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A music that helped Ethiopia: ‘We Are the World’: A Minute-by-Minute Breakdown

Superstar squabbles! Shiny tracksuits! Michael Jackson! Inside the epic all-nighter that birthed USA for Africa’s charity smash

“Check your egos at the door” read the sign on the front door of A&M Studios in Los Angeles on the night of January 28th, 1985. Producer Quincy Jones had placed it there because dozens of the nation’s biggest singers were walking through that door, and he had exactly one night to cut a record that would save lives by raising money to help alleviate a famine in Ethiopia.

The result, USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” was released 35 years ago, on March 7th, 1985. The 46 vocalists who showed up may have formed the ultimate musical supergroup of all time, and the mission was serious, but the vibe was loose. As Jones told the collected singers that night, “We do proms too, babes.”

0:00 The video begins with synthesizers (sounding state of the art for 1985) and a computer-generated globe. As the globe spins around, we see a lot more of the U.S.A. than Africa.

0:18 A graphic where various stars appear to be autographing their names in colored ink. Diana Ross and Anita Pointer have the most prominent signatures; with a giant stylized O, John Oates has the most distinctive. Stevie Wonder signs with a fingerprint, but Ray Charles has remarkably neat handwriting. Lindsey Buckingham claims the prime real estate underneath the USA for Africa logo, which is about as prominent as he will get in this video.
0:26 Lionel Richie, cowriter of “We Are the World” with Michael Jackson, kicks things off, assigning himself the opening vocal so he can be done and get out of the way. Richie was on top of the world in 1985: he was coming off the multiplatinum Can’t Slow Down, and would hit the top of the singles charts one last time later in the year with “Say You, Say Me.” Earlier on this evening, Richie had hosted the American Music Awards, where Prince’s Purple Rain beat out Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the category of favorite pop/rock album. The “We Are the World” session was scheduled the same night as the AMAs because many of the major stars would be in Los Angeles for the show.

Last year, Richie remembered the craziness of hosting both the show and the sessions on the same night: “I’m coming off of tour, I’m reviewing a script this thick, I’m trying to organize this thing, who do we get to show up?”

0:31 Stevie Wonder steps up to the microphone to harmonize with Richie. During rehearsals, Wonder flubbed a note, and Richie joshed him, “Stevie messed up? Is that legal?” They decided to blame it on his alter ego, Eivets Rednow. No longer the unstoppable commercial powerhouse he was in the Seventies, Wonder was still a force on the charts in 1985: “Part-Time Lover” would hit Number One later in the year. Wonder was originally supposed to be Richie’s cowriter, but Quincy Jones knew Wonder was busy making an album (In Square Circle), so he suggested Michael Jackson instead. According to Richie, during a break from recording, when Ray Charles asked where the bathroom, Wonder said, “I’ll show you where it is, Ray. Follow me!” Wonder took Charles by the hand and led him down the hall to the appropriate door, while the other stars watched gobsmacked at the blind literally leading the blind.

0:41 Paul Simon takes over on “oh, it’s time to lend a hand,” clutching the sheet music. With his jacket and his plaid shirt, he’s setting the fashion template for Rivers Cuomo’s entire career. In 1985, Simon hadn’t had a hit in years; it looked like he might not have much left in the tank other than perpetual cameo appearances on Saturday Night Live. The following year, however, he released the career-defining Graceland.

Historic superstar recording of “We Are The World” by USA for Africa, Jan. 28, 1985. Clockwise, left to right; Lionel Richie, Daryl Hall, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder. (AP Photo)

0:53 Richie’s hand extends into the frame, cueing Kenny Rogers, who’s wearing a USA for Africa sweatshirt like he’s a particularly big fan of the group. (Other stars sporting the shirt include Al Jarreau and, for some of the night, Diana Ross.) Rogers was as big a pop-country star as there was in 1985 (but not yet a roasted-chicken maven); he was also a client of manager Ken Kragen, who handled Lionel Richie and was the driving force in recruiting talent for the session. Kragen says that USA for Africa was spurred by Harry Belafonte calling him up just before Christmas, wanting to do a benefit concert. It became a recording session instead, following in the mode of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which had hit the charts weeks earlier — but Kragen had less than a month to set up everything before the AMAs. He hit the phones, determined to book two major artists every day — according to Kragen, the turning point was when he convinced Jon Landau that Bruce Springsteen should show up.

0:59 James Ingram has shown up for the session in a shiny silver tracksuit, as if he came directly from a workout on the space shuttle. Ingram had a Number One single (“Baby, Come to Me”) two years prior, but just as importantly, he was well-connected to both Jackson and Jones, having cowritten the hit single “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” with Jones for Jackson’s Thriller.

1:06 Tina Turner’s hair is barely restrained by the headphones crowning her head. In 1985, Turner was still peeling hit singles off her massive comeback album, Private Dancer. When her work was done here after a long night, she would shout in celebration, “Fish burger!” Turner harmonizes with a bearded Billy Joel (who was in a brief lull between the hit albums An Innocent Man and The Bridge). Earlier in the evening, when Joel spotted Ray Charles entering the studio, he said, “That’s like the Statue of Liberty walking in.” Jones introduced them: “Ray, this is the guy who wrote ‘New York State of Mind.’” (The song was an homage to Charles.) Joel was visibly shaking, but the pianists hit it off: the following year, they released the duet “Baby Grand,” and in 1999, Charles inducted Joel into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Joel was accompanied by his fiancée, Christie Brinkley (they were married just weeks later). The recording studio was for musicians only: 500 guests watched the sessions from a party at an adjoining soundstage. (The A&M studio complex had been Charlie Chaplin’s headquarters decades earlier; these days, it’s the home of the Jim Henson Company.) Aside from Brinkley, notable names in attendance at the party included Brooke Shields, Jane Fonda, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Steve Martin.

During one runthrough, Joel took a moment to walk over to a nearby piano and play the song himself, confirming what key it was in. “E,” he said, looking disgusted. “I hate E.”

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1:19 Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star in the universe circa 1985, sings the chorus, multitracked with himself. He stacked these vocals at 9 p.m., while the other musicians were still arriving at the studio. The song may be called “We Are the World,” but sometimes Jackson wanted to make a world by himself. Awesomely, he has glittering socks to coordinate with his right glove.

Before he started recording, he asked Jones, “Quincy, do you think, should I say ‘you and me’ or ‘you and I’ at the end?” They decided that “you and me” was more soulful. Jones called Jackson “Smelly”; Smelly giggled whenever he flubbed a take. Once Jackson got into the groove, he started dancing behind the microphone, moving his body as much as he could without disrupting the recording.

Richie and Jackson wrote the song at Jackson’s house — they had known each other since Jackson was a child, when Richie’s Commodores opened up for the Jackson 5 on tour. Last year, Richie told Billboard about the songwriting session: “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 goddamn fucking 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.”

1:32 Some of the vocal pairings on “We Are the World” seem random, or considered more generously, were designed to contrast stars of different genres. But Diana Ross had history with Michael Jackson dating back to 1969, when Motown claimed that she had discovered the Jackson 5 (she didn’t, but she “presented” their debut album anyway). Jackson wrote and produced the hit single “Muscles” for Ross, and as the years went by, his face started to resemble hers. Ross’ career as a hitmaker was basically over by 1985, but she was overqualified to begin her career as a full-time legend. When she entered the studio on this evening, she promptly hopped onto Bob Dylan’s lap.

1:48 Dionne Warwick also appeared to be in full legend mode by the time of this session, but she hit Number One later in the year with a different charity single, “That’s What Friends Are For,” made with Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder to raise money for AIDS research. She’s joined here by Willie Nelson, who had an improbable Number One single the year before with his Julio Iglesias duet, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Nelson, who spent much of the night drinking with Waylon Jennings and Ray Charles, remembered telling Charles that he thought the project was great “but wouldn’t it be nice if we did something for the people in our own country” — the seed that would come to fruition as Farm Aid. One of the marks of USA for Africa’s impact was how it inspired so many — both the stars in attendance and the people who just heard the record — to start charitable movements of their own.

Nelson also chatted with Dylan, asking him if he played golf. “No, I’ve heard you had to study it,” Dylan replies.

“You can’t think of hardly anything else,” Nelson tells him.

With a squint, Nelson delivers the oddest line in the song: “As God has shown us, by turning stone to bread.” Actually, there is no Biblical passage where God transforms stone to bread, although He gets a shout-out for bringing forth all food from the Earth in Psalms 104. In Matthew 4, however, the Devil comes to Jesus Christ in the desert after he’s been fasting for 40 days, and trying to tempt him, tells him that he should change the stones into bread. Christ spurns him with the aphorism “Man shall not live on bread alone.” So the Bible seems to be against turning stone into bread (not that it comes up often as an option in most people’s lives). In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus writes about John of Leyden, who in 1535 told the people of Munster, Germany, suffering from a blockade, that God would turn the city’s cobblestones into bread. People tried to eat the cobblestones, and found that they were not feeling groovy. The bottom line: when people are suffering from famine, it seems cruel to bring up the possibility of stones being edible.

Willie Nelson, left, and Bruce Springsteen of USA for Africa, 1985. (AP Photo)

2:09 Jazz singer Al Jarreau gets 10 syllables (nine more than Jimmy Thudpucker got in Doonesbury‘s cartoons about the sessions, where there was a bottleneck at the front of the studio from rock stars checking their egos but demanding a receipt). Jarreau also sang the theme song for Moonlighting in 1985 — the show debuted two days before “We Are the World” was released. Jarreau took the opportunity during the sessions to introduce himself to Bob Dylan: “Bobby, in my own stupid way I just want to tell you I love you.” Dylan walked away from Jarreau without even making eye contact. According to David Breskin of Life magazine, Jarreau then said “My idol!” and started sobbing.

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