Jay-Z rapped alongside side Bono, the Edge and Rihanna; Coldplay‘s Chris Martin moonlighted as Beyoncé‘s piano player; Justin Timberlake covered Leonard Cohen — and those performances, from January 22nd’s multinetwork, $66 million-grossing telethon for Haitian earthquake victims, were just the most visible of musicians’ efforts to raise funds.
James Taylor and Radiohead each organized their own charity shows; Arcade Fire (whose co-founder Régine Chassagne’s family is from Haiti) offered up their song catalog for TV and movie licensing, with fees going to Haiti; Lady Gaga turned over a day’s worth of concert and merch revenue; and in clubs across the country, artists from Spoon’s Britt Daniel to Patti Smith pitched in. At press time, Quincy Jones was planning a remake of 1985’s “We Are the World” with Kanye West and many others.
“I’m really impressed to see how everybody’s mobilizing — I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Shakira, who sang the Pretenders‘ “I’ll Stand by You” at the telethon and also pledged to build a school in the country. “Haiti has been in extreme poverty for so long. It’s unfortunate that it took a catastrophe to have the world turn its eyes to this country.” Adds Taylor, “There’s a lot of concern. People really want to respond to this thing and do what they can to help.”
Producer Swizz Beatz, who spearheaded “Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour)” — the Haitian-relief-themed single that brought together Bono, the Edge, Jay-Z and Rihanna, and debuted during the telethon — was aiming for “something that represents a moment in time.” Once he conceived the idea of teaming Bono and Jay-Z, Swizz’s plan almost fell apart after he found himself unable to conference the two artists on his cellphone. “I’m like, ‘Shit. Well, Bono, listen, I’m gonna call back,'” he recalls. They finally connected after three hours of phone tag, and the song came together rapidly, with Bono writing the chorus during a phone call and Jay-Z writing and recording his verses in less than 24 hours.
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Recruiting the musicians and other celebrities for the rest of the telethon was a smoother process. George Clooney, who conceived the event, reached out to movie-star friends including Julia Roberts and Jack Nicholson, while producer Joel Gallen (whose credits include the post-9/11 and post-Katrina telethons) and MTV execs recruited performers from Bruce Springsteen to Mary J. Blige to play in London, New York and L.A. “The great thing about a show like this is that nobody ever says, ‘Who else is doing it?'” says Gallen. “They realize how important it is.” The evening’s music was almost instantly released to iTunes as an album and became the first-ever digital-only Number One LP, selling 171,000 copies in its first week.
The atmosphere backstage at the New York taping was relaxed, with even superstars letting down their guard. “Normally, when there’s that many A-list people, it’s 100 percent tense,” says the Roots’ ?uestlove, whose band backed Blige, Sting, Jennifer Hudson and others. “But this had a nice atmosphere — Sting’s hangin’ in the greenroom, and I was shocked that I was allowed within six inches of Madonna.”
The tricky part was deciding on appropriate songs. After plans for Blige to duet on “One” with Bono fell through, Gallen suggested the 1850s standard “Hard Times Come Again No More.” Blige ended up delivering a gospelized version modeled after Mavis Staples’ 2004 recording, which became one of the show’s highlights. “I want it to be downtrodden and heavy and dark and almost like a spiritual,” Blige told the Roots before the performance.
Timberlake, who was one of the first artists to sign on, came up with the idea of covering Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on his own but nearly switched to the Beatles‘ “Help!” at the last minute. “Hallelujah” (which Timberlake performed as a duet with Matt Morris, an artist signed to his label) became the night’s breakout hit and was still at Number One on iTunes six days after the show.
Working on their own, other artists pulled off impressive fundraising feats: Radiohead raised more than $500,000 with a single show at a Hollywood theater, for which fans bid as much as $4,000 per ticket. “What did you do to get a ticket?” Yorke asked the crowd jokingly.”Get money from your dad? Or blackmail your boss?”
Meanwhile, Taylor raised $305,000 in two intimateshows in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which he matched with another $305,000 of his own funds. The concerts benefited the Boston-based charity Partners in Health, which Taylor chose after consulting friends in the medical community (it’s also the preferred charity of Arcade Fire’s Chassagne). “We won’t make as huge a contribution as this fantastic telethon,” says Taylor. “But I think that what it does say is that this community here is deeply caring. I have a feeling things like this are happening all over the country.”
This story is from the February 18, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.