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Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye piano/keyboard player John Barnes has died, say reports

John Barnes
(Image credit: johnbarnesmusic.com)

John Barnes, who played piano and keyboards for the likes of Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, has died, according to reports.

Born in Los Angeles, Barnes picked up his first instrument  - a clarinet - at the age of six, but only took up piano aged 19. He’d previously learned to play bass, trombone and drums, performing with school bands and local groups.

After studying music theory and composition at California State University, Barnes joined Motown, working not only a musician, but also a composer, arranger and producer. 

He became musical director for The Miracles and played acoustic and Rhodes piano with Marvin Gaye on the studio recordings that became the classic 1976 album I Want You.

Barnes got the call from Michael Jackson in 1982, after The King Of Pop heard one of his studio demos and asked to meet.

Speaking to the MJCast podcast about their first encounter, Barnes recalled: “Michael said ‘I heard you can make your own sounds and play them. How many sounds can you make?’ And, I responded, ‘How much time do you have?’” 

That was the start of a long-term friendship and musical partnership; Barnes worked with Jackson on Bad, the subsequent tour, Dangerous and multiple other projects. 

Other notable credits include keyboards and arranging on We Are The World, the 1985 single by USA For Africa, piano on Lionel Richie’s Dancing On The Ceiling, and piano On The Pointer Sisters’ I’m So Excited. An extensive list of Barnes’ many credits can be found on his website.

I’m the Group Content Manager for MusicRadar, specialising in all things tech. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 20 of which I’ve also spent writing about music technology.