By Joe Matera
The artists who participated in the recording of “We Are The World” were all told beforehand by producer Quincy Jones to check their egos at the door.
What a humbling experience it must have been to be a part of a project that not only yielded the biggest-selling single ever, but also raised millions of dollars for famine relief in drought-stricken Africa.
“We Are The World” was released March 7, 1985 and it shot up to #1 in just three weeks. Quite literally, it was the feel-good hit of the year, and for once, the music industry stopped worrying about profits and focused its attention on doing good.
The story of the making of “We Are The World” is one that still inspires all these years later.
The germ for the idea of what would become “We Are The World” was hatched by entertainer Harry Belafonte.
Belafonte was so moved by Bob Geldof’s Ethiopian famine relief supergroup recording project “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” that he contacted his friend, entertainment mogul Ken Kragen (above photo, front row, left).
“I remember that call vividly,” recalls Kragen today. “It was Dec. 23, 1984, when Harry called me to say, ‘Look at what Bob Geldof is doing in London with ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’”
At the time of Belafonte’s call to Kragen, the Geldof song was a sensation and the U.S news media was taking notice of the efforts to raise money for Africa.
“During that phone call,” says Kragen, who at the time was managing Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers, “Harry told me there were hardly any African artists involved in Geldof’s project and yet, we had all these very successful African-American artists such as Prince, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson who were dominating the U.S record charts. He suggested we should do a big concert here to raise money for Africa. And I told him, ‘Why don’t we take the idea that Geldof did and create a record with all these artists and ours could be a bigger thing than Geldof’s. And Harry replied, ‘Great. Do it.’”
After the initial idea was put to Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder, both excitedly offered to write the song. Kragen then put in a call to famed producer Quincy Jones to tell him about the project. Jones informed Kragen he wanted Michael Jackson involved in the recording as well. Jones made the call to Jackson, who then phoned Kragen back saying not only that Jackson wished to be involved in the recording, but that he wanted to write the song with Lionel and Stevie. All three then got together to put pen to paper.
“In early January of 1985” recalls Kragen, “Quincy was getting quite nervous because the day of the recording was fast approaching and all they [Richie and Jackson] had so far writing-wise for the song was the chorus, ‘we are the world, we are the children.’ Finally, with days to go before the recording session, Lionel and Michael finally came up with the final song.”
In the meantime, Kragen had lined up additional performers. “I would check the Billboard record chart and start at the top,” says Kragen. “Michael was at #1, and so I worked my way down the chart every day with the idea that before the day ended I’d get two more of the top 20 people to agree to be involved.”
Eventually, Kragen secured 45 artists for the project, including Daryl Hall, Billy Joel, Huey Lewis & The News, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Smokey Robinson, Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner and Dionne Warwick.
“I was only shooting for 20, not 45 artists,” he says. “But when I finally secured Bruce Springsteen, who at the time, when it came to the rockers, was #1, I went from being the guy making the call to the guy picking up the phone and artists saying, ‘I want to be part of it.’ Many times I had to say, ‘No,’ because we were trying put a limit to artists who were the biggest sellers. But the flood gates opened and the list grew beyond 20.”
Two artists who missed out were Joan Baez and John Denver, both strong advocates for the poor and deeply involved in the issues of hunger and homelessness.
“Baez was non-existent on the record charts at that point,” says Kragen. “And she wasn’t the kind of icon with the current artists that Dylan was. When I went to the people involved with the project and mentioned to them about having Denver involved, they told me, ‘John Denver is so pop at this point that if we put him on, some of the rockers won’t want to be there as they’ll feel that it will swing the project too much towards the pop side.’”
Denver took the slight in stride. Baez wasn’t so forgiving.
“Later on, Denver was on a morning television program being interviewed, and he was asked about why he wasn’t included on the project and if it upset him,” says Kragen. ‘John took his hands and said, ‘Yes, it upset me about this much’ and he held his hands close together. And then he added. ‘But that was overwhelmingly diminished by the size of my admiration for what they did,’ and he held his hands out as far as far as he could. Baez on the other hand never forgave me for not asking her.”
Leave your ego at the door
Eventually, a session for a demo recording was set for Jan. 22, 1985. The session took place at singer Kenny Rogers’ Lion Share Studios. “We had to record a demo tape so we could send it out to the artists with the music on it,” says Kragen. “The musicians from Toto were used on the demo for the rhythm track and both Michael and Lionel went into the sound booth and recorded the song. And that was what went out to all the artists.”
During the session Stevie Wonder arrived informing all he was ready “to write the song.” Unbeknownst to Wonder, at that point the song had been completely written. So Jackson and Richie and sat at the piano and played the song for Wonder. Wonder offered up a couple suggestions and then exited.
“Following that demo session at 3 in the morning,” says Kragen, “we all sat around on the floor of the studio: Quincy, Lionel, Michael, myself and the vocal arranger, Tom Bahler.
Quincy looked at us and said, ‘If we don’t put everything in writing, there will be chaos at the recording session, as we’re dealing with superstars here.’ So he wrote everything on the printed music and that went out with the tapes. He clearly marked exactly what they [the artists] were going to sing and where and specifically their names. Also, we couldn’t allow the artists to figure out where they were going to stand, so we were going to need to put tape down to show where they stand. Otherwise they’d be jostling as to who was going to be in front, as being superstars they’re all used to being the focal point of attention. He also added a letter he wrote telling them to leave their egos at the door.”
As the recording date fast approached, a last-minute revolt by some of the rock artists involved came perilously close to scuttling the whole project.
Kragen explains, “The night before the recording session I was at the American Music Awards rehearsal and was told by one of the managers that the ‘rockers don’t like the song, it’s too pop for them and they don’t want to stand on the stage next to the non-rockers. They don’t think it’s a good image for them. So they’re leaving and not doing it anymore.’ But by the time the recording session came around, they had changed their minds. Later I found out they had gone to Bruce Springsteen, who had told them he was going ahead with it, as he was there to feed people and save lives. And at that moment they reneged on their threat to walk out.”
The recording session for “We Are The World” took place Jan. 28, 1985, the same night of the American Music Awards ceremony.
As each artist made their way afterwards to the A&M studios on La Brea Avenue, limousine after limousine pulled into the studio lot, except for one specific artist Kragen was surprised to see.
“This crowd started to form” remembers Kragen, “and soon there was a big crowd around the entrance gates of the studio. I was at the gate and looked through the gates and saw this commotion in the crowd and this guy pushing his way through the crowd. He gets to the front gate, looks up to me and I realized it is Bruce Springsteen! And he says to me, ‘Man I got a great parking space right across the street in La Brea.’ He had driven himself there, parked the car himself and made his way through the crowd.”
Michael Jackson arrived at the recording session way ahead of everybody else and laid down some tracks and material that would later appear on the “We Are The World” video. The recording session finally began in earnest around 10 p.m., and it was a marathon effort that finally finished up at 8 the next morning, with only Jones, Kragen and Diana Ross remaining.
“We had it very well organized” says Kragen. “Because Quincy had said, ‘When you’ve got superstars there, you can’t leave anything to chance.’ This was the first time any one of them had ever got together in a group like this. And they were blown away by their contemporaries. Everybody was awed by Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and other superstars they had never met before. For example, Billy Joel met Ray Charles for the first time and about six months later, they had an album out of music together”.
An incredible legacy
Despite the many egos in the room, the recording session proceeded without incident. After all of them had recorded their parts, several individuals were asked to record various separate pieces.
“Springsteen did some extra stuff” says Kragen, “and Dylan did some stuff, too. But when he initially got up to the microphone, he was so unnerved being in the presence of all those people, he could barely get it out. Lionel and Quincy then cleared the room and got everybody into the control room and then Lionel, Quincy and Stevie Wonder sat at the piano and one after the other, each did a perfect Bob Dylan for Bob. They all sounded like a perfect Dylan, as they mimicked him. They sang his part for him, and he listened to it and then got up and did it exactly like himself.”
Jones later spent a number of weeks fine-tuning the session and brought in certain artists such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder to contribute more material.
“When you look at the video, you will see those studio pieces which were added later in the choruses,” explains Kragen. “Quincy did quite a bit of manipulation after the fact. But all of the choruses and almost all of the original solos you see on the video were done in that studio. They placed mics in a semi-circle, and we literally recorded the song from one artist to the next to the next and so forth, except for the Dylan piece and the extra pieces”.
With the project far exceeding all expectations, plans were soon put into motion to put together an album’s worth of material, though initially only a single was planned.
“We really wanted to make some major money from this project,” says Kragen. “So we decided to put an album together of unreleased tracks from the artists who were in this project. I collected unreleased tracks, as we asked everybody to send them to us. The hard thing was we got about 20 tracks but only used 10 on the album. Paul Simon sent us a track but it’s not on the album. Prince was the first one to send us a track as he wasn’t at the session. I think he felt bad about not being there that he went and immediately gave us a track that we could put on the album.”
Kragen affirms that the “We Are The World” album brought in the biggest amounts of money, “around 60 million dollars. I’m not sure what happened to those other tracks we couldn’t put on the album,” Kragen wonders. “I think they were delivered back to the artists over time. The album’s retail price was $9.98, and out of that we only had about $1 worth of expenses. Everything else was free. Even the distributors distributed it for free. the record stores sold it for free. I think we primarily paid for the vinyl and the packaging and that was it.”
“We Are The World” went on to become one of the fastest-selling singles of the modern-pop era. The initial shipment of 800,000 of the records sold out within three days of its March 7, 1985 release. And its legacy is still reverberating today.