April 3

We Are the World (USA) for Africa: A Song for a Noble Cause

The all-star recording session for We Are the World took place 33 years ago. This was the biggest charity single of all time. On Jan. 28, 1985, at A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood, following the American Music Awards, more than 40 artists gathered to record a song Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson had written to raise awareness of widespread, life-threatening poverty in Africa. This was a benefit single for victims of famine in Africa. It raised over $60 Million, which was distributed to Ethiopia, Sudan, and other impoverished countries.stars

“A great song lasts for eternity,” says Quincy Jones, who produced the track. “I guarantee you that if you travel anywhere on the planet today and start humming the first few bars of that tune, people will immediately know that song.” 

We Are the World (USA) for Africa: A Song for a Noble Cause 1

Luminaries that brightened the piece

The stars who sang solos were, in order, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Michael Jackson, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes. Bob Dylan and Ray Charles were also featured on the song and given close-ups in the video.

On the other hand, Harry Belafonte, who had the original idea for the project, was in the chorus but didn’t get a solo. He was with Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, The Pointer Sisters, LaToya Jackson, Bob Geldof, Sheila E., and Waylon Jennings as backing singers.

And the awards…

In particular, the song won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

The single exceeded expectations in terms of sales. Released on March 7, 1985, 800,000 copies were originally shipped, and they sold out the first weekend. Thanks to the wide array of star power, radio stations across a variety of formats put the song in rotation. Also, MTV gave the video plenty of airplay. The single went to #1 in the US on April 13, where it stayed for four weeks. In the UK, it hit the top spot on April 20 and stayed for two weeks. Not to mention, the song also became a #1 R&B hit, topping that chart on May 4 and staying for two weeks.

This project was very much an American effort. It makes sense considering it was recorded the night of the American Music Awards. The moniker “USA for Africa” made it clear that it was America’s answer to Band-Aid. It showed that famine in Africa was an international concern. After all, the only vocalist to participate who wasn’t American was Bob Geldof. Significantly,  he organized Live Aid with stages in London and Philadelphia during that summer.

Here are details about the song in the making that you might not have known. We’ve specifically picked events that relate to our country artists who joined the classic single of all time.

Bob Dylan was nervous about singing his solo.

In a behind-the-scenes documentary produced to coincide with the release of We Are the World, there’s a surreal scene in which Stevie Wonder sits at the studio piano, imitating Bob Dylan to Bob Dylan to help him get the phrasing for his “There’s a choice we’re making” solo phrase. “Dylan turned to me and Stevie and said, ‘How do you want me to sound?’ Richie recalls. “We were all kind of doing it, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t insult anybody.” Oates, who stood directly behind Dylan while the chorus was recording, remembers him being anxious about singing his solo. “He’s not a melodic guy, and it was a very specific melody,” Oates says. “I think he felt uncomfortable singing that particular melody, and he worked around it in his own way.”

Kenny Rogers wanted to get everybody’s autograph.

“Once we sang it all the way through and realized how well-thought-out it was, we realized it was something special,” Rogers says. “So I took a sheet of music from the session and started getting people to sign it. Once I started, Diana Ross started, then everybody was running around trying to get everybody.

It’s framed on the wall of my house in Atlanta.” Oates, who also got an autographed chart, echoes Rogers almost word for word: “I have it framed in my studio in Colorado. When people come in and see it, they freak. I made sure I got everybody. I even got Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder to sign it. For once, I had the presence of mind to do something like that. And it’s one of my most treasured possessions.” Jones’ signed sheet music hangs in his den: “It always makes me smile when I look at it and start reading those names.”

More charity for Willie

Willie Nelson was a part of the USA for Africa. The occasion inspired him to further his charitable work to help people closer to home. Nelson would later start Farm Aid. (Also, in 1985, the USA for Africa participants Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder would record “That’s What Friends Are For” to benefit AIDS research.)

In its time, We Are the World was considered the high point of musical activism, the epitome of the ’60s ideal of music working to save the world and change society for the better. The fact that it took an assemblage of the largest stars of the era to do so was seen as a sly comment of the nature of music in the ’80s-a mixture of celebrity and ego that resulted in good. The song itself wound up typifying the quasi-inspirational, songwriting-by-committee benefit single in all its bland glory.


bob dylan, kenny rogers, lionel richie, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson

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