The 1985 American Music Awards made history for a few reasons. Lionel Richie won six awards, Prince took home three, and Michael Jackson was shut out. But that was just the opening act. Later that night, Richie, Jackson, and a number of other artists finished cutting a record that turned out to be a massive worldwide hit while throwing a focus on a humanitarian crisis. Here are 10 things you didn’t know, or maybe didn’t remember, about “We Are the World.”
1. It Followed the Lead of Band Aid.
The first big charity single of the 80s was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Released under a supergroup named Band Aid that was organized by Bob Geldof (of The Boomtown Rats and star of the film Pink Floyd’s The Wall) and Midge Ure, the song featured members of U2, Wham!, Culture Club, Duran Duran, and a number of other stars from the UK. Geldof would perform on “We Are the World” as part of the chorus and later organize Live Aid and Live 8 with Ure.
2. Harry Belafonte Provided the American Spark.
Belafonte had the notion to put together a similar charity record using the biggest stars in America. Belafonte pitched the idea to music manager Ken Kragen, who took the idea to his clients, Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie. They brought in Stevie Wonder and producer Quincy Jones. Jones recruited Michael Jackson. By then, the momentum was unstoppable.
3. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie Did the Writing.
The official video for We Are the World. (Uploaded to YouTube by USAforAfricaVEVO)
To record a charity song … you have to have the song. Richie and Jackson teamed up, working on it for a week. Jackson took a version to Jones and Richie that included instrumentation and a chorus. They ended up reaching their final version of the song on January 21, 1985. Recording began the next day at Lion Share Recording Studio, which was owned by Rogers. The final night of vocals with soloists and the group chorus was set for the A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood after the AMAs when everyone would be in one place and would be more easily assembled and managed.
4. Prince Was Supposed to Be There.
While accounts vary as to why Prince ultimately wasn’t involved, the original plan had been to feature a section with he and Michael Jackson trading parts with each other. One story goes that Prince had to bail overzealous bodyguards out of jail after the AMAs, an event that was later parodied on Saturday Night Live in a sketch featuring Hulk Hogan and Mr. T as the bodyguards and Billy Crystal as Prince. Regardless, Prince and the Revolution did contribute a separate song to the We Are The World album, a number titled “4 the Tears in Your Eyes.”
5. And Madonna Wanted to Be.
For her part, Madonna was just making her commercial breakthrough, having just hit #1 for the first time with “Like A Virgin.” Jackson invited her, but her management advised her to decline because she’d have to cancel dates on her “Virgin Tour.” The thought was that, as a somewhat new artist with a big fresh hit, she needed to stick to the plan. It ended up working out for her, as her next single “Material Girl,” hit #2, and “Crazy for You” would replace “We Are the World” at #1 later in the spring.
6. One Sign Solved a lot of Problems.
When the artists began to gather, they found a sign on the studio door that read, “Check your egos at the door.” It was a funny and humbling reminder that the group was gathered for a larger purpose. It must have worked; while there were individual debates about how to sing certain parts or conferences over how to deliver certain lines, the group worked together all night, completing the song by the following morning.
7. The Cast Represented Multiple Generations.
The assembled array of talent was pretty incredible and spanned a number of genres, styles, and decades. Belafonte and Ray Charles were something of the elder statesmen. Jackson, Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross were among those that came up at Motown in the 60s and early 70s. Bob Dylan was, well, Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen, Steve Perry, and Lindsay Buckingham, among others, represented the rock side, for example, while Rogers, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings brought in the country. In all, more than 45 voices are heard on the track, with 21 having identifiable solo bits. The wide net led to some genuinely thrilling, unique moments, as when Dylan and Charles sing together.
8. Why in the name of the Blues Brothers was Dan Aykroyd There?
The way that Aykroyd himself tells the story, it was purely by accident. Though Aykroyd did have a music background as “Elwood Blues,” one half of The Blues Brothers with the late John Belushi, he basically wound up at the recording session by happenstance. Aykroyd was looking for a money manager and spoke to a talent manager that asked him if he wanted to join the group. So he did.
9. The Impact Was Immediate.
The single, credited to USA for Africa, hit stores in March; the initial pressing of 800,000 copies sold out in days. The single would go on to sell 8 million in the U.S. The song and the album would generate more than $75 million toward famine relief. The song has been updated at various times and used for other purposes, such as relief in Haiti.
10. The Impact Continues.
Pink Floyd reunited with Roger Waters at Live 8 for global action against poverty. (Uploaded to YouTube by Pink Floyd)
The one-two punch of Band-Aid and USA for Africa provided the launch-pad for Geldof’s Live Aid, the first of the mega-charity concerts; held in London and Philadelphia, it was broadcast to nearly 2 billion people on July 13, 1985. The “World” session also gave Willie Nelson the idea for Farm Aid, the concert series aimed at helping farmers in America.
Remarkably, the “World” song and album still generate money for the charity today. It kickstarted a wave of charitable projects as well. The contemporaneous “Tears Are Not Enough” by a similar Canadian supergroup called Northern Lights (which included Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, and Geddy Lee of Rush, among others) was also included on the album. The heavy metal community put together their own famine-relief record, Hear’n Aid, the following year; it featured artists like Ronnie James Dio and members of Judas Priest, Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, and more, while boasting an ensemble of lead guitarists in addition to the vocalists. A wave of further singles continued throughout the 80s, targeted at a variety of issues. “That’s What Friends Are For” by Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Gladys Knight was a #1 hit for AmFAR (American Federation for AIDS Research), while “Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid brought together artists from rock, rap, punk, jazz, funk, Latin, and world music to shine a light on the problems in South Africa. Charitable singles still abound, with the most recent high-visibility project being Lil Dicky’s star-filled “Earth” from 2019.