"Check your ego at the door." That was the message producer Quincy Jones sent to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, and forty other stars some of the biggest names in pop music prior to the historic recording session that produced "We Are The World", a simple, upbeat, inspirational song that is the center of a project that could raise more than $200 million to aid starving people in Africa.
"Our brief is to get food to people", said Boomtown Rats leader Bob Geldof, following a press conference held in the same A&M Records recording studio where the song had been recorded the previous day. Geldof organized the English Band Aid effort, which has raised more than $10 million so far, and he was the inspiration for the American project. Geldof was just back from a trip to Ethiopia, where he had observed the distribution of Band Aid proceeds and images of the death and devastation were fresh in his mind: "I'm outraged and I'm filled with despair. But it's not unsolvable. We can solve it."
"We Are The World", which was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, should be released in seven-inch and twelve-inch versions by the end of March. The forty-six singers are calling themselves USA for Africa (United Support of Artists for Africa). The single is expected to be followed by the release of a two-album set that will include "We Are The world," along with previously unreleased tracks by many of the artists who participated in the recording session (Richie, Jackson, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers) and some who didn't, including Linda Ronstandt (she was ill), Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney (they were tied up overseas), and perhaps, Prince. It's estimated that sales of the LP could raise $200 million. There is also talk of a benefit concert to be held this summer.
The entire 10-hour session which began at 10 pm., on Monday, January 28th, following the American Music Awards, and ran through till 8 a.m. the following morning was videotaped; and a 30- or 60-minute video will go on sale in late March. If it hits all the highlights, it will be a memorable document.
At one point, for example, Stevie Wonder adopted Bob Dylan's characteristic nasal bray to show Dylan how to sing a part; at another, Bob Geldof and Dan Aykroyd duetted in some R&B oldies, including "Barefootin'" and "Walking the Dog". Smokey Robinson broke into a spontaneous rendition of Harry Belafonte's Fifties hit "Banana Boat (Day-O)", and soon the whole group was chiming in for an extended version of the song prompting friends and managers secluded on a nearby soundstage (stacked with buffet eats and drinks and big video screens to monitor the artists-only session) to exclaim "This should be the B side!" For a while, Wonder was determined to inject some actual Ethiopian lyrics into the song's choruses "It's got to be authentic!" he said and he dispatched various aides to determine the correct words. But Ray Charles noted that they were having enough trouble singing the song in English, and in the end, Wonder's plan fell through.
Certain stars seemed somewhat cowed by all the talent in the room: Dylan and Springsteen were strangely subdued (although Bruce later "really got into it, according to one onlooker), and the ever-shy Michael Jackson was not observed making eye contact with anyone all evening.
Although egos were supposed to have been checked at the door, their existence had not been forgotten. The set-up in the studio was to have the artists arrayed in a front row and then, on risers, in second and third rows a touchy task. "Where're we gonna put Diana?" asked one organizer, wisely mindful of Ross' usually regal requirements. "Doesn't matter where you put her," came the reply. "She'll still complain about her position." As it turned out, Ross stood in the front row, holding hands with Michael Jackson.
Quincy Jones, who produced the record, called the session the high point of his 35-year career. "Nothing else surpasses it," he said. "Conducting that choice I had goose bumps. And the goose bumps were up all night long. It was unbelievable. Some powerful energy."
The project was initiated shortly before Christmas when Harry Belafonte called Lionel Richie's manager, Ken Kragen. "I watched was achieved by Bob (Geldof) and the artists in England, and I said, "Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come," said Belafonte. Kragen and Richie quickly enlisted Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones. "The turning point was Bruce Springsteen's commitment," said Kragen. "That legitimized the project in the eyes of the rock community."
One invited artist who never showed up was Prince (a spot on the floor next to Michael Jackson as marked with a pies of tap that read 'Prince"). Although he reportedly called late in the session offering to add a guitar part, it was vocals that were required, and so Prince never showed.
"He didn't come. Why not?" steamed Geldof. "That's the question. Has he got other things that are more important than trying to save people's lives?" Going to a disco? The ultimate obscenity is that he got his bodyguards to beat up two people who wanted to take his picture while the rest of the artists of the same or greater stature were here trying to help people. F**k him. He should have been here. What is he? A creep." (As it happened, while other musicians were busy recording, two of Prince's bodyguards were arrested after they tussled with two photographers who had tried to take the singer's picture outside an L.A. restaurant.)
A spokeswoman for Prince said the star had never agreed to attend the session. "He's a very private person. Prince has other charities he supports. He offered to lay down a guitar track for the song, but it didn't fit into what they were doing. Perhaps this group wasn't his thing. Some people don't function well in big crowds. I know he cares. He does things in his own way."
Still, as Geldof pointed out, "What happening in Africa is a tragedy of historic proportions. You see people dying in front of you. The day I left Sudan was a good day: I only saw five people die."
Money raised through the sale of the records and the video will go to a newly formed nonprofit foundation, USA for Africa, and will be used to aid the Africans (some money will be earmarked t aid the homeless in America). No artists, record companies, video companies or retailers will profit financially.
"As we speak, hundreds of people are dying, while in another part of the world, the most powerful, riches, strongest and healthiest nation the world has ever seen cared enough to reach out a hand and say 'Let me help you'," said Geldof. "That's the story as far as I'm concerned."
USA for Africa: Record Could Raise Millions for Hungry
March 14, 1985