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 modeled on 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, which was held at the nearby Shrine Auditorium. 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 and Quincy Jones expected him to be there, but he didn't show. This could be because he had a policy against recording with other acts, or because an incident with his bodyguards demanded his attention. He did make a contribution, donating 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. There was a "no egos" policy, but Jones extended certain courtesies, like putting Diana Ross in the front row.
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. It also modelled a selfless spirit: Springsteen finished up the North American leg of his Born In The U.S.A. tour the night before in Syracuse New York, flew to Los Angeles the next day and drove himself to the studio, bypassing the American Music Awards.
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.
Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie recorded a demo with the chorus and solos that was put to tape and distributed to the artists so they would know what to sing in the studio. Many hadn't had a chance to listen to it and heard the song for the first time when they showed up.
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."
The session bogged down in the wee hours when Michael Jackson suggested they add some African-sounding vocals after each chorus line. Stevie Wonder chimed in with the idea that they add some lines in Swahili. Ray Charles - the only guy who could pull rank on Jackson and Wonder - put a stop to it, telling Quincy Jones to "ring the bell," meaning to move on.
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.
With very few exceptions (Ray Charles was allowed to bring his guide), only performers and crew members were allowed in the studio, with family members, friends and associates dispatched to another room (even Billy Joel's fiancée, Christie Brinkley, wasn't allowed in). This meant there was no buffer between the superstars, many of whom had never met.
The biggest star not to get an invite was Madonna, whose Like A Virgin album was rocketing up the chart and hit #1 two weeks after "We Are The World" was recorded. We're guessing this made for some awkward conversations at the American Music Awards, where she was nominated for Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist. "Where's the party?"... "Uh, we're all kind of tired so I guess everyone is going home to sleep."
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."
Richie had to be at rehearsals for the show at 10 a.m., so he was delirious by the time "We Are The World" sessions got going.
Michael Jackson, nominated for three awards, skipped the ceremony and went to the studio early to get a head start.
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."
Unlike "Do They Know It's Christmas?," which comes around every holiday season, "We Are The World" was rarely played once it faded. The song wasn't supposed to have staying power though: it was written to inspire specific action at a specific time, and it accomplished that goal.
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.
Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie's original version included "sha-lum sha-lingay" at the end of the chorus. Some participants were unhappy with the nonsense words, so Stevie Wonder suggested a Swahili phrase, "willi moing-gu." That touched off a heated debate, leading Waylon Jennings to walk out of the session, reportedly saying, "No good old boy sings in Swahili."
The artists eventually sang the line, "One world, our children," which most were happy with.
It's unclear if Jennings returned to the studio and took part in the recording. His name is in the end credits as part of the chorus, though he does not sing a solo line.