When Quincy Jones posted a sign above the entrance to AM Studios in Los Angeles that read “Check Your Ego at the Door,” the night the producer and a group of 40 or so of the biggest singers of the ‘80s recorded the charity anthem “We are the World.”
It wasn’t exactly foolproof.
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The Bao Nguyen film, which made its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of how the single that raised more than $80 million ($214 million today) for humanitarian aid in Africa and the United States came to be, with commentary from entertainers such as Loggins, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Sheila E., Huey Lewis, and the key orchestrator who co-wrote the song with Michael Jackson and kept the artists in line during the recording, Lionel Richie.
“Think about the insecurity, the ego, all of that switching back and forth,” Richie recently told THR. “You’re standing next to Ray Charles. I mean, no matter how famous you thought you were, you’re not as famous as Ray. That’s Diana Ross over there. It is only so much ego we’re going to bring to the room before you go, ‘OK, hold on. Let me organize my head here.'”
Superb organization was paramount in pulling off the philanthropic effort. Because Richie was hosting the 12th Annual American Music Awards (AMAs) on Jan. 28, 1985, that date was also chosen to record the single, as the ceremony drew the top entertainers in the business to Los Angeles at the same time. Still, managing that number of personalities, vocal ranges, and, again, egos, in a recording studio after an awards show was no small feat. Read on below for some of the most revelatory tidbits around the making of “We Are the World.”
Actor Harry Belafonte’s activism was the impetus for “We Are the World.” After witnessing the famine across Africa, Ethiopia in particular, he reached out to music manager and TV producer Ken Kragen to do a charity concert to raise money.
“Harry said, ‘We have white folks saving Black folks, we don’t have Black folks saving Black folks. That’s a problem. We need to save our own people from hunger,” Richie says in the documentary.
Kragen, inspired by Band Aid, the U.K. charity supergroup founded by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984 to raise money for the famine in Ethiopia, said, “Harry, let’s just take the idea that Bob already gave us but let’s get the greatest stars in America to do it.” And the rest was history.
Though “We Are the World,” was written by Richie and Michael Jackson, Jackson initially only wanted to write the song and not perform it.
“Michael didn’t want to sing or be on the video,” Jones is heard in saying in an audio clip in the film. “He thought it was overexposure at first. I talked Michael into it. That would’ve been one of the biggest mistakes of his career if he hadn’t shown up.”
Jackson not only showed up, he skipped the AMAs altogether and was the first artist to arrive at the studio to record his parts with Jones alone.
Richie wanted Stevie Wonder to co-write the song with him and Jackson from the beginning. But the Motown singer never returned his calls. When Wonder showed up to Lion Share studios during the demo recording, he was shocked to find the song had already been written. But that didn’t stop him from attempting to put his own spin on the track during the actual recording, suggesting they sing in Swahili.
The moment caused mass confusion in the room, as the singer attempted to teach different words and change the lyrics. Geldoff, who had given a speech about the importance of what the artists were doing at the top of the night, was able to persuade Wonder to drop his crusade, reminding him that they weren’t attempting to talk to the people in need but the people who could help those in need, not to mention that Ethiopians don’t speak Swahili. Order was eventually restored. But there was still one musical causality in the midst of the chaos: According to videographer Ken Woo, Waylon Jennings, watching the commotion, said, “Well, they know the good ol’ boy’ never sung Swahili. I’m out of here,” and he left.
Cyndi Lauper wouldn’t have hit those raspy high notes on the bridge of “We Are the World” had she listened to her boyfriend at the time. According to Richie, she attempted to pull out of the recording session during the AMAs.
“Backstage, Cyndi Lauper came over to me and said, ‘My boyfriend heard the song. I’m not going to be able to come because he doesn’t think it’s a hit,’” Richie recalled. “I said, ‘Cyndi, it’s pretty important for you to make the right decision. Don’t miss the session tonight.’”
In her confessional, Lauper defended her hesitation, saying, “Well nobody knew. It certainly was a great group of people, but I was just so punch-drunk tired.”
Interestingly, Harriet Sternberg, head of creative services for Kragen & Co., says in the documentary that she wanted Madonna instead of Lauper for the song. “Material Girl and all of the things she did would bring a different audience. But Ken wanted Cyndi,” she says. “We had a fight about that.”
Sheila E. was on a high from performing at the AMAs when she entered AM Studios, but her mood later dampened when she realized she wasn’t getting a solo and may have been asked to participate in the recording under false pretenses.
“I started feeling like I’m being used to be here, because they want Prince to show up and the longer they keep me maybe Prince will show up,” she says in her confessional. “I already knew he wasn’t going to come, because there were too many people and he would feel uncomfortable.”
After singing the chorus with the group, Sheila E. decided to leave. “I told Lionel, ‘I’m going to go.’ They never intended on me singing a verse, which was a little bit heartbreaking.”
When Jackson realized Prince wasn’t going to show, he asked Loggins who should sing his verse and he recommended Huey Lewis.
Jones called Lewis over to the piano to sing the line, and though most singers in the room were clamoring for a solo, Lewis was intimidated. “Those are pretty big shoes to fill. From that moment on, I was nervous out of my brain,” he says.
The nerves only multiplied when Lewis was then asked to harmonize with Lauper and Kim Carnes on the bridge. “They said, ‘Sing in harmony with Cyndi and Kim.’ The demo didn’t have any harmony parts. I’m going to have to make up a three-part harmony in front of Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Kenny Loggins and Daryl Hall. That was very never-wracking,” Lewis recalls.
The resulting vocals pleased everyone involved, but Richie recalls in the moment, “I thought Huey was going to blow his head off.”
According to recording engineer Humberto Gatica, “Al Jarreau was literally over the top — in the alcohol section” during the recording session. The singer had to redo his part several times because he couldn’t remember the lyrics, much to the chagrin of Jones who was constantly reminding the artists they were pressed for time.
“Al wanted to celebrate before we had done the song,” says Richie. “He kept saying, ‘Bring another bottle of wine in, we’re going to celebrate,’ So every time a bottle came in, I took a bottle back out.”
Bruce Springsteen stepped out of his normal post-tour routine when his manager asked him if he’d be willing to fly to LA for the recording the day after his tour ended, something he “never ever” does.
“It was a little soon,” Springsteen recalls in the film. “I normally wouldn’t have done it. But it looked important.”
As the session went into the wee hours of the morning, the singer started to worry about his naturally raspy voice when he was asked to record ad libs after all of the other parts were captured.
“I was just on the ‘Born in U.S.A. Tour’ so I was pretty tired, but I just started singing,” he recalls. “My voice was not great but I sung as best I could.”
When Springsteen agreed to do the song, the team decided to go after Bob Dylan — the voice of humanitarianism for the time — and he agreed. One of Jones’ earliest directions in the studio was to opt out of singing if your voice wasn’t naturally in the range of the chorus, which Dylan took to heart, as he’s seen on video muffling the lyrics during the recording. But things got no better when Dylan was asked to record his solo.
“I think he was a little confused because it just didn’t seem like Bob was understanding how he was supposed to sing,” recalls Woo.
Jones told Dylan to just sing along with the chorus reinforcing, “That’s beautiful man,” with every note. But it was Wonder who ended up being the “secret agent,” playing the chords for Dylan and mimicking his voice as he sang which then helped the folk singer feel comfortable singing himself.
Diana Ross brought peace and harmony to the room the night of the recording. During one of the breaks, she walked over to Daryl Hall of the pop rock group Hall & Oates and asked him to sign her lyric sheet. The move set off a domino effect in the studio as the artists each began asking one another for their autographs, lightening the energy in the room.
Ross was also reportedly the last person to leave the studio around 8 o’clock in the morning. Tom Bahler, the vocal arranger for “We Are the World,” recalls hearing her crying in the other room.
“Quincy said, ‘Diana are you okay?’ and she’s like, ‘I don’t want this to be over.’ It was the sweetest thing I think I’ve ever heard.”
The Greatest Night in Pop is now streaming on Netflix.
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