Thirty-nine years ago, on January 28, 1985, 45 of the biggest names in music, from Stevie Wonder to Bruce Springsteen, came together at a Los Angeles studio to record the charity single “We Are The World” (popular refrain: “We are the children.”)
On the cusp of the 40th anniversary of the session, a new documentary The Greatest Night in Pop, out on Netflix Jan. 29, shows how the historic gathering came together. Participants interviewed include Cyndi Lauper, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, and Dionne Warwick. The documentary combines video footage from USA for Africa and audio recorded by David Breskin, who wrote the Life magazine article about the session. Director Bao Nguyen and an editor, Nic Zimmermann, synced some of the Breskin’s dictaphone audio to footage of the recording session from USA for Africa that was missing audio.
“We Are The World” was inspired by “Do They Know It's Christmas?” a 1984 charity single recorded by some of the most popular British and Irish musicians to raise money to end famine in Ethiopia. The performers were predominantly white, and legendary artist and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte thought that top Black stars needed to be included in a charity single. “‘We have white folks saving black folks. We don’t have black folks saving black folks,’” says Lionel Richie in the documentary, paraphrasing how Belafonte pitched the project to him. “‘We need to save our own people from hunger.’ He was trying to get us, the younger group, involved in what was happening in Africa. I said, of course.”
Belafonte worked with top managers and producers in Hollywood like Ken Kragen and Quincy Jones to reach out to the featured music stars. They knew many would be in Los Angeles for the American Music Awards that Richie was hosting, so the recording session took place right afterwards. The biggest revelation in the documentary is Sheila E, who performed with Prince, claiming she was invited to participate because the producers thought Prince would come if she was there. As she explained what it was like to be in the room, waiting for a solo: “It was getting late, and I was looking forward to singing one of the verses but they kept asking, ‘Well, do you think you can get Prince here?’ And I’m like, wow. This is weird. and I just started feeling like I’m being used because they want Prince to show up and the longer they keep me, maybe Prince will show up.” She said she knew he wasn’t going to come because he’d feel uncomfortable among all of those people and called the night “heartbreaking” overall.
Richie co-wrote “We Are The World” with Michael Jackson, and Richie credits Jackson for writing the titular line, “We are the world.” But some of the featured singers also played a key role in producing the song during a hectic recording session. For example, Bob Dylan was struggling with his line, uncomfortable with how packed the room was. He called over Stevie Wonder to help him, and Wonder sat at the piano and sang it the way he thought Dylan should sing it, mimicking the indie artist’s folksy voice. Then Dylan went on to nail his section.
The song was an instant hit. In the March 25, 1985, issue of TIME, the magazine rattled off a list of stats that show the single was shaping up to be “the smash of the decade.” Tower Records’ Sunset Boulevard store in West Hollywood sold 1,000 copies in two days, compared to about 100-125 copies in a given week. The magazine argued that what’s most notable about the song is how “musicians from rival factions of the business are seen putting aside differences of style and temperament and coming together to share and spread a little decency.” The story even urged readers to buy it, writing, “The song is sappy and overextended, but go ahead and tell that to the teenagers who are buying five copies at a time at Tower Records, then giving them to their friends on condition they each go out and buy five more. Go ahead. Tell them. Then buy a record.” Most of the “We Are The World” proceeds went to USA for Africa—short for USA (United Support of Artists) for Africa—which was raising money to end poverty on the continent, while 10% was set aside for efforts to combat homelessness in the U.S., per Wonder’s request.
Could there be a 21st century version of “We Are The World”? Top Tik Tok influencers all in the same studio recording a video for charity? It remains to be seen, but Nguyen is optimistic. As he put it, “I do hope the film and the song inspire a younger generation to maybe try something like this.”
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