This was a benefit single for victims of famine in Africa. It raised over $60 Million, which was distributed to Ethiopia, Sudan, and other impoverished countries.
Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote this song. It was produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian. Jones produced Jackson's Thriller
album, and Omartian had worked on many hit songs, including Sailing
and "She Works Hard For The Money
The USA For Africa project was inspired by Band Aid, the British group Bob Geldof put together the year before to record "Do They Know It's Christmas." Members of Band Aid included Bono, Phil Collins, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and Sting. The single raised about $8 Million for famine relief.
The project began as an idea Calypso singer Harry Belafonte had for a benefit concert featuring black musicians. Lionel Richie's manager, Ken Kragen, liked the idea of releasing a single and contacted Richie about the project, who agreed to help. After Belafonte and Richie, Stevie Wonder was the first star to agree to the project. From there, word got out and many members of the music industry signed on to help.
This was recorded on January 28, 1985, the day of the American Music Awards. Since the artists were all in town for the awards, it was much easier to get them together to record the single.
The stars who sang solos were, in order, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Logins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Michael Jackson (again), Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes. Bob Dylan and Ray Charles were also featured on the song and given close-ups in the video. Singers in the chorus who did not get solos include Belafonte, Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, The Pointer Sisters, LaToya Jackson, Bob Geldof, Sheila E., and Waylon Jennings.
Prince was asked to join the project, be he declined on the grounds that he does not record with other acts. Instead, he donated an exclusive track called "4 The Tears In Your Eyes" to the follow-up benefit album, which was also called "We Are The World."
Taping was stopped when musicians complained about Cyndi Lauper making an "annoying noise" - her bracelets were rattling next to the microphone as she was singing. (thanks, Brad Wind - Miami, FL)
Quincy Jones was responsible for managing the egos of all the stars. It went very smoothly considering some very famous people did not get to sing a line. Most of the singers knew Jones personally and respected his wishes that they check their egos at the door.
Before the session began, Jones decided where everyone would stand. He put tape on the floor with each singer's name on it.
Dan Aykroyd was in the chorus. He was a singer in the fictional band The Blues Brothers, but was invited to represent the movie industry.
This won Grammys for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year.
The single exceeded expectations in terms of sales. 800,000 copies were originally shipped, and they sold out the first weekend.
The recording session took 12 hours. Many of the artists exchanged autographs.
As the music world came together in the spirit of giving, Bob Geldof organized Live Aid later that year. Live Aid was a benefit concert held simultaneously in Philadelphia and London. At the Philadelphia concert, Lionel Richie came out and led a performance of this as the last song of the show.
Billy Joel (from Rolling Stone magazine, December 15, 2005): "Most of us who were there didn't like the song, but nobody would say so. I think Cyndi Lauper leaned over to me and said, 'It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.' And I didn't disagree."
John Oates said of his memories of recording this song: "It was really interesting and unique. Who knows, it may never happen again in history. You have some of the world's greatest singers in one room. We ran the song down once. The next thing you knew they ran the tape back and it was goosebump time. It was an amazing experience."
In his verse Willie Nelson misquotes the bible when he sings "As God has shown us by turning stones to bread." Matthew 4 tells us that the devil tried to get Jesus to turn some stones into bread, but the Son of God refused, saying, "Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."
Huey Lewis was supposed to be just part of the chorus, but he got his line because Prince didn't show up. Describing his good fortune to be part of the project, Lewis said, "I was a lucky son of a bitch to be there. Thank God I had a lot of hit records, because I wouldn't have been there any other way."
Lewis spent most of the session next to Michael Jackson, whose line came before Huey's. Lewis recalls that Quincy Jones called Jackson "Smelly" because he was always so clean.
On January 12, 2010, Haiti was struck by a earthquake, which devastated the country and resulted in a death toll of approximately 200,000. A new version of the song
was recorded on February 1, 2010 to raise funds for the stricken Haitians.