'We Are the World' at 30: 12 tales you might not know
The all-star recording session for We Are the World, the biggest charity single of all time, took place 30 years ago Wednesday.
On Jan. 28, 1985, at A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood, following the American Music Awards, more than 40 artists gathered to record a song Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson had written to raise awareness of widespread, life-threatening poverty in Africa. Most of that show’s winners — including Cyndi Lauper, Hall & Oates, Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, the Pointer Sisters, Kenny Rogers and the Jacksons — participated.
Inspired by the U.K. all-star charity single Do They Know it’s Christmas?, released a few months earlier, We Are the World was released March 7, 1985, and went on to sell more than 20 million copies. The more than $75 million raised by non-profit organization USA for Africa helped to fight poverty on the continent. The song also won three Grammy Awards in 1986, including song and record of the year.
“A great song lasts for eternity,” says Quincy Jones, who produced the track. “I guarantee you that if you travel anywhere on the planet today and start humming the first few bars of that tune, people will immediately know that song.”
Here are 12 things you might not know about the song and the recording session:
Stevie Wonder, not Michael Jackson, originally was supposed to be Richie’s co-writer.
“I was really trying to get in touch with Stevie and couldn’t do it,” Richie says. “Stevie was touring a lot. He was doing a lot of stuff.” A phone call with Jones got him and Jackson involved. “I got Michael before I could get Stevie,” Richie says. “We said, ‘If Stevie calls me back, we’ll get him in. In the meantime, I think we can get it done with Michael.’ ”
Richie and Jackson listened to national anthems to get in the proper frame of mind to write.
“We didn’t want a normal-sounding song,” Richie says. “We wanted bombastic, the biggest thing you got.” Knowing they needed to create something that immediately sounded important and had global appeal, they prepped for their songwriting sessions by listening to national anthems from several countries, including the USA, England, Germany and Russia. “We put all that into a pot in our heads and came up with a rhythm that sounded familiar, like a world anthem. We wanted people to feel like it was a familiar song. Once we got that — show business, man.”
The We Are the World recording session caused Richie to forget the American Music Awards.
Maybe it was just sleep deprivation — after all, the session began at 9 p.m. and lasted 12 hours — but Richie claims to have no memory of hosting that night’s American Music Awards ceremony and winning five awards, including favorite pop/rock male artist. “I walked through that door, and I forgot I had done that,” he says. “The group of people in that room was so mind-changing. There’s Bob Dylan, Billy Joel — give me a freaking break. I had never in my life experienced anything like that.”
It may have been a massive gathering of celebrities, but few other people knew the session was taking place.
Many of the singers arrived in limousines, having just come from the awards show, but not everybody showed up in style. “I think Bruce Springsteen parked his truck in the parking lot of the Rite-Aid or a grocery store that used to be across the street,” Richie says. “He parked over there and walked in. He didn’t know you could come through the gate.” The logistics of such a session would be exponentially more difficult in the era of cellphone cameras and social media. “Today, you couldn’t keep that a secret,” Richie says. “You’d have to have a full-on runway, and everybody would have to check their phones.”
Most of the singers had never heard the song before walking into the studio.
“We did not have MP3s,” Richie says. “We had cassettes back then. We had to send it to you, so most of them had not heard the song.” After all, Richie and Jackson had just barely finished the song in time for the initial tracking session held a week previous at Kenny Rogers’ studio. Even Rogers hadn’t heard it: “We didn’t know what we were going to sing until that night,” he says. Hall & Oates’ John Oates, who sang in the backing choir, says, “It had the anthemic quality and the simplicity of melody that made pulling off a giant ensemble like that very easy to do. And it was a room full of amazing singers, so that wasn’t exactly a problem.”
The choir roster had its roots in Donna Summer’s State of Independence.
The choir for Summer’s 1982 hit, which Jones produced, included Jackson, Richie, Wonder, James Ingram, Kenny Loggins and Dionne Warwick, all of whom also appeared on We Are the World. “I was on familiar ground,” Jones says. “If I hadn’t worked individually with over half of these singers before, there was no way I would’ve signed on.”
As one of the song’s writers, Richie got dibs on his solo line.
“Quincy said, 'Now, Lionel, where would you like to come in?’ ” Richie recalls. “I said, 'Are you kidding me? I’m coming in first, so I can get out of the way!’ ” According to Richie, the session’s secret hero was Jones’ vocal arranger, Tom Bähler. Before the session, he had listened to the recorded output of each of the soloists, determined their vocal ranges, then identified which melodic phrases best suited their registers. “The parts they assigned fit the vocalists really well,” Rogers says. “I couldn’t have done the stuff that was done at the end that Steve Perry did. They were incredibly well-laid-out.”
When Ray Charles spoke, everybody listened.
“Ray Charles, being who he was, commanded a certain deference and respect from everyone, even though he didn’t assert himself in any weird way,” Oates says. “He was just standing in the middle, doing his part. Lionel, Michael and Quincy were running the show. It was their song, their production, and everyone was very respectful, trying to make it happen. There were moments when people — and I will not name names because it’s not worth it — in the chorus started to put their producers’ hats on. They started to say, 'What if we did this?’ and 'What if we did that?’ Coming up with ideas. It was obvious it was a complicated thing to pull off in general, and having too many cooks in the stew would be a giant catastrophe. Ray, every once in a while, would just pipe up: 'C'mon. Hey. Let’s go. Listen to Michael. Let’s get this thing done.’ He was there to sing, and he sensed that it could go south very quickly. He commanded a lot of respect, and I thought that was very cool.”
Bob Dylan was nervous about singing his solo.
In a one-hour behind-the-scenes documentary produced to coincide with the release of We Are the World, there’s a surreal scene in which Stevie Wonder sits at the studio piano, imitating Bob Dylan to Bob Dylan to help him get the phrasing for his “There’s a choice we’re making” solo phrase. “Dylan turned to me and Stevie and said, 'How do you want me to sound?’ Richie recalls. "We were all kind of doing it, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t insult anybody.” Oates, who stood directly behind Dylan while the chorus was recording, remembers him being anxious about singing his solo. “He’s not a melodic guy, and it was a very specific melody,” Oates says. “I think he felt uncomfortable singing that particular melody, and he worked around it in his own way.”
participants autographed the first page of the sheet music for the song
'We Are the World,’ written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. The
song was designed to raise awareness and funds for a worldwide hunger
relief program, and its international success led the way for the Live
Aid concerts later that year.
Kenny Rogers wanted to get everybody’s autograph.
“Once we sang it all the way through and realized how well-thought-out it was, we realized it was something special,” Rogers says. “So I took a sheet of music from the session and started getting people to sign it. Once I started, Diana Ross started, then everybody was running around trying to get everybody. It’s framed on the wall of my house in Atlanta.” Oates, who also got an autographed chart, echoes Rogers almost word for word: “I have it framed in my studio in Colorado. When people come in and see it, they freak. I made sure I got everybody. I even got Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder to sign it. For once, I had the presence of mind to do something like that, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions.” Jones’ signed sheet music hangs in his den: “It always makes me smile when I look at it and start reading those names.”
That “Check your egos at the door” sign turned out not to be necessary.
That’s what Jones says. “Here you had 46 of the biggest recording stars in the entire world in one room, to help people in a far-off place who were in desperate need,” he says. “I don’t think that night, that experience, will ever truly be duplicated again. I know and believe in the power of music to bring people together for the betterment of mankind, and there may be no better example of this than the collective that was We Are the World.”
USA for Africa is still around.
Thirty years after We Are the World, USA for Africa still works on behalf of communities in Africa. Recent initiatives have addressed climate-change issues, arts campaigns and the shipment of medical supplies to Liberia and Sierra Leone to combat the spread of ebola. Royalties from We Are the World continue to be the organization’s primary source of funding. “We still earn, but certainly not the kind of money we earned 25 years ago,” says executive director Marcia Thomas, who joined the non-profit in 1986 to work on Hands Across America, another USA for Africa initiative. “Our biggest support in terms of where We Are the World is bought most frequently is not in the U.S. but other parts of the world, primarily Japan and Asia.”
We Are the World soloists, in order of appearance:
- Lionel Richie
- Stevie Wonder
- Paul Simon
- Kenny Rogers
- James Ingram
- Tina Turner
- Billy Joel
- Michael Jackson
- Diana Ross
- Dionne Warwick
- Willie Nelson
- Al Jarreau
- Bruce Springsteen
- Kenny Loggins
- Steve Perry
- Daryl Hall
- Huey Lewis
- Cyndi Lauper
- Kim Carnes
- Bob Dylan
- Ray Charles
These people sang in the chorus: Dan Aykroyd, Harry Belafonte, Lindsey Buckingham, Mario Cipollina, Johnny Colla, Sheila E., Bob Geldof, Bill Gibson, Chris Hayes, Sean Hopper, Jackie Jackson, La Toya Jackson, Marlon Jackson, Randy Jackson, Tito Jackson, Waylon Jennings, Bette Midler, John Oates, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Pointer, June Pointer, Ruth Pointer and Smokey Robinson.
“One of the only things regrettable about this whole 30-year anniversary is that Michael’s not here to share his part of it,” Richie says. “There was a lot of craziness happening with us and a lot of silliness. I’m just sorry he’s not here to share it.”