In early March, 1985, I was the morning man at WHCN/Hartford when we received the “We Are The World” single. We knew a few things about the song — which had been recorded a couple of months earlier to raise money to help starving people in Africa — but not the full details, including the names of the artists who performed it.
This was in the pre-internet days, so we couldn’t simply Google the title, and the disc arrived with no other promotional information. All we knew was that the tune had been written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson — neither of whom ever got any airplay on our Album-Oriented Rock station. So, before putting it on the air, we listened to it in our studio and tried to identify the voices, shouting them out as soon as we recognized them: Bruce Springsteen! Cyndi Lauper! Huey Lewis! Billy Joel! Steve Perry!
They were all stalwarts of our format, and while many of the others weren’t, we recognized the charitable efforts behind the single and started playing it for our listeners, as did thousands of other stations around the globe. The song became an instant smash — the biggest-seller in history up to that time, the first record afforded multi-platinum status.
Later, we learned the other people who’d taken part: Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Kenny Loggins, Hall & Oates, Kim Carnes, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Lindsey Buckingham, Sheila E, Bob Geldof, Waylon Jennings, Bette Midler, Jeffrey Osborne, The Pointer Sisters, several siblings of Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, and Dan Aykroyd.
Wait, Dan Aykroyd? How did he get in there? Yes, at the time he was the star of several movie comedies and the Blues Brothers projects, but what was he doing in the midst of this all-star assemblage of music superstars? I never knew until a couple of days ago when Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper tweeted the explanation:
He was in L.A., meeting with candidates to be his money manager, and accidentally walked into the office of a talent manager who had clients committed to the recording session. The talent manager invited Dan to join.
The new Netflix documentary, “The Greatest Night In Pop,” reveals how “We Are The World” came into being at the behest of Harry Belafonte, who loved the British pop star charity single organized by Bob Geldof, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and wanted American singers to make a similar song. He took the idea to talent manager Ken Kragen, who started working the phones, getting Quincy Jones involved to produce the song, with Richie and Jackson writing it.
Some of the best parts of the doc involve Kragen and his staff trying to build the lineup. They decided to record it in Los Angeles right after the American Music Awards — which Richie hosted — because many of the stars would be in town already. But others weren’t, like Bruce Springsteen, who would play the final date of his Born In The USA tour the night before in Buffalo and didn’t like to travel the day after a concert. When he agreed to be there, that opened up the door to contacting other rockers, many of whom agreed to come on board once they heard The Boss was taking part.
Another highlight is a scene in which Geldof — who had just arrived after a visit to see the situation in Ethiopia firsthand — addressed the group in the studio to give them a sense of why the cause was so important:
I think what’s happening in Africa is a crime of historic proportions … You walk into one of the corrugated iron huts and you see meningitis and malaria and typhoid buzzing around in the air. And you see dead bodies lying side by side with the live ones … In some of the camps you see 15 bags of flour for 27,500 people. And it’s that that we’re here for.
The goings-on in the recording studio were captured on video and released later as a making-of bonus. But “The Greatest Night In Pop,” directed by Bao Nguyen, includes contemporary interviews with Richie, Springsteen, Warwick, Sheila E, Lauper, and Lewis. They (along with some of the original recording engineers) reminisce about being in that room with so many people they admired so much that, during a break, they went around and got each other’s autographs on the lead sheets they’d used while singing.
Nobody who worked on “We Are The World” was paid for their efforts. The song ended up raising more than fifty million dollars (equivalent to triple that today), and spurred other musicians to put on similar events for their pet causes, including Farm Aid.
“We Are The World” wasn’t the first project to use celebrities to raise money for charity. The phenomenon dates all the way back to George Handel putting on performances of his “Messiah” in 1749 to help an orphans’ charity. Jerry Lewis convinced many of his showbiz friends to perform at his telethons for muscular dystrophy. George Harrison organized the Concert For Bangladesh. Amnesty International was the beneficiary of the Secret Policeman’s Balls, which featured UK music stars and members of Monty Python. And there have been many others since. I even used the multi-performers concept to put on a series of comedy concerts to raise money for DC’s Children’s Hospital in the 1990s.
“The Greatest Night In Pop” is a wonderful look back at much of what went into creating “We Are The World” and a history lesson for those too young to remember the era. It deserves a place in the pantheon of great music documentaries.
I rate it a 9 out of 10. Now streaming on Netflix.