Twenty-five years ago, a group of several dozen American music celebrities got together to write and record a single song to benefit Ethiopian famine victims. It would become one of the best selling singles of all time, generating millions of dollars to Ethiopian famine victims.
In November, 1984, the British group Live Aid had recorded a Christmas song to raise money for famine relief. By late December, American music legend Harry Belafonte was outraged that African Americans had not done anything to help Ethiopians. He telephoned well-known pop celebrity manager Ken Kragen and suggested organizing a black superstar benefit concert. Within minutes, Kragen, who would later head the relief organization United Support of Artists for Africa (USA for Africa), was on the phone with singer/songwriter Lionel Richie.
Richie says he leaped at the idea. “This is the time in your life when all things are possible,” he says. “You’re looking to solve the world’s problems. So when you get this phone call that says, ‘Would you like to save starving people?’ the answer is, ‘Of course, yes!’”
He and Kragen agreed that a recording would be a better idea than a single performance, and they could think of no one better to produce the effort than composer, arranger and producer Quincy Jones. That evening, Richie called Jones, who just happened to be sitting with pop superstar Michael Jackson at the time.
A few days later, Jones, Richie and Jackson were holed up in Jackson’s Encino, California home, pounding out a melody. Within two days, We are the World had taken shape.
“We are so similar in our approach to the music,” says Richie, who still speaks of his friend Michael in the present tense. “Even though our music is so different…. We hummed this thing out, had someone to put the music to it. And of course we killed the melody. It was fabulous. And then after that, it was a matter of just assigning the names to the various phrases.”
While they were working out the song, Kragen went to work recruiting celebrity singers to participate. The list of artists who joined Richie and Jackson to donate their talents reads like a Who’s Who of mid-80's pop: Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, were just a few of the more than 45 who participated. Another four dozen were turned away.
Kragen says Quincy Jones was aware of the potential challenges of managing so many celebrities – and celebrity egos. “He said, ‘Look. If we allow any thing for chance, if we allow anything up to the individual artists, you will have absolute anarchy. They will all fight for the solo they think is the most important, they will all fight for the position to stand, to be placed in the group.’”
Jones’ solution was to write into the music exactly who would be singing what and to place pieces of tape on the floor indicating where each performer should stand.
They recorded the vocals the night of 28 January in a single, 10 hour session. The song was released five weeks later.
Music critics offered mixed reviews of the song. Some liked the tune for its simplicity and the fact that it was performed by such a racially diverse group of celebrities. Others questioned why the song didn’t address the issues leading to famine in Africa. But in the music business, it’s record sales that matter. We are the World became the fastest-selling pop single in US history and topped music charts all over the world. But for Lionel Richie and the other artists, it was something more.
“What you pray for in your entire career,” says Richie, “is that, besides all of the hit records and all of the money you plan on making, that you actually leave some kind of mark on the world. This was the best that could ever happen, because all of our talent, for one time in the history of all of us, where we were doing all of this ego [sic], all of this fame and fortune was now being directed towards helping someone else in the world. And you knew it was going to be a direct affect on their lives.”
Richie paused a moment. “We are the World,” he says finally, “marked the day I became a citizen of the world.”