Quincy Jones is traditionally viewed as the mastermind behind the apex of all charity singles, but it was actually Harry Belafonte who instigated the idea in the wake of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Seeking to make a star-studded Yankee equivalent to alleviate the Ethiopian famine, Belafonte contacted entertainment manager and fellow activist Ken Kragen, who drafted clients Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers, as well as Stevie Wonder. But the production escalated once Jones and his extensive Rolodex were brought into the mix. He called in Michael Jackson to write the song with Richie and Wonder, and word of the collaboration quickly spread throughout the highest reaches of the music industry. When Wonder was forced to bow out due to prior commitments, the remaining pair retired to the Jackson family’s Encino estate to pen an anthem to order — though not fast enough for Jones’ liking. “[Michael] and Lionel were there hangin’, sitting around talking about Motown and old times,” the producer recalled in his book, The Complete Quincy Jones: My Journey & Passions. “I said, ‘My dear brothers, we have 46 stars coming in less than three weeks, and we need a damn song!” They were still finalizing the words for what became “We Are the World” the night before the first sessions began.
On January 28th, 1985, the biggest stars in the music world drifted into Hollywood’s A&M Studios, many coming straight from the American Music Awards happening across town that same night. Aware that doing a charity record in black tie sent the wrong kind of message, Jones urged casual attire, and famously issued a friendly warning to all concerned: “Check your egos at the door.” Jackson recorded his parts first around 9 p.m., and by 10:30 the full session was under way. In addition to Richie, Wonder, Rogers, and Jackson, soloists included Paul Simon, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles. An A-list backing choir of 20 was filled out by the likes of Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, The Pointer Sisters, LaToya Jackson, Waylon Jennings, and Band Aid architect Bob Geldof.
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Even though the celebs showed up, there was still some in-studio dissent about the track, which some felt was a little too saccharine. “Most of us who were there didn’t like the song, but nobody would say so,” Billy Joel told Rolling Stone in 2005. “I think Cyndi Lauper leaned over to me and said, ‘It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.’ And I didn’t disagree.” Prince went so far as to decline to participate in the project, though his reasons for doing so are disputed. He ultimately contributed a track to the full length album that accompanied the single, but Huey Lewis took his solo on “We Are the World.”
The sessions continued for nearly 12 hours, and by 8 a.m. the following morning only Jones and Richie remained in the studio. What they had on their hands would break records. Released on March 7th, 1985, the song became the fastest-selling American pop single in history up to that point, moving 800,000 copies within three days of its release, and eventually selling upwards of 20 million worldwide — making it the bestselling single of the decade. All told, it raised over $63 million in humanitarian aid for Africa and the United States. For Jones, it remains a highlight of his celebrated career. “Here you had 46 of the biggest recording stars in the entire world in one room, to help people in a far-off place who were in desperate need,” he recalled in a 2015 USA Today interview. “I don’t think that night, that experience, will ever truly be duplicated again. I know and believe in the power of music to bring people together for the betterment of mankind, and there may be no better example of this than the collective that was ‘We Are the World.’”