In 1985, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote a song that ended up making music history. The single, “We are the World,” was recorded to raise money to fight famine in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, where a 20 year-old civil war raged. As a result of drought and poor harvests, millions of Ethiopians were starving and suffering from disease while their Marxist government spent money on weapons, money that had been intended for food and medicine.
Following Bob Geldof‘s example of Live Aid in Great Britain, Harry Belafonte and Ken Kragen decided to organize an American fundraiser to help out the Ethiopian citizens. Originally, a charity concert was planned, but it was decided that a single recording would bring in more money. Quincy Jones agreed to produce. Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie collaborated on the song.
Jones contacted 45 musicians for the marathon overnight recording session. The supergroup was billed as “U.S.A.” for Africa and was assembled the night of the American Music Awards. Michael Jackson skipped the awards ceremony to record the chorus as a guide for the other musicians.
Getting two artists together in a sound studio would have been a small feat, but 45? Quincy Jones sent a memo to each artist to check their egos at the door.
Jones worked out which singers would perform which lyrics, studying recordings of each of the selected singers to decide which would work well with each other. He paired Billy Joel with Tina Turner, Willie Nelson with Dionne Warwick, and Michael Jackson with Prince, who was a no-show. (Prince called in the middle of the session to volunteer a guitar solo but the offer was declined. Prince did, however, contribute a solo recording for the album.) (1)
When released as a single, “We Are The World, ” rose rapidly to the top of the charts, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 17, 1985, and remaining there for four weeks. It immediately sold out its initial shipment of 800,000 copies, and sales reached 1.5 million shortly afterwards. It proved the power of pop culture to make a positive change in the world and set off a wave of charity projects by other noted celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Sharon Stone, Bruce Springsteen, and Willie Nelson.
Here are the lyrics for the chorus of “We Are the World”:
We Are The World – –
We are the world, We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day
Just you and me
Words and Music by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie
Click here for the list of all artists who made up U.S.A. for Africa.
Now view the clip. It’s a moving experience: