‘The rockers don’t like the song, we’re leaving’: The making of USA for Africa’s ‘We Are the World’

Springsteen found his own parking space as the superstars arrived in limos, Prince didn’t turn up at all, Bob Dylan blanked Al Jarreau, and Michael Jackson terrified Lionel Richie. Mark Beaumont tells the behind-the-scenes story of the biggest-selling charity single of all time, with the help of those who were there

Saturday 07 March 2020 09:05 GMT
Bette Midler and Bob Dylan were among the stars on the charity single
Bette Midler and Bob Dylan were among the stars on the charity single

Diana Ross jumped in Bob Dylan’s lap. Billy Joel fawned over Ray Charles. Lindsey Buckingham disturbed Michael Jackson hiding in the bathroom, and Waylon Jennings stormed out when the row got too heated. When you put together, for one night only, the greatest supergroup ever constructed, even with a sign saying “check your egos at the door” at the entrance, sparks are going to fly.

Such were the scenes at A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles on 28 January 1985, when the biggest musical stars in America – minus Madonna and Prince, plus Dan Aykroyd – convened to record “We Are the World”, the USA’s answer to Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. USA for Africa, as the band would be known, was not short of spotlight hoggers – among its ranks could be found Jackson, Dylan, Charles, Joel, Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner. The likes of Fleetwood Mac’s Buckingham, The Jackson Five, Bette Midler and the table-thumping godfather of rock’s mid-Eighties famine relief efforts Bob Geldof were reduced to mere faces in a chorus line of 46 stars.

The song would become America’s greatest moment of musical magnanimity – selling 20 million copies, the single raised more than $63m for aid in the US and Africa, where famine in Ethiopia would claim 1.2 million lives between 1983 and 1985. In the earliest days of the collaborative charity single, “We Are the World” set an unmatchable bar – no greater collection of superstar artists have ever congregated in the same studio since. If many subsequent charity single line-ups were glittering, this one could blind.

“I think it’s pretty timeless,” says Kim Carnes, of “Bette Davis Eyes” fame, one of the 21 soloists on the song. “Wherever I go fans will inevitably say ‘you were a part of “We Are the World”, what was that like?’ People really want to know the details because the song made a huge impact.”

Initially, USA for Africa was the brainchild of songwriter and activist Harry Belafonte. Shocked by the footage of starving children beamed onto NBC, he began recruiting fellow stars in December 1984 for what he envisaged as a benefit concert for the famine relief effort. One of his first calls was to Ken Kragen, manager of around half of the highest-charting US artists in the early Eighties.

“When Belafonte called me, it was just two days before Christmas, at about one or two in the afternoon,” Kragen recalls today. As they spoke, the project morphed into a charity song in the mould of Band Aid instead. “I said, ‘Harry, Geldof showed us the way. We’ve got artists who are bigger worldwide here and I represent a couple of the biggest… let me see if we can put that together’.”

USA for Africa’s charity hit single would become America’s greatest moment of musical magnanimity – selling 20 million copies

By the time he’d reached his client Lionel Richie’s house that same day Kragen had already recruited Kenny Rogers, and before he’d finished a meeting with producer Dick Clark to discuss Richie’s job hosting the 1985 American Music Awards on 28 January he’d struck on the idea of recording the song after the awards, since the event would be bringing most of America’s biggest music stars to LA. All they needed to do was convince them to swing by a studio rather than an aftershow. Little did they realise they were about to form the biggest and best supergroup of all time.

Kragen envisaged Richie writing the song with Stevie Wonder, and Richie set about trying to track Wonder down. “Lionel kept trying to get in touch with Stevie all night,” Kragen says. “The next morning, [Richie’s] wife Brenda is in a jewellery store, the day before Christmas now, and who walks in looking for gifts? It’s Stevie Wonder. He asked Brenda to help him pick out gifts and Brenda said, ‘Not unless you call my husband back.’” At the same time, Kragen caught producer Quincy Jones as he was about to board a plane to Hawaii for Christmas. “I ask him if he would produce it and he immediately says yes. I said to him, ‘Would you get Michael [Jackson] to perform on the song?’ In 30 minutes or so, Quincy calls me back and says, ‘Michael not only wants to do the song, he wants to write it with Stevie and Lionel.’”

Jackson was riding high on the success of Thriller, the album that would seal his place as the biggest artist in the world, so Kragen knew he’d pulled off one of the greatest coups in pop history. “The day after Christmas, or two days after, I get a call from Belafonte. He said, ‘So Ken, have you been thinking about what we talked about?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a song written by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones is producing, and Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes and Lindsey Buckingham have all agreed to be on it.’” Happy Christmas, Harry.

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With only a month to go until the AMAs, Kragen and his team of 50 set about piecing the line-up together at a furious pace. “I took the Billboard charts and decided I would not go to sleep each night until I had confirmed two artists from the chart,” he says. “I would work my way down the charts. I had the number one artist, Michael Jackson. We thought we would get Prince because Sheila E was a good friend of Lionel’s, Lionel was number three, Kenny was in the top 10, we already had a big hunk of the top 10.”

The key moment was when Bruce Springsteen came on board. “John Landau was managing Bruce Springsteen and I knew John,” says Kragen. “I called John and said, ‘Can we get Bruce?’ and he said, ‘Oh my god, Bruce is finishing up two years on the road, touring constantly.’ I said, ‘John, you personally are going to be able to take credit for saving millions of lives if you get your client to do this.’ The next thing I know, on 15 January, Jon Landau called me and said, ‘Bruce Springsteen is in,’ and from that day I never made another outgoing call. All I did was answer the phone. The floodgates opened and mostly I had to turn people down. I wanted about 20 people, we ended up with 45.”

Kragen remembers Eddie Murphy’s manager rejecting the request and can’t recall Madonna’s excuse, but cites only John Denver and Joan Baez as artists he didn’t book but wished he had. “We really should have had Baez,” he says. “Jeff Bridges and I were driving out to Live Aid together on one of the rehearsal days. Jeff turns to me and says, ‘You know, Ken, I feel like the seeds that were planted by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and others in the Sixties and lay fallow in the ‘Me’ generation of the Seventies have now, in the Eighties, broken through the ground, blossomed, and are bearing fruit.’”

Meanwhile, according to Kragen, Wonder “disappeared” to Philadelphia, so Richie co-wrote the song over a week in Jackson’s bedroom at his family home in Encino. In his autobiography Moonwalk, Jackson claimed he already had the root of the song. “I used to ask my sister Janet to follow me into a room with interesting acoustics like a closet or the bathroom,” he wrote. “I’d sing to her, just a note, a rhythm of a note ... I’d just hum from the bottom of my throat. I’d say, ‘Janet, what do you see when you hear this sound?’ And this time she said, ‘Dying children in Africa.’ ‘You’re right. That’s what I was dictating from my soul.’”

Richie told Billboard that the pair would listen to national anthems to get a feel for the enormity of the song – when they weren’t being interrupted by unexpected intruders. “I’m on the floor in Michael’s bedroom,” he said. “I don’t think he had a bed – he just slept on the floor. There’s a bunch of albums around the wall ... and I hear over my shoulder, hhhhhhhhhhhh. There was a goddamn f***ing python. A boa constrictor, a python, who cares what the hell it was. It was a big-ass, ugly-ass snake ... I was screaming. And Michael’s saying: ‘There he is, Lionel, we found him. He was hiding behind the albums.’ I said: ‘You’re out of your freaking mind.’ It took me about two hours to calm my ass back down.”

The key moment was when Bruce Springsteen came on board – then everybody wanted to join in 

With Jackson enthusiastically rushing out a demo, the song was finished on 21 January, the day before the initial recording session at Kenny Rogers’ Lion Share Recording Studio. Here, Jones, Jackson, Richie, Wonder (“Stevie walked in and he said, ‘OK, I’m here, let’s write the song,’” says Kragen) and a band including Toto’s David Paich laid down a guide take of the song without trying to perfect it. Quincy Jones mailed numbered cassette copies to all of the participants along with a note: “My fellow artists... 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.”

Meanwhile, every detail of the session was plotted in advance. “Quincy said, ‘we can’t leave anything to chance.’” Kragen remembers. “’You can’t let superstars walk into that room with the slightest uncertainty of what they’re going to do. They will fight over what parts they think are the best, where they’re going to stand. So we’re going to put on the music who sings what when.’”

In a bungalow off Sunset Boulevard, Kragen and his production team decided on a location for the session amid the utmost secrecy. “The single most damaging piece of information is where we’re doing this,” he said. “If that shows up anywhere, we’ve got a chaotic situation that could totally destroy the project. The moment a Prince, a Michael Jackson, a Bob Dylan drives up and sees a mob around that studio, he will never come in.“

In fact, it was the age-old battle between pop and rock which almost destroyed the project at the very last minute. “The night before, at the rehearsal for the American Music Awards, I was approached by the manager of one of the rock artists,” Kragen says. “He said, ‘The rockers don’t like the song and they don’t want to stand next to the non-rockers on the stage so we’re leaving.’ He didn’t tell me who, he acted like all the rockers were going to leave. I said to him, ‘Look, we’re recording tomorrow, you’re there or you’re not.’ They went to Bruce and Bruce said, ‘I came out here to save lives and feed people, I’m not going anywhere.’ If The Boss was there, you had to remain. He really saved the day.”

In the event only Prince shunned the session, with Huey Lewis taking his allotted line. Instead, he sent Sheila E as his representative while he partied the night away on Sunset. In Alan Light’s book Let’s Go Crazy, Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin would claim he didn’t show “because he thinks he’s a badass and he wanted to look cool, and he felt like the song for ‘We Are the World’ was horrible and he didn’t want to be around ‘all those muthaf***as’.”

“Prince’s name is actually printed on the music,” Kragen says, “because Quincy had the idea of having the two rivals, Michael and Prince, at the same microphone. It didn’t happen. Sheila E tried her best to get him there. He did call while we were recording, he reached Quincy and said, ‘Can I come over and lay down a [guitar] track?’ and Quincy said, ‘No, we’ve already done the basic tracks.’ One of the reasons Prince didn’t come was he’s used to going into a recording studio and playing all the parts. Not just him and another star, him and nobody else. So the idea of walking into a room full of superstars, plenty of the people that were there were intimidated. He went to a nightclub instead and when he came out his bodyguards beat up some paparazzi, and that made a box in the big article in the LA Times about what we did. So he was really embarrassed by that [Prince later penned B-side “Hello”, claiming paparazzi intrusion had stopped him attending]. When we decided that we were going to put out an album, Prince submitted a song right away for that.”

The rest of the superstar class of ’85 took their AMA limos full of bodyguards straight to A&M studios – except Springsteen. “A crowd had formed around the gates because they saw the limos arriving one after the other,” Kragen laughs. “I’m standing out there greeting the artists as they’re coming out of their cars. All of a sudden, a guy pushes his way through the crowd. He’s in cut-off gloves and a leather jacket. I recognise him immediately, it’s Bruce. He says, ‘Hey man, I got a great parking space across LaBrea...’”

Inside, the mother of all A-list bonding sessions was under way. When Ray Charles arrived, Billy Joel exclaimed, “That’s like the Statue of Liberty walking in,” and was visibly shaking when Quincy Jones introduced him to Charles: “Ray, this is the guy who wrote ‘New York State of Mind’.” When Joel explained the song was a homage to Charles, the pianists struck up a lasting friendship, recording a duet “Baby Grand” within a year. Charles also spent much of the night drinking with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, a knees-up that would eventually result in Farm Aid.

If Bob Dylan seemed zoned out in the video, it’s likely because he was the focus of much attention and adulation. Diana Ross walked through the door and promptly jumped into his lap, Nelson cornered him to talk about golf and jazz-pop singer Al Jarreau got short thrift from the folk legend. “Bobby, in my own stupid way I just want to tell you I love you,” Jarreau told Dylan, who simply blanked him entirely and walked away, leaving Jarreau sobbing, “My idol!”.

Carnes had a far more pleasant Dylan experience. “He was easy to talk to,” she says, “exactly how I would have expected him to be. It was an amazing, memorable night and nobody had an ego, nobody tried to pull rank. People were really excited to be there and be part of something really monumental.”

With 500 guests, including model Christie Brinkley and actors Brooke Shields, Jane Fonda and Steve Martin, at a party on an adjoining sound stage to watch the session on a 25ft screen – as well as getting berated by Bob Geldof for guzzling the laid-on buffet during a famine – the chorus convened at 10.30pm.They were recorded first to avoid anyone leaving after performing their individual lines. After Geldof gave an introductory speech about the horrors of the famine, everyone was handed a lyric sheet and foldable chart of the music, and guided to their pre-selected X on the floor. Spirits were high. In a recording break Ray Charles asked where the bathroom was, and Stevie Wonder took his hand and guided him down the corridor, the blind leading the blind. Even Michael Jackson, recording his multi-tracked vocals as everyone else was arriving, was in jovial mood, laughing whenever he messed up a take, dancing at the microphone and allowing Jones to call him “Smelly”.

“We talked some because we were right next to each other,” Carnes says of Jackson, “but he was very, very shy, clearly a man of few words. Until the music starts and he starts singing and being Michael Jackson. Then it all goes away.” As the evening progressed, though, the occasion seemed to get the better of Jackson. Kragen recalls finding him hiding from a Time photoshoot in the lavatory. “I went looking for Michael and when I found him he was in the men’s room, curled up on the counter. Getting together with this many big stars was very intimidating.” Lindsey Buckingham also surprised him in the bathroom. “It kind of freaked him out!” he said. “He was quite nervous, just to be startled by someone walking in, and I just nodded my head.”

Lionel Richie and Cyndi Lauper at the recording of ‘We are the World’

As the session crept into the early hours, some frictions developed. At 1am an argument broke out over a nonsense lyric Jackson had included at the end of the chorus, “sha-lum sha-lingay”. Geldof argued that it sounded too close to an African language and that it might be considered mocking, so Stevie Wonder called a Nigerian friend to get a phrase in Swahili that would be appropriate for the song. The phrase was “willi moing-gu”, which didn’t go down well with some of the cast. “Say what!” yelled Ray Charles, “Willi what! Willi moing-gu, my ass! It’s three o’clock in the goddamn mornin’ – I can’t even sing in English no more.” Geldof pointed out that Ethiopians don’t speak Swahili and Waylon Jennings left the sessions claiming “no good old boy sings in Swahili”. When everyone voted to settle on a new line, “one world, our children”, an exhausted Tina Turner muttered, “I like sha-lum better, who cares what it means?”

With the chorus in the can by 3am – and Ray Charles also departed, declaring, “I haven’t had no good lovin’ since January” (it was January) – USA for Africa took an hour’s break. Everyone set about collecting all of the other artists’ signatures on their music charts. “People were gracious and wonderful about that,” says Carnes. “Nobody held back. Everybody wanted to get everybody’s signature. Everyone knew it was a really special night.”

At 4am, Jones set about recording the solo lines, ditching his original plan to record the singers one by one in favour of a faster method – placing 21 microphones in a U-shape and getting them all to record side by side. “Taking this kind of chance is like running through hell with gasoline drawers on,” he said. “Any talking or outside noises, laughing, giggling, even a creak in the floor, could ruin the whole thing.”

“Everybody hung around and watched,” says Carnes. “It took the song to another level of ‘just how cool is this?’”

Even as dawn approached, the camaraderie didn’t wane. Tina Turner finished her duet with Billy Joel with a celebratory cry of “fish burger!”, and there was a passing of the baton moment after the soloists wrapped up around 5am. Called in to add adornments to the chorus, Dylan seemed uncertain of his half-sung, half-spoken take. “Bob Dylan, when he was recording his solo piece, stepped up to the microphone and sounded nothing like Bob Dylan,” says Kragen. “He was so nervous because he was not used to recording with all these other stars there. Lionel, Quincy and Stevie asked everybody else to leave, they then sat down one at a time at the piano and did Dylan, did him perfectly. Particularly Stevie Wonder doing Dylan. Then Bob Dylan went to the microphone and nailed it.”

Diana Ross cried like crazy from the experience of the night 

Reassured, Dylan stayed in the studio to hear Springsteen steal the song with his impassioned late-chorus vocal. The Boss admitted he’d broken into a genuine sweat while singing and Jones regarded his performance a gift from God, saving the chorus from an ignominious fade-out. “Springsteen walks up to the microphone, sings his part once, kills it, just nails it, it’s so good you get shivers,” Kragen recalls. “And he turns to all of us and goes, ‘Is that OK?’”

At 8am, the remaining contributors staggered out into the LA sunshine knowing, even before the song sold out its initial run of 800,000 copies in just three days en route to the top of the charts worldwide, that they’d been part of pop history. “Everybody had left except for Quincy, Diana Ross, our arranger Tom Bahler and myself,” says Kragen, “and we were huddled in a circle on the floor of the studio, tightly hugging each other and crying like crazy from the experience of the night.”

Besides the half a million dollars that the song still raises every year – Kragen estimates the combined total exceeds $80m and grants are being distributed to this day – USA for Africa’s lasting legacy is that it set a precedent for generations to come that when the greatest causes arise, the greatest artists step up. “The whole night was filled with magic,” says Carnes today. “From start to finish, it was incredible to be part of that.”

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