The Recording of ‘We Are the World’: The Story Behind the Best-Selling Charity Single of All Time

The inspiration for USA for Africa’s hit song “We Are the World,” a group effort with many of the best-known pop stars of the ’80s, came from the success of Band Aid’s 1984 charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Recorded during sessions that started on January 22, 1985, the song was a collaboration between two of the decade’s biggest superstars, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, that eventually became the best-selling charity single of all time. Here’s the story behind the iconic tune.

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The Harry Belafonte Connection

“Calypso” singer Harry Belafonte first came up with the idea of gathering famous recording artists to try and raise money for charity in 1984 after hearing about the success of “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” During this time, he helped create a new organization to help starving people in Africa called United Support of Artists. Belafonte told his friend, entertainment manager Ken Kragen, about the idea. Kragen, in turn, contacted a few of his clients (Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie) and got them on board. Stevie Wonder, another friend of Kragen’s, was brought into the mix. This led to Quincy Jones being asked to produce the song.

Bringing It All Together

It was Jones who brought Michael Jackson (he had produced his mega-hit Thriller album a few years earlier) into the project. He also came up with the idea of doing the full recording with the entire group after the American Music Awards since many of the music industry’s biggest stars were going to be there anyway. It’s a move that led to the involvement of a who’s who of superstars– including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Paul Simon, and Cyndi Lauper. Jackson, who penned the song in a day based on two melodies Lionel Richie came up with, insisted on doing his part while separated from the others by a curtain that was put up in the studio.

The Big Superstar Session

The first night’s session took place at Kenny Rogers’ Lion Share Recording Studio and only involved Jackson, Richie, Wonder, and Jones. During the first few days, Lionel and Michael worked out the progression of the chorus and figured out how to work in the different vocals, including figuring out who would get solo parts and who would be grouped together in the chorus (which is where Michael’s sister, Latoya, ended up, alongside “Ghostbusters” star Dan Akroyd). The big star-studded session with nearly 50 participants (another 50 or so were turned away because there was no room in the studio) took place on Monday, January 28, 1985 at A&M Studios in Los Angeles, right after the American Music Awards.

The Swahili Debate

During the final recording session, Stevie Wonder suggested a line in the song be sung in Swahili. A few other artists mentioned maybe singing the whole thing in Swahili. At that point, a heated debate ensued with Waylon Jennings temporarily leaving the session and several other musicians threatening to walk out. It was decided that they would sing something meaningful in English instead. Wonder later lightened the mood with a joke about being able to “see” Ray Charles when the two blind musicians accidentally bumped into one another.

Released on March 8, 1985, the original “We Are the World” spent four weeks at number one on the Billboard chart, sold about 20 million copies worldwide, and raised nearly $80 million for famine relief. A 25th anniversary re-recording of the song debuted in 2010. Featuring updated lyrics and some newly penned rap verses, the remake had contributions from 75 artists; including Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Pink, and Enrique Iglesias. The purpose of the updated version, which included a digitally created duet between Janet Jackson and her late brother, was to raise funds for earthquake victims in Haiti.

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