be matched. I’ll always smile when I think of our time working together. Eternal [love] & props."
RIP to the GREAT @eddievanhalen. Even though it took a couple calls to convince U it was actually me on the phone :) U killed it on Thriller, & your classic 🎸solo on Beat It will never be matched. I’ll always smile when I think of our time working together. Eternal ❤️ & props.
The collaboration was an unexpected one, and came as a surprise even to Van Halen's bandmates -- who were out of the country at the time. But it was undeniably successful. "Beat It" won two GRAMMYs and went 5x Platinum, selling over 7 million copies and helping to propel Thriller to its reigning spot as the best-selling album of all time.
"I'll never forget when Tower Records was still open over here in Sherman Oaks. I was buying something, and 'Beat It' was playing over the store sound system," Van Halen reminisced to CNN. "The solo comes on, and I hear these kids in front of me going, 'Listen to this guy trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen.' I tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'That IS me!' That was hilarious."
And while he was left with plenty of fond memories of the late King of Pop -- "He was this musical genius with this childlike innocence. He was such a professional, and such a sweetheart." -- Van Halen may have ended up regretting his decision to collaborate with Jackson on that particular album.
"Unfortunately, Thriller kept our album, 1984, from going to No. 1," he shared, noting that Jackson's biggest album bumped Van Halen's -- which included the band's most successful single, "Jump." "Our album was just about ready to go No. 1 when he burned his hair in that Pepsi commercial, if you remember that. And boom, he went straight to No. 1 again!"