Remembering Chris Cornell: ‘Billie Jean’ Acoustic Cover

By Rami Abou-Sabe

Chris Cornell died Wednesday (May 17) in what has been reported as an apparent suicide.

While much will be written in the coming weeks about Cornell’s legacy, music, and cause of death, we wanted to celebrate one of his lesser-known performances in remembrance.

RELATED: Soundgarden Vocalist, Seatle Music Pioneer Chris Cornell Dies at 52

Cornell’s acoustic “Billie Jean” cover first made the rounds in 2006 following his September 7th performance at the O-Baren in Stockholm. The stripped down Michael Jackson rework appeared on Chris Cornell: Unplugged in Sweden, an unofficial release widely shared on fan-download sites.

A massive departure from MJ’s slick recording, Cornell’s bareboned interpretation gives the song some much-needed gravitas. While the edgy original fits the era, the upbeat tempo and Jackson’s bubbly vocals detract from the darker meaning of the lyrics.

The raw recording starts out with soft applause as the audience quiets and Cornell’s measured picking takes center stage. “She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene” Cornell sings, delivering the famous opening line in a husky baritone. As the strumming intensifies through the second verse and pre-chorus, Cornell explodes into a fiery yell, singing “She says I am the one, but the kid is not my son.”

Cornell’s guttural, bruising vocals soar above passionate playing as the Seattle musician delivers one of the best grunge performances, and covers, of all time. Considering the sacred source material, that says quite a bit about the man’s talent.

On June 5, 2007, Cornell released his second solo album, Carry On, with a recording of “Billie Jean” produced by Steve Lillywhite. While it’s an impressive recording, the Unplugged version is now considered canon, and rightfully so.

R.I.P., Chris Cornell. You will be missed.

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