MICHAEL JACKSON was with us whenever we packed up the kids for a day of shopping, eating and avoiding killer seagulls on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

In order to fully comprehend the significance of that, you have to understand that the Joneses are creatures of habit. For example, every time I put on my Phillies shirt, 7-year-old Eve and 4-year-old Little Solomon get excited, because I've apparently worn that shirt to Atlantic City 132 times.

"Are we going to Atlantic City, Dad?" they exclaim when I emerge from my bedroom decked out in my Phillies colors.

"No. Why?"

"You have on your Atlantic City shirt."

They do the same thing when they see LaVeta packing her travel bag with Doritos, sandwiches and those little juice boxes with the straws glued to the side. Seeing my Phillies shirt in combination with LaVeta's travel bag can incite a kiddie riot, because that means we're going to a place where go-karts, games and funnel cake abound.

Of course, the kids have their own habits, and they display them as soon as we get in the car.

"He hit me!"

"She's lying!"

"Are we there yet?"

This normally starts before I put the car in drive, and it continues until LaVeta threatens to obliterate the entire backseat.

After the kids are struck dumb with fear, I try to lighten the mood. "So, anybody wanna hear some music?"

Before they can respond, I turn on an R&B station, and LaVeta and I put on our game faces. We're about to play the car radio game show. I can name an inappropriate song in three notes. LaVeta can name it in two. Name That Tune!

After about 15 minutes of dodging erectile dysfunction commercials and lyrics like 'Smack it up flip it, rub it down, oh no!' it's usually CD time.

Our habit is to play a little Lauryn Hill, maybe some jazz, perhaps even some Run-DMC. But our trip is never complete until we've played Michael Jackson.

This became one of our family rituals almost by accident, when we discovered that our kids would invariably fall asleep an hour into the 90-minute trip. The first time we played Michael Jackson, it was in an attempt to wake them up, and it worked like a charm.

As soon as we put Jackson 5: The Ultimate Collection into the CD player, a piano run, along with a driving bass and guitar snapped them awake. Then Michael Jackson's pure, unfiltered, prepubescent voice came over the speakers singing the 1969 hit, "I Want You Back."

From that moment on, my children fell in love with music that was written and recorded before they were born; music that's served as the soundtrack for millions of lives, and as a uniting force for people of different languages and cultures, beliefs and aspirations.

It's for that very reason that Michael Jackson's musical influence will survive beyond his tragic death. For decades, his voice has been the backdrop for laughter and tears, dancing and celebration, and it will serve as such for decades to come.

In corners of the world untouched by American influence, he was America. His boundless energy and fierce determination, his God-given talent and drive to be the best; those were the qualities that represented the best in us. Those were the American qualities that legions of fans saw when he performed.

Like all of us, he was imperfect, but his music was the perfect unifier. He looked us in the eye and said, "You Are Not Alone"; he told us it didn't matter if we were "Black or White"; he assured us that we could "Heal the World"; and reminded us that "We Are the World."

Michael Jackson did far more than awaken my kids on trips to Atlantic City. He awakened the joy in all of us, and for that, he will be sorely missed. *

Solomon Jones' column appears every Saturday. He can be reached at