When Michael Jackson first called Toto’s Steve Lukather to ask him to play on “Thriller,” the Grammy-winning session musician told the King of Pop to beat it.
“He called me at home at, like, 8 o’clock in the morning, and I didn’t believe it was him,” Lukather told The Post. “So he called a couple more times, and I kept hanging up on him. And finally, I got a call from [‘Thriller’ producer] Quincy Jones’ office going, ‘Yeah, that was really Michael.’ So I called him back and I’m like, ‘Aw Michael, I’m so sorry! I didn’t believe it was you!’ He goes, ‘It happens all the time.’ ”
Lukather would end up playing on the No. 1 smash “Beat It” and other tracks on the “Thriller” blockbuster, which became the best-selling album of all time after it was released 40 years ago on Nov. 30, 1982. With seven hit singles that led to a record-setting eight Grammy Awards in 1984, the vinyl-era LP that was seemingly in every household became a cultural phenomenon.
After the solo success of 1979’s “Off the Wall,” there was no mistaking the mission of Jackson and Jones, who was back behind the boards. “The impetus was to have every song be a hit,” said Larry Williams, who played saxophone, flute and synths on the album. “That was the mandate.”
And after Jones listened to “some ungodly thousands of songs,” that mission was nearly accomplished: All but two of nine tracks on “Thriller” were released as singles — including “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” and, of course, the title track — and all of them hit the Top 10.
After the more R&B-focused “Off the Wall,” Jackson became a pop pioneer on “Thriller” with a crossover takeover that — whether he was bringing the funk or headbanging with Eddie Van Halen — defied both genre and race.
“It’s just [him] being a little more experimental and reaching out into some other directions,” said assistant engineer Mark Ettel. “He really was able to cross over and open things up for other black artists actually.”
Lukather “thought it was a smart move” for Jackson to rock out with a guitar god such as Van Halen on “Beat It.” “If anybody could pull it off, it would be Michael,” said Lukather, who “played everything except the guitar solo” on the track. “Even though he hadn’t really dabbled much in the harder-edged rock stuff, I know he liked it.”
“That was the first track cut for the record,” said Lukather, who played guitar on the dream duet. “We started jamming on [Stevie Wonder’s] ‘I Was Made to Love Her,’ which is buried on a tape somewhere. Michael and Paul were singing, and it was just rocking. I just kept looking around the room going, ‘Oh my God, this is insane.’ It was very cool to be a part of that.”
For “Human Nature” — the fifth single from “Thriller” — Lukather was joined by his Toto bandmates David Paich (synths), Jeff Porcaro (drums) and Steve Porcaro (synths), who also co-wrote the song. “It’s basically Toto with Michael singing,” said Lukather of his group that had scored its own hits, “Rosanna” and “Africa,” in 1982. “It was kind of an accident how it got on the record. Quincy heard it by accident, and Michael turned it into a smash record.”
Williams knew that “Billie Jean” — the album’s second single, which also went to No. 1 —was something special when he first heard it. ‘I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a big record,” he said of the song, which was inspired after a fan made the unbelievable claim that Jackson fathered, yes, one of her twins.
And Williams saw “a Halloween phenomenon” in the making with the title track. “I knew that because [it featured] Vincent Price,” he said of the horror-movie legend. “I remember Quincy and Rod [Temperton, the songwriter] laughing about Vincent Price in the studio and what a kick they got out of that.”
Williams recalled that Jones had a special nickname for Jackson — Smelly, because MJ wouldn’t say “funky” — that he would use during the “Thriller” sessions. And he remembered the singer as being super shy in the studio. “There was a lot of off-color stuff going on, and Michael would just blush about every other minute about something that one of us would say, because we were unfiltered.”
But when it came time to record his vocals, Jackson would turn on the thrills. “When he did his vocal takes, he would move quite a bit,” said Ettel with a laugh. “He’d be stomping his feet.”
The tireless moonwalking machine would also be practicing dance moves in the studio. It was all part of his relentless work ethic.
“There was a lot of talent there, of course, but really, it’s the amount of work and effort he put into his craft,” said Ettel. “There’s those stories about how hard Joe Jackson worked the family to practice and things like that, but that’s the kind of work it takes to get to the kind of level that Michael was at.”
And it wasn’t just Jackson who leveled it up during the making of “Thriller.” Ettel recalled that things got so intense during one session that a speaker caught on fire. “One of them burst into flames,” he said. “That just tells you something about the sound levels. You’d want to get juiced up so you can be in the groove. And it was louder than f–k.”
But that was nothing compared to all the noise that “Thriller” made around the world after it was released. And the iconic videos — especially “Billie Jean,” Beat It” and the epic “Thriller” — took the music to bigger heights.
“ ‘Billie Jean’ came on MTV and that opened it up for a lot of black artists that wouldn’t normally get played,” said Ettel, who experienced his own kind of stardom after the album exploded.
“My phone started ringing a lot with girls calling me, seeing if I could [give] them Michael Jackson’s number or if Michael was there,” said Ettel. “My name is on the album, and I didn’t have an unlisted number or anything. It was pretty funny.”
Today, the world is still rocking “Thriller.” In fact, a 40th-anniversary reissue of the album debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 this week.
Looking back on how they made history with “Thriller,” trombonist Bill Reichenbach said, “It’s a little unreal to me …There’s a little bit of magic to it.”
And Reichenbach can hear that magic living on 40 years later: “When I’m going through the grocery store here in North Carolina and I’m hearing one of Michael’s tunes that we played on after all these years, it’s kind of a trip.”
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