HISTORY's Moment in Media: The Biggest Names in Music Gather to Record "We Are the World"

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It was the biggest all-star song of all time, recorded in a marathon, all-night session that had each of the 45 megawatt artists who appear on the track in attendance. It raised tens of millions of dollars for famine relief in Africa. And it catalyzed a generation of subsequent supergroup fundraisers, all high-profile but none quite as big.

"We Are the World," written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson and produced by Quincy Jones, was released on March 7, 1985 -- 39 years ago this month -- and quickly broke all sales expectations. Time magazine reported that 1,000 copies sold out in two days at Tower Records in West Hollywood. Nationwide, the entire initial run of 800,000 sold out within days. And the record would go on to raise at least $60 million (and by some later estimates, as much as $75 or $80 million).

It all started with an idea borrowed from the Brits.

In late November of 1984, the Irish musician and producer Bob Geldof assembled a group of British and Irish rockers to record a song he'd written years earlier, called "Do They Know It's Christmas?" He'd been inspired by a BBC documentary on the devastating famine in Ethiopia. It was the first time a musical benefit like this had been envisioned as a recording session, not a huge concert, and that made it logistically easier to gather top-tier artists for the effort he ended up calling Band Aid. Sting was there, plus Bono, George Michael and some members of Duran Duran, among others. (David Bowie and Paul McCartney were invited but couldn't make it.) Released within days to capitalize on the holiday season, it spent five weeks atop the British charts and went on to raise $28 million.

Harry Belafonte, the legendary musician and actor, and a committed human-rights activist, admired the project. But he thought the Americans could do it even better. He took the idea to his manager, Ken Kragen, who turned to Richie, Jackson and Jones to make it happen.

Kragen's genius was to set the recording session for the night of the American Music Awards in Los Angeles in late January of 1985 -- nearly every big musician was already set to be in town. Kragen scheduled the session to start at A&M Studios, originally built by Charlie Chaplin as his own movie studio (and today home to the Jim Henson Recording Studios), just after the end of the awards ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium across town.

It was a big night for Richie. Not only was his "All Night Long (All Night)" a huge hit, but he also served as host of the American Music Awards. Still, he, Jackson and Jones had spent several weeks working on the song. The three would be the guiding forces of the recording session (even though Jackson's Thriller would lose out to Purple Rain by Prince, a no-show at A&M Studios, for favorite pop/rock album at that night's awards).

A delightful Esquire feature captured what it was like inside that studio, complete with recollections from many who were there. Among the 45 vocalists on the track were many of the biggest names in music. Not just Jackson and Richie but also Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. Bob Dylan was there, and so was Ray Charles. For some reason, Dan Aykroyd was there, too.

The Esquire piece paints a portrait of the vibe in the room. They were all world-famous names, but many didn't previously know one other. "Everybody had to figure out how to relate to each other," said Daryl Hall (of & Oates fame). "So, everybody started to act like they were in the eighth-grade chorus. All these superstars, whatever you want to call them, we all turned into junior-high kids in chorus." And though they'd all been sent demo tapes, not everyone had listened to them, so some were hearing the song for the first time. "I don't think anyone liked it," Billy Joel recalled. "I remember Cyndi Lauper saying, 'It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.'"

Famously, Jones hung a sign on the entrance that night: "Check your egos at the door." The admonition worked. As the group wound their way through the song, it turned into something else. "The heavenly choir," a photographer there to capture the night described it to Esquire. They recorded the big chorus first, then worked their way through the solos. It was after 8 a.m. when they finished.

Just five weeks later, We Are the World, credited to USA for Africa -- that's United Support of Artists for Africa -- was in stores. Since its founding, the group has raised more than $100 million dollars for poverty relief in Africa and the United States. And it inspired a wave of similar musical efforts for other causes: Within a few years, there was "Tears Are Not Enough," by a Canadian supergroup, which was part of the We Are the World album. "Hear 'n Aid," by heavy-metal rockers to combat famine, came soon after. The single "That's What Friends Are For," benefiting amfAR, became a No. 1 hit. Later would come Farm Aid, additional Band Aid concerts and eventually the One World concerts.

If you want to remember that great night back in 1985, the documentary The Greatest Night in Pop includes never-before-seen footage from the song's creation. And thanks to the doc, last month "We Are the World," once the biggest hit in the world, returned to theBillboard pop charts.

Photo courtesy of The Greatest Night in Pop documentary.

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