The special instruction Quincy Jones sent out to the several dozen pop stars invited to participate in the recording of “We Are the World” was this: “Check your egos at the door.” Jones was the producer of a record that would eventually go on to sell more than 7 million copies and raise more than $60 million for African famine relief. But before “We Are the World” could achieve those feats, it had to be captured on tape—no simple feat considering the number of major recording artists slated to participate. With only one chance to get the recording the way he and songwriters Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie wanted it, Jones convened the marathon recording session of “We Are the World” at around 10 p.m. on the evening of January 28, 1985, immediately following the conclusion of the American Music Awards ceremony held just a few miles away.
Singer/actor/activist Harry Belafonte was the initiator of the events that led to the recording of “We Are the World.” Inspired by the recent success of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”—the multimillion-selling charity record by the British-Irish collective Band Aid—Belafonte talked Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones into helping him organize an American response under the name “USA for Africa.” Ritchie and Jackson wrote the song over the course of several days in January, and Belafonte’s manager, Ken Kragen, who would go on to serve as President of the USA for Africa Foundation, the nonprofit organization that managed the profits from “We Are the World,” came up with the plan to hold the session on the night of the AMA’s in order to guarantee that the greatest number of big names would be able to participate.
Among the 45 stars who sang on “We Are the World” that night were huge-in-the-80s figures like Cyndi Lauper and Huey Lewis; Country stars like Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson; pop icons like Smokey Robinson, Tina Turner and Paul Simon; and musical giants like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. Also in the studio that night were half of the Jackson family, one Irishman (Bob Geldof, co-organizer of Band Aid) and one party-crashing Canadian, comedian Dan Aykroyd. Egos fully in check, the group laid down the chorus and solos before sunrise on the 29th, and “We Are the World” was in the stores and on the airwaves just five weeks later.
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