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, and Quincy Jones produced it. This talented trio was perfect for the job: Quincy Jones was the hottest producer around, and his Rolodex (what would now be a contact list) was filled with the biggest names in music; Richie had written songs that went to #1 on the Hot 100 each of the previous seven years ("We Are The World" made it eight); Michael Jackson had the biggest album of 1984 with Thriller (produced by Jones) and was the biggest star in the world.
The USA For Africa project began as an idea calypso singer Harry Belafonte had for a benefit concert featuring black musicians. In late December 1984, looking for artists to participate, Belafonte called Ken Kragen, who managed an impressive roster of talent, including Lionel Richie. Kragen convinced Belafonte that they could raise more money and make a bigger impact with an original song; Belafonte agreed and Richie came on board to help.
Kragen asked Quincy Jones to produce, and Jones enlisted Michael Jackson. Richie got Stevie Wonder involved, and from there, word got out and many members of the music industry signed on to help. The project from conception to recording took about a month.
This all-star charity single was inspired by Band Aid, the British group Bob Geldof put together the year before to record "Do They Know It's Christmas?." Band Aid, which included Bono, Phil Collins, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and Sting, served as a template, showing how a disparate group of famous artists could come together in one day to record a song.
This was recorded at A&M Studios in Los Angeles on January 28, 1985, the night 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 Loggins, 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.
Harry Belafonte, who had the original idea for the project, was in the chorus but didn't get a solo, joining Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, The Pointer Sisters, LaToya Jackson, Bob Geldof, Sheila E., and Waylon Jennings as backing singers.
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.
The 7-inch single (the radio version) runs 6:22; a 12-inch single running 7:19 was also released. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie had to make the song this long to accommodate as many vocalists as they could - it was balance between getting as many star solos in and keeping it short enough for airplay.
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.
Richie came up with the "We are the world, we are the children" line, and Jackson wrote most of the other lyrics, which are about how helping those in need benefits the giver ("We're saving our own lives"). This kind of compassionate songwriting would show up in Jackson's later work on tracks like "You Are Not Alone" and "Heal The World."
The song has just two verses and follows a basic structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, but in the "Hey Jude" model, that last chorus goes on for a while, with Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen the featured voices.
There are seven vocalists on the first verse, but just three on the second; most of the solos come during lines of the chorus. Musically, the song isn't all that interesting, but that helps draw attention to the singers, and the barrage of distinct voices carries it home.
This won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
The single exceeded expectations in terms of sales. Released on March 7, 1985, 800,000 copies were originally shipped, and they sold out the first weekend. Thanks to the wide array of star power, radio stations across a variety of formats put the song in rotation, and MTV gave the video plenty of airplay. The single went to #1 in the US on April 13, where it stayed for four weeks. In the UK, it hit the top spot on April 20 and stayed for two weeks. The song was also a #1 R&B hit, topping that chart on May 4 and staying for two weeks.
The recording session for the vocals (Quincy Jones recorded the instrumental tracks beforehand) took about 12 hours, which is very efficient considering the scope of the project. Since the recording took place after the American Music Awards, it served as a de facto after party, with the artists mingling and in some cases exchanging autographs. By 8 a.m. the next morning, all of the performers had left except for Lionel Richie, who was still there with Jones.
This project was very much an American effort, which makes sense considering it was recorded the night of the American Music Awards. The moniker "USA for Africa" made it clear that it was America's answer to Band Aid, and it showed that famine in Africa was an international concern. The only vocalist to participate who wasn't American was Bob Geldof, who that summer organized Live Aid with stages in London and Philadelphia.
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."
As envisioned by Harry Belafonte, USA for Africa was going to be an effort by African-Americans to help Africans in need, and the first group of artists who signed on were black. When Bruce Springsteen came on board, it gave the project greater cultural and musical diversity, as more rock artists joined in.
According to Ken Kragen, Springsteen helped quell tensions in the studio, as the rockers weren't happy with the song and concerned about their credibility. Springsteen refused to take sides, and led by example with his wholehearted participation.
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.
To create the instrumental tracks, Quincy Jones used many of the same musicians he employed on Thriller, including Greg Phillinganes (keyboards), John Robinson (drums), Michael Boddicker (synthesizers), Paulinho da Costa (percussion), Louis Johnson (bass), Steve Porcaro (synthesizers) and David Paich (synthesizers). Michael Omartian was also a key contributor, credited on keyboards and sometimes listed as a producer.
According to Quincy Jones, Cyndi Lauper was the only artist who caused a disruption during this song - her bracelets were rattling next to the microphone as she was singing. Jones said in a 2018 Vulture interview: "She had a manager come over to me and say, 'The rockers don't like the song.' I know how that s--t works. We went to see Springsteen, Hall & Oates, Billy Joel, and all those cats and they said, 'We love the song.' So I said [to Lauper], 'Okay, you can just get your s--t over with and leave.' And she was f--king up every take because her necklace or bracelet was rattling in the microphone. It was just her that had a problem."
Dan Aykroyd was in the chorus. He was a singer in the semi-fictional band The Blues Brothers, but was invited to represent the movie industry.
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."
Richie and Jackson had grand musical ambitions for this song: they listened to national anthems from various countries before writing it. "We put all that into a pot in our heads and came up with a rhythm that sounded familiar, like a world anthem," Richie told USA Today. "We wanted people to feel like it was a familiar song."
On April 5, 1985 (Good Friday), many radio stations around the world played this song simultaneously at 10:50 a.m. EST. This effort was led by disc jockeys in Salt Lake City, Utah and Rome, Georgia.
The song is included on an album called We Are The World, featuring songs by The Pointer Sisters, Steve Perry, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Chicago, Tina Turner, Kenny Rogers and Huey Lewis & The News. Also on the album is "Tears Are Not Enough" by Northern Lights, a collaboration of Canadian artists to do their part for the cause. Performers on that one include Anne Murray, Bryan Adams, Geddy Lee, Gordon Lightfoot, John Candy, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Paul Shaffer.
This wasn't the first time Quincy Jones assembled a celebrity chorus: For Donna Summer's 1982 track "State of Independence," he brought in Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, James Ingram, Kenny Loggins, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder, all of whom appeared on "We Are The World."
Lionel Richie hosted the American Music Awards the night this song was recorded, and picked up five awards at the ceremony, including Favorite Pop/Rock Male Artist. He closed the telecast with a plea, saying: "Take time right now to feel all the other people of the world who are in trouble tonight. Since we have so many beautiful people watching tonight, I want you to know that the world is in trouble, and there are people crying out for your help."
A 30-minute video detailing the making of this song called We Are The World - The Video Event was sold on VHS, with proceeds going to USA for Africa. A DVD was issued in 2004, this time with extras like a Karaoke track, Michael Jackson's guide vocal, and solo tracks from Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
On the Philadelphia Live Aid stage, Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick and Harry Belafonte joined Cher, Melissa Manchester and Sheena Easton on stage to perform this song as the closing number. On the London stage, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was the final song.
The USA for Africa organization is run by Ken Kragen, who helped bring the project together. As an artist manager, Kragen handles lots of logistics, which makes him well suited for the position. It took a while for royalties from "We Are The World" to roll in, which gave Kragen and his staff time to plan. They focused on providing food and supplies to organizations that had demonstrated a commitment to the cause, and has shown that they could use the donations effectively. Conversely, Bob Geldof's distributions from Live Aid have come under scrutiny, as Spin magazine reported that donations were used to fund a brutal dictator.
USA for Africa didn't end with "We Are The World"; Kragen kept it going and in 1986 organized Hands Across America, which asked people to link hands, forming a human chain across the county in an effort to aid America's homeless. The event was promoted during the Super Bowl that year in a commercial featuring Bill Cosby and Lily Tomlin, who explained: "Last year we were all moved by 'We Are The World,' and together we raised millions for African famine relief. But now we're going to get together for America."
Hands Across America had its own theme song, but it was written by jingle writers and sung by studio singers. When the event officially started, participants sang "We Are The World," followed by "America The Beautiful" and ending with the "Hands Across America" song.
The USA for Africa organization continues to operate, largely funded by royalties from "We Are The World."
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.
Sandy from Wildomar, CaI read below a lot of negative comments. You may not think that the lyrics are the best possible, but there was indeed a simple message which had a measure of value in itself. Somehow, in spite of the many negative comments, it was the song of the year, so some folks liked it. The music was performed exceptionally by the band of artists, and those who had solos, were spectacular with their performance.
Sandy from Wildomar, CaThis is such a wonderful song, arrangement, and music that I listen to it daily. It spite on any and all controversy, all singers performed with their best talent on display, and all looked wonderful in the video. What a group!
Wes from Ms@Mr.Mike....Voice was heard on Muzak prior to "We Are The World". When hostages were released from Iran.
Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn April 5th 1985, at 3:50 GMT; over 5,000 radio stations around the world played "We Are The World"* by USA for Africa... At the time the song was at #2 on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; two days later on April 7th, 1985 it peaked at #1, and would spent for four weeks in the top spot... * Proceeds from the single recorded by artists from the United States benefited starving people in Africa.
Bradmeister from Santa Monica, CaTo the person that thought Whitney Houston should have been invited: Whitney's debut album, called "Whitney Houston," which contained many of her early hits, was not released until February of 1985, a few weeks after "We Are The World" was recorded.
Ken from Philadelphia, PaI greatly appreciate the cause and applaud all involved on that basis. However, if we are being completely honest here, the song is execrable... literally some of the worst music ever committed to vinyl.
Christine from Sacramento, CaYeah, Billy Joel certainly did have a solo and then he harmonized with the fabulous Tina Turner! Dylan would not have been an easy sell, that he appeared must have been a coup, and for the MASSIVE part Ray Charles plays, leading the end of the whole thing, spurring the singers on.
Christine from Sacramento, CaIt's astounding to me that Jones would choose Huey Lewis (who I adore but ...) above Harry Belafonte, who started the whole idea, or the fabulous Bette Midler or Smokey Robinson!
Esskayess from Dallas, TxThe Simpsons hilariously spoofed this song with 'Sending Our Love Down the Well' when Bart falls down the well and makes everyone think it's some lovable little boy down there. Krusty the Clown says that when the money comes in, 'Well, we gotta pay for promotion, shipping, distribution, and you know those limos out back? They aren't free. But whatever's left, we throw down the well.'
Rick from Belfast, Meawesome song w/ a calvacade of great artists.....last but not least of all....great GODLY message
David from Lawren, MaIt is Cheessy...The song makes me Sick :-/
Stefania from Antwerp, Belgium'the artists didn't give very much of themselves, other than a couple of hours of their time'?? What about MJ's Most Charities Supported by a Pop Star World Record? MJ donated millions of dollars to charity. Anyway, love the song and I think every effort to give back, small or big, is great!
Martin from Vienna, AustriaWhen it came to Bob Dylan to sing his part it didn't sound like Dylan. So Ray Charles started to imitate Dylan and said, "That's what you should sound like, Bob!" We all know that Mr. Dylan obeyed - on the record you recognise him at first tone.
Phil from Edmonton, AbA distant third behind "Do They Know it's Christmas" and "Tears are not Enough".
Bruce from Houston, NyI think the song holds up pretty well. I still get chills when Springsteen comes in for the first time. What I find interesting is how the intervening 25 years has sorted the true legends from the, well, lounge acts. Anyone seen Jefferey Osborne lately? Sheila E.? James Ingram? I read somewhere that when they were assembling the 'chorus', they took that week's Billboard charts and pulled out 20 artists that were hot right then (Huey Lewis, The Pointer Sisters)to go with their 'Dream Team' of 20 'Legends' (Dylan, Springsteen, MJ, etc.) But I can think of a few artists from that time period that surely deserved an invite: Whiney Houston? Madonna? Don Henley? John Mellencamp? Pat Benatar? Van Halen? Heart? Surely, we could have made room for some of them, right?
Mr. Mike from Jonesville, MiThere was a day when every (or most) radio stations in America agreed to play "We Are the World" at the same time. If I recall correctly it was on Good Friday at 3:00 p.m. I remember going up and down the dial of my radio and most stations were playing the song. Evan MUZAK played it so it was broadcast to stores, shopping cneters, and elevators, too. This event made the opening lyric "There comes a time" by Lionel Ritchie the first words ever spoken on MUZAK.
Sucitawati from Denpasar, IndonesiaI heard this song for the first time when I was a teenager. Now, at 42 I still love this song! The melody , lyric, singers and of course the charity spirit it conveys.... Totally lovely and everlasting.
Dave from Liverpool, United KingdomI found the whole thing a bit of a farce. A bunch of rich and successful artists singing about a place they couldn't even point to on a map.
Sean Penn in New Orleans wading chest-deep in filthy water to drag a rescue raft to a stranded family is more my idea of celebrity disaster relief
Sara from Silver Spring, MdThey should actually do this for Darfur, Sudan now The record album also had a Canadian version called "Tears Are Not Enough" by Northern Lights. Produced by David Foster and featuring Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Anne Murray and many more. (Celine was just a teen at the time...)
Sara from Silver Spring, MdThere has been talk about doing a remake or something. With the stars who are still active and living plus all the American Idols,
Kenneth from Cleveland, OhPrince was invited but was a no-show. He called Quincy hours late and said he would add a guitar part and Quincy declined.Huey Lewis sang his solo.No loss the record is great.
Kek from Sydney, AustraliaThis is an amazing song. I've replayed it on youtube a million and one times.
Bruce Springsteen always puts me to tears at the end when he cries. He's so sexy haha
Antonia from Rousse, BulgariaWonderful song with such an important message. One of my all time favorites, I so often play it, everybody home would love to stop doing whatever they're doing and come near the puter to listen. I don't wanna compare it to "Do They Know It's Christmas Time", I just enjoy both of them though "We Are The World" has been in my heart since I first listened to it. Thanks for the facts, I knew some things about the song. It's interesting to find out facts about the recording process and all the stuff connected to the song. Antonia, Rousse, Bulgaria
Caitlin from Upper Township, NjLOve the song. It's got a good message. I especially like when Bruce Springsteen comes in in the end
Mark from Lancaster, OhDoes anyone ever play this on the radio?
Howard Stern pointed out that the only really humorous part of the song was Bob Dylan's solo. He hastened to add that Mr Dylan was clearly sincere and competent, but that it was still funny.
Rick from Humboldt, Iai think lindsey buckingham was in this
Don from Newmarket, Canadaa group of Canadian artists performed 'Tears Are Not Enough' around the same time.
Jaelin from Lincolnshire, EnglandI love this song, it sends a much better message to people then Band Aid's 'Do They No It's Christmas'. I like this song because it is has some fantastic singers like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner and there is some fantastic harmonies.
Ken from Louisville, KyOn the VH1 "I Love The 80's" special, Lionel Ritchie joked about Dan Aykroyd being in the chorus: "We needed Dan's voice".
Kudjo from Lome-togo, Otheri write this mesage who came straight my heart i live right now in Colorado but my country (TOGO) we really need a help even share with us this hard moment . please if someone who want to help or to see how you can help us e mail me "firstname.lastname@example.org" God bless us all
Eric from Cincinnati, OhThis was a decent song, and did a great job of raising money for famine relief, but I was always bothered by two aspects: 1) Despite what the song says, God never turned stone into bread. The Devil wanted Jesus to do it, but Jesus refused. 2) Sure, a lot of money was raised, but in typical elite rich entertainer fashion, the artists didn't give very much of themselves, other than a couple of hours of their time. Contrast this with Rich Mullins, who made a ton of money in the music industry, only to give it all away and go to do charity work -- now that's real compassion!
Aj from Cleveland, Gathis is one of my favorite songs and it is definitly not less than "Do They Know It's Christmas?" i love it!!!!
Doug from Minneapolis, MnGreat cause (which you can still support by buying the Live Aid DVD), but the song doesn't hold up too well after 20 years does it? Compare this with Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Much less dated, and a much better song.
Germaine from Melbourne, AustraliaInstead of "There's a choice we're making, we're savin' our own lives," was originally "It's a chance we're taking, we're taking our own lives." Quincy felt it sounded too much like suicide so it was changed. You can actually hear MJ singing this line on a special hosted by Jane Fonda about the USA For Africa event. I remember reading somewhere that Lionel came up with "We are the world, we are the children..." but the rest of the song was largely Michael's doing.
William from Douglasville, GaLionel Ritchie invited his former bandmates in the Commodores to attend the taping. They assumed he meant to participate in singing the song. Apparently, it caused some hurt feelings...
Stephanie from Ellicott City, MdBilly Joel did indeed have a solo, right after Tina Turner.