1985: 'We Are The World' Hits #1 On The Charts As The World Unites
Paul Simon, Kim Carnes Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Source: IMDB
Just reading the title “We Are The World” puts the unforgettable chorus in your head. Sung by a bevy of stars at the height of their fame, the song came together to benefit African famine relief, but writing a hit single is easier said than done. The bulk of the work was done by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in a whirlwind writing session that nearly drove the two pop stars crazy. The recording session was another beast altogether. To bring together luminaries like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Tuner and dozens of other celebrities for a one night session it took favors, expert planning, and a whole lot of limos. As much of a struggle as the recording was it became one of the few singles to sell more than 20 million copies and provide millions of dollars in aid for Africa.
'We Are The World' Wouldn't Have Existed Without 'Do They Know It's Christmas'
In 1984, the Bob Geldof-organized Band Aid released the single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in the UK to spread awareness and financial relief for the victims of the Ethiopian famine. Not to be outdone, Harry Belafonte and talent manager Ken Kragen brainstormed a stateside version of the fundraiser. They reached out to a few different artists, but it’s Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie who were tapped to write a song that could be sung by a loose configuration of A-list stars in order to send financial support to Ethiopia. After Jackson and Richie were on board they added producer Quincy Jones to mix to give the recording a visionary who could handle all the egos that were sure to step foot in the studio.
Richie And Jackson Wrote The Song Together While Looking For A Snake
Richie and Jackson had to write "We Are The World" in a hurry. They weren’t just competing with the hit single from Band Aid but they had one night booked to record a song and they had to stay on schedule or the entire thing would fall apart. Richie and Jackson met at Hayvenhurst, the Jackson family estate in Encino and sat in Jackson’s room working on the anthem. Adding to the stress of the situation is that Jackson had lost a giant snake in the room prior to the writing session, leaving Richie stressed to say the least. He told Billboard:
I’m on the floor in Michael’s bedroom. I don’t think he had a bed — he just slept on the floor. There’s a bunch of albums around the wall, and there’s a carpet and a little bench. I’m writing the first verse — ‘There comes a time’ — and I hear over my shoulder, hhhhhhhhhhhh. There was a g*ddamn f**king python. A boa constrictor, a python, who cares what the hell it was. It was a big-ass, ugly-ass snake. I’m from Alabama — what you do with a snake is you call the police and you shoot the damn thing. I was screaming. And Michael’s saying, ‘There he is, Lionel, we found him. He was hiding behind the albums. We knew he was in the room, we just didn’t know where he was.’ I said, ‘You’re out of your freaking mind.’ It took me about two hours to calm my ass back down.
While Richie was freaking out about a boa constrictor, python, or whatever it was, Jackson was writing lyrics for melodies that Richie had already created. The two continued to meet for the next few days but nothing came of these further sessions. It’s not until the two sat down to record the demo track of the song on January 21, 1985 that the lyrics were somewhat finalized. In truth, some of the lyrics continued to change until the final recording session.
A vocal guide was recorded before the stars were brought in
On January 22, 1985, Richie, Jackson, Wonder, and Jones began tracking “We Are the World” at Kenny Rogers' Lion Share Recording Studio on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. After about six takes of Richie and Jackson working out the song they finally had a rough version of the track and began working on alternate lines. Once they were finished with the main vocal track on this demo the singers started adding vocal overdubs and a chorus of melodic vocalizations, including the nonsense phrase "sha-lum sha-lin-gay" to add some nuance to the track. After letting the track rest for a day, Jones mixed the song down and sent out cassette dubs to all of the artists involved along with a letter to Jones addressed to “My Fellow Artists.” It read:
The cassettes are numbered, and I can't express how important it is not to let this material out of your hands. Please do not make copies, and return this cassette the night of the 28th. In the years to come, when your children ask, 'What did mommy and daddy do for the war against world famine?', you can say proudly, this was your contribution.
The Recording Brought Together Some Of The Most Well-known Artists In The Music Industry, And Dan Aykroyd
The amount of talent present on “We Are The World” is breathtaking -- here’s a list of every singer involved.
- Quincy Jones
- 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
- 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
- The Pointer Sisters
- Smokey Robinson
Aykroyd seems out of place, but according to the Ghostbusters and Blues Brothers star the only reason he was on the track is because he walked into the wrong office while looking for a money manager. Ken Kragen asked him to be on the track and Aykroyd said yes.
'Check Your Egos At The Door'
When the stars entered A&M Studios on the night of January 28th, 1985, they were greeted with a sign that read “Check your egos at the door.” Producer Quincy Jones placed it there to inspire the dozens of stars who would be rubbing elbows that night to remember that they were doing this for a good cause -- not to increase their Q rating. But of course, there was drama. The tensest moment came around 1 am when a debate broke out about the “sha-lum sha-lingay” section that Richie and Jackson added on the vocal guide. Bob Geldof said that if it were on the actual track people would think they were making fun of Africans. The cameras recording the session were shut off while everyone tried to figure out better lyrics.
Stevie Wonder called a friend in Nigera for a Swahili phrase that they could sing, and when he suggested “willi moing-gu,” the group nearly came to blows. Ray Charles said that it was ridiculous to sing Swahili, Waylon Jennings bounced from the session over the suggestion of singing in another language, and Geldof did’t help things when he mentioned that Ethiopians don’t speak Swahili. They finally agreed to sing the phrase “one world, our children.
Entourages Were Left In An Adjoining Soundstage
Aside from Bruce Springsteen who allegedly showed up in a pickup truck that he parked in a grocery store parking lot, the rest of the celebrities showed up elbow deep in entourages. Their friends and other celebrity well-wishers were instructed to watch the proceedings and party in an adjoining sound studio. The 500 guests included Christie Brinkley (she was engaged to Billy Joel at the time), Brooke Shields, Jane Fonda, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Steve Martin. This party was likely much more fun than the recording session.
Farm Aid Was Dreamed Up During The Recording Session
There was a lot of downtime for the singers during the overnight session while different stars recorded their solos. While drinking with Waylon Jennings and Ray Charles, Willie Nelson reportedly dreamed up the concept for Farm Aid - the festival he curated in order to raise money for America’s farmers. Aside from providing relief to Ethiopia, “We Are The World” inspired stars and people behind the scenes alike to start their own charitable organizations even if they didn’t have the massive optics of this Michael Jackson penned single.
Prince Was Booked For The Session But He Never Showed
First things first -- Prince, of course, didn’t show up to this session. He’s not the kind of artist that would appear on something like this or cede his spotlight. He was reportedly booked to appear on the song where he would duet with Jackson, something that would have driven R&B fans wild at the time. His place was taken by Huey Lewis.
According to legend, when Prince was asked to appear on the track he said that he wouldn’t sing but that he would play guitar, send Sheila E. or contribute his own single to the USA for Africa album. Quincy Jones balked at allowing Prince to play guitar on the single and Prince never showed up. The enigmatic singer’s manager reportedly told him if he was going to bail that he had to pretend like he was sick. The session took place one day after the American Music Awards and it would look bad if he was out partying. Of course, Prince went out and partied.
The Song Was A Massive Hit But It Wasn’t Universally Beloved
When the song was released on March 7, 1985, it topped charts worldwide and became the fastest selling U.S. pop single in history. It went quadruple platinum, the first single ever to do so. Even though it was a massive hit there were plenty of detractors. Journalist Greil Marcus said that the song sounded like a jingle for Pepsi, specifically the line “there’s a choice we’re making.” He added:
In the realm of contextualization, 'We Are the World' says less about Ethiopia than it does about Pepsi—and the true result will likely be less that certain Ethiopian individuals will live, or anyway live a bit longer than they otherwise would have, than that Pepsi will get the catch phrase of its advertising campaign sung for free by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and all the rest.
Even with harsh words penned against it by cultural commentators, there were proponents of the single in the media. Stephen Holden of The New York Times praised the song as an “artistic triumph” that showed the power of each singer on the track.
There Have Only Been A Few Performances Of The Song
While there’s never been a live performance of “We Are The World” that features every singer who was at the session, some of the stars involved have given it a go at various times. At Live Aid in 1985, more than 100 musicians took to the stage with Harry Belafonte and Lionel Richie leading the artists in a sing along. Michael Jackson was noticeably absent because he was at home “working around the clock in the studio on a project that he's made a major commitment to.”
Following Jackson’s death in 2009 his memorial service ended with a rendition of “We Are The World” that was featured Richie and members of Jackson’s family. Following this performance, the song re-entered the charts and went to number 50 on Billboard's Hot Digital Songs chart.
Tags: 1980s Music | Lionel Richie | Michael Jackson | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Remember This?... | Things You Didnt Know | USA For Africa | We Are The World
Like it? Share with your friends!