A very long time ago, in a magical land called LA, 40 musicians heeded a certain call. The call to come to a studio to record a song, a song so epic, so star-studded, so unabashedly filled with schmaltz it would never be forgotten. That song, We Are The World, went on to sell more than 20 million copies and raise over $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa. Though notable and good, the fact that it was for charity is not its legacy. We Are The World is noted for being a wonderful, wacky, weird, winning, hot mess of celebrities vying for attention and the chance that their voice would do the most to help people in Africa.
The whole thing was Harry Belafonte’s idea. It was written in two weeks by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie (although La Toya claims her brother wrote 99% of it, and she was there). It was produced by Quincy Jones. We Are The World is one of just a handful of all-time singles to have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
The instrumental tracks were recorded on the night of January 22, and two days later a cassette with a vocal guide to the tune was sent to all the participating singers. It was all very hush-hush. Enclosed in each package was a note from Jones:
“My Fellow Artists, 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…”
Around 9 pm, on January 28, Michael Jackson arrived at A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood. He was earlier than the other artists, because he wanted to record his solo section and the vocal chorus by himself. The other participants came straight from an American Music Award ceremony.
We Are The World opens with Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner and Billy Joel singing the first verse. Michael Jackson and Diana Ross follow, completing the first chorus together. Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson and Al Jarreau sing the next verse, before Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry and Daryl Hall sing the second chorus. Jackson, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper and Kim Carnes follow with the bridge, and everyone singing an extended chorus. We Are The World with Bob Dylan and Ray Charles singing another full chorus, and finishes up Wonder and Springsteen doing a duet, along with some ad-libs from Charles and Ingram.
The full choir included: Dan Aykroyd, Belafonte, Lindsey Buckingham, Sheila E., Bob Geldof, La Toya, Marlon, Randy and Tito Jackson, Waylon Jennings, Bette Midler, John Oates, Jeffrey Osborne, The Pointer Sisters and Smokey Robinson.
On March 8, 1985, We Are the World was released as a single, in both 7″ and 12″ format. It immediately became a huge hit around the world. In the USA, it was a number one on the R&B charts, the Hot Adult Contemporary charts, and the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for months. It took four weeks for the song to reach number one, half the time of most singles. It was in the Top Ten on the Rock and Country charts. The song became the first single since The Beatles’ Let It Be to enter Billboard’s Top Five within two weeks of release.
Critics hated it, and the music community was mostly embarrassed, but at the 1986 Grammy Awards, it won six awards, including the big ones: Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year.
Watching the video for the first time in three decades, I am most struck by Stevie Wonder. He was the first artist asked to participate by Jackson and Richie. They felt that Wonder would bring credibility to the project, and they were right. Wonder is transcendent in his big solo. He even makes you forget for a just a moment that the song isn’t very good. I love when he and Diana Ross hold hands and lift them together triumphantly. Wonder had joked that if the recording wasn’t done in one take, he and Ray Charles would drive everyone home. Stevie Wonder, you are the world.
“Anytime somebody asks you to take one night of your time to stop people starving to death, it’s pretty hard — you can’t say no.”
I would really love to see We Are The World exhumed and rerecorded with the original artists that are still with us, along with a cool selection of younger musicians, all coming together to Fight Fascism. I guess we should expect Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, Wayne Newton and Pat Boone to record their own version with Tia Tequila and Melania on tambourine, doing We Fuck Your World.