From left: Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Leonard Bernstein, Jamie Bernstein, and David Pack
By David Pack
In August of 1986, the famous composer Leonard Bernstein was in Los Angeles to conduct a classical concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Knowing that his birthday would fall on the same week, I asked him what he wanted. Without missing a beat, Leonard said, “I want to meet Michael Jackson.”
At the time, Michael was the biggest pop star in the universe. He was just coming off the massive global success of Thriller, a sold-out world tour, and multiple Grammy wins that catapulted him into the rarified air of Beatlesque pandemonium wherever he went. He was seen inside the music industry as the greatest raw talent of a generation, and the combination of Michael and Quincy Jones in the studio set a standard that may never be equaled.
Leonard was a global superstar and TV personality in his own right—he is listed in many publications as the most celebrated musician, conductor, and composer of the 20th century. Yet Leonard was awestruck by the talent of Michael, describing him to me once as “the most electrifying pop star I’ve seen since the Beatles.” Leonard wanted to introduce Michael to classical music and maybe inspire Michael toward a collaboration of classical and pop music.
I was determined to grant Leonard his birthday wish by making the meeting of my two friends happen. So I called another friend, Quincy Jones, also a musical titan and legend whom I’d introduced to Leonard the previous year at yet another dinner.
Quincy idolized Leonard Bernstein, so he said he’d call Michael and ask. An hour later, he called to say that Michael couldn’t make it. When I told Leonard that Michael wouldn’t be there, he said, “What? You tell him that I, Leonard Bernstein, command him to come to my concert!” I got back on the phone with Quincy. Two hours later, Quincy called to say that Michael would be there. “But he’s never been to a classical concert, so this should be interesting!”
At the concert, Michael loved watching Leonard, who at one point leapt three feet in the air during a section of the score and landed with a loud ‘thud.’ (Quincy, Michael, and I were pretty sure this was Leonard trying to show off for Michael.)
Later that night, during a dinner at my house, I came to see Michael as a man with one of the sweetest souls I’ve ever known. He thanked me over and over for “commanding” him to come to the concert. He asked me to remind him of some of my hit songs with Ambrosia, so I sang a chorus of “Biggest Part of Me.” His eyes lit up like a little kid’s, and he took over and sang the entire chorus back to me.
At one point, Leonard draped his long white scarf around his neck and Michael’s for a series of photos, then stood up and gave Michael a conducting lesson on the spot. Later, these two musical giants bonded over . . . acne! They both had problems with it, and somehow that very embarrassing personal topic was their major connecting point. Leonard would talk about this for years to come. Michael called me the next day and asked for photos from that night, and he was thrilled when he got them.
David Pack stands and toasts with Michael Jackson, Leonard Bernstein, Quincy Jones, and others
During that special evening, I felt the need to share my faith with him, to let him know that another Christian artist was sitting next to him. So when he whispered, “How can I ever thank you for this wonderful night?” I said, “Michael, I didn’t put this together, God did!” He said, “Oh yes, I believe that with all of my heart.”
I told him I was a Christian, and he said he was, too. We talked about the first Christian song we’d both heard as children: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.” With the dinner party loudly going on around us, we both quietly leaned in and sang the song, smiling like choirboys. “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.” Then we gave each other a short embrace.
I knew at that moment that this sweet-spirited young genius was going to find his eternal peace in heaven. I did not find Michael weird, messed up, or anything you’ve ever heard about him. I want to say that I feel all of the allegations ever charged against Michael were false, and that in my discernment, he did not have the capacity to ever do anything except love children and let them know he would do anything to stand up for them, and help them. Just look at the magnificent work he did on their behalf in writing and co-producing “We Are The World,” and the 39 charities for children he gave to generously. That was Michael. I believe that during his trials he related to the suffering of Christ, and prayed for intervention, because he was being accused over what he loved most—children. This caused him perhaps more pain than anything in his life.
I know Michael loved Jesus with all his heart. Quincy had told me about his work sharing his faith with others, often door-to-door, because he’d been raised a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Later in life he told people he was a non-denominational Christian. Still more recently, reports circulated that he’d converted to Islam. But the Michael I knew had seriously contemplated giving up music to spend full-time in Christian ministry.
If there’s anything that gives me peace during this moment of loss, it’s knowing that one of the greatest artists of our time is now moon-walking along the gold paved roads of heaven, where streets have no name, with a broad smile on his face, and a band of angels welcoming him home.
Michael, my friend, rest in heavenly peace.