By Rosy Cordero
October 06, 2020 at 07:36 PM EDT
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As the music world mourns the loss of legendary rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen, tributes are pouring in from many of his famous pals.

One, in particular, recalls how Van Halen, who lost his battle against throat cancer on Tuesday, landed a guitar solo feature on Michael Jackson's song "Beat It" in 1982. The Who's Pete Townshend says the gig was originally offered to him but was unable to do it so he recommended Van Halen.

“I was once asked by Michael Jackson to play electric guitar on the Thriller album,” Townshend tells Rolling Stone. “I said I couldn’t do it but recommended Eddie who called and we chatted. He was utterly charming, happy about the connection, but told me how much he was enjoying playing keyboards. His smile was just classic. A man in his rightful place, so happy to be doing what he did.”

Eddie Van Halen, Michael Jackson
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As the story goes, Van Halen agreed to meet with Quincy Jones and Jackson after the producer asked the rocker if he'd be interested in taking his guitar for a spin on the song. Though unsure what a rock guitarist could do on a pop song, he played along and changed things up a bit not knowing if Jackson would like it. But he did, and so, Van Halen did the gig for free.

"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," Van Halen recalled of the studio session in an interview with CNN in 2012.

He added, "I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. 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.'"

"Beat It" was released as part of Jackson's sixth studio album Thriller on Feb. 14, 1983, following "The Girl is Mine" and "Billie Jean" as singles. It climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking in the #1 spot for three weeks. The success of "Beat It" helped secure Thriller's place in music history as the best selling album of all time.

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