Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffett kept the beat for Michael Jackson for 30 years, backing him on his solo tours and when he was on the road with his brothers.
Now he supplies the rhythm for a celebration of Jackson's musical legacy created by Cirque du Soleil.
''Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour'' is only the third Cirque production built around the musical catalogue of a single artist (''Love'' featuring the music of The Beatles and ''Viva Elvis'' are the others), and it's the first one taken on the road.
The shows Tuesday and Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena will have special significance for Moffett. He made his professional debut backing the Jacksons in April 1979 in Cleveland on the group's ''Destiny'' tour.
''That was an amazing time,'' Moffett said during a telephone interview from Atlanta. ''I had three days to learn everything, three days of rehearsal, then I went on the bus to Cleveland and played my first show with them, my first professional show ever.''
Moffett said he would focus exclusively on Michael, watching his dance moves so he could accent his steps with a beat or a break. He compared his job to that of a foley artist on a movie, who layers in the sound effects for the action on screen.
If you go
WHAT: Cirque du Soleil - ''Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour''
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
WHERE: Quicken Loans Arena, 1 Center Court, Cleveland
TICKETS: $50 to $250
''Michael called me into his hotel room that night - 'How'd you know I was going to do this. It was like you were reading my mind,''' Moffett said. ''We had a chemistry ... God put us together because of that.''
Since that professional debut, Moffett has toured with Madonna, Elton John, George Michael and others, but he continued to work with Jackson. He was in rehearsals with Jackson in preparation for his ''This is It'' tour when the singer died on June 25, 2009.
That intimate knowledge of Jackson's music didn't make preparing for ''The Immortal World Tour'' any easier. When he was hired for the tour, Moffett said his initial thought was, ''I got this down. I've just got to refresh a little bit ...
''Then I heard the production demos - 'Wait a minute, I got to learn all of this stuff again.' It's like joining something new.''
It took some time before Moffett was convinced this was the right approach to take with music that is so iconic and so well-known around the world.
''I came to the realization that it was fresh; it gave new life to Michael's music,'' he said. ''It's very brilliant and daring to take that approach, to tamper with the 'Mona Lisa,' so to speak. I came to see it could work and it does work.''
''The Immortal World Tour'' mixes Jackson's music with Cirque du Soleil's acrobatics and artistry. The production is described as taking place in ''a fantastical realm where we discover Michael's inspiration and the wellspring of his creativity'' as the show focuses on Jackson's love of music and dance, fairy tales and magic and the fragile beauty of nature.''
Cirque choreographs scenes set to such familiar songs as ''Wanna Be Starting Something,'' ''Ben,'' ''Smooth Criminal,'' ''Human Nature,'' ''Thriller,'' ''Beat It,'' ''Billie Jean,'' ''Black or White'' and ''Man in the Mirror.''
Even though Moffett has been with the tour since it started last October in Montreal, he said he still gets caught up watching parts of the production from behind his drum kit.
'''Human Nature,' I don't even know if I should describe it,'' he said. ''The lighting aspect to that song, the stage lighting is absolutely magical, one of the most imaginative approaches to the song ... it's almost like a Disney or DreamWorks production, really.''