John Barnes Music

About John Barnes

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John Barnes is an iconic and prolific producer, composer, arranger, musician, and humanitarian. With a music and entertainment industry career spanning over 50 years, Barnes has recorded and performed with the world’s most beloved artists including Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Lionel Richie, Bette Midler, Toni Braxton Diana Ross, and Julio Iglesias. Notable production credits include Michael Jackson’s third multi-platinum solo album BAD, both Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston’s solo debut albums, and “We Are the World,” which raised $50 Million internationally to end hunger in Africa. As a musician, John Barnes leads on the piano in one of the world’s most recognizable opening riffs for Gloria Gaynor’s timeless cult classic hit, “I Will Survive.” Barnes has also composed a number of film scores, including the music for Julie Dash’s award-winning film, Daughters of the Dust.

John Barnes and Chaka Khan
John Barnes and Michael Jackson

Born and raised in the working-class neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles County, John is the eldest of 4 siblings and grew up in a family of naturally gifted musicians and actors.  Both his mother and grandmother played piano. John picked up his first instrument, a clarinet, at the tender age of six. Throughout his childhood, John’s love for music grew, and he learned to play different instruments—including bass, trombone, and drums. John would perform with the school band and local groups. At the age of 19, Barnes began teaching himself to play the piano and studied music theory and composition at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

John Barnes’ professional music career began in the early 1970s at Motown. Known for fostering and developing Black talent, Motown afforded John the opportunity to step outside of being a studio musician and build his leadership skills and experience as a composer, arranger, and producer. Motown would promote John to serve as musical director for The Miracles, with Billy Griffin as lead singer; A position he held for several years. John’s big break came when his musical mentor, Joe Sample, was unavailable to record for a studio session at Motown and highly recommended that management hire Barnes to play piano and Fender Rhodes piano for Marvin Gaye. This series of studio recordings with Marvin Gaye in 1975 and early 1976 would become the legendary classic album I Want You. 

Ben Dowling and John Barnes
John Barnes, Jermaine Jackson and Robert White

Recording with Marvin Gaye secured Barnes’ position amongst the top echelon of talented musicians and opened the doors for an endless stream of studio work. In 1982, Michael Jackson would come across a studio demo produced by Barnes and request a meeting. In an interview with The MJCast podcast, John recalls his first meeting with Michael Jackson, “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?’” The meeting lasted a few hours and was the beginning of a friendship and musical partnership with Barnes being hired as a core member of Michael Jackson’s team. Barnes’ first project with Michael Jackson was the production of Captain EO, a groundbreaking 3-D film written by George Lucas, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Michael Jackson (shown exclusively at Disney theme parks); John would then go onto produce the top-selling BAD album and overseeing the music direction of the subsequent world tour. Michael Jackson and John Barnes’s partnership would continue for over two decades until Jackson’s untimely death in 2009.

Beyond John Barnes’ everlasting contributions to our music and culture, at heart, his humanitarian work holds the most importance for him. “We are responsible for the world we create.  Unless we lift ourselves up, we’re not getting any better,” says Barnes.  A member of the Baha’i Faith since childhood, John has written a multitude of spiritual songs and volunteered his time playing in numerous programs in service to the Baha’i community. For many years Barnes served as the music director for the Jeffrey Barnes Baha’i choir, named in honor of his deceased brother. Serving in the choir was a labor of love shared by many members of the Barnes family including his daughter Kristin, who served as the choral director; His mother Marian and son John III as choir members; And cousin Guy Noble Barnes played in the band on drums.

(from Right to Left) John Barnes, Billy Griffin, Donald Griffin and Ike Withers
Michael Jackson and John Barnes

In addition, Barnes has produced and collaborated in various events with multiple faith groups including Agape International Center for Spiritual Truth, Self- Realization Fellowship, and Centers for Spiritual Living. In 2000 and 2004, Barnes participated in a series of events in celebration of the World Festival of Sacred Music, including a project with Agape called Kool Kids, which taught children how to write songs about virtues and spirituality that they subsequently performed at the festival.

John Barnes is the father of two sons and a daughter John III, Darius, and Kristin. He has 4 grandchildren Kahlil, Ana, Jeffrey, and Darius Jr., and 1 great-granddaughter named Mai. Barnes is like a father and mentor to countless others and continues to reside in Los Angeles, CA.

Leon Ware and John Barnes