We Are the World

The Story Behind the 1985 Song

We Are the World Record Album Cover
Front cover of the 'USA for Africa We are the World' record album, (1985). (Photo by Blank Archives/Getty Images)

On January 28, 1985, 45 famous musicians got together at the A&M studios in Los Angeles and recorded the song "We Are the World." Their goal was to raise money to help end the famine that was devastating Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. "We Are the World," which had been written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, became instantly popular when it was released on March 7, 1985 and skyrocketed to the #1 spot on the charts.

The fundraiser was a huge success, selling over 20 million copies and raising more than $60 million for the non-profit organization USA for Africa.

The Idea

The idea for "We Are the World," started with singer and actor Harry Belafonte. It was Belafonte who listened to the 1984 U.K. all-star recording of "Do They Know Its Christmas," which was also a humanitarian fundraiser, and thought that there should be something like it done in the United States as well.

So, just before Christmas in 1984, Belafonte called his friend, Ken Kragen, and got the ball rolling on an American version.  

Writing the Song and Finding Singers

Originally, it was going to be Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder who were to write the song. However, Wonder was touring and was hard to reach and so the very enthused Michael Jackson stepped in. Jackson and Richie wanted the song to be powerful and so they listened to national anthems for inspiration.

They didn't have long to write, though, for it all had to be done in less than a month. The chorus was completed first and the rest of the song came later; being finished just days before the recording was to be done.

The singers also had to be chosen quickly. Ken Kragen wanted the most popular singers of the era.

He was hoping for about 20, but when word got out what the project was about, famous singers began calling him. He ultimately decided upon 45 singers, having to turn down others.

The Recording

Quincy Jones was in charge of the producing and conducting the recording. He knew that having the top names in the music industry all in one room meant that egos could easily get bruised, so he told them all to "leave their egos at the door." 

The recording took place on January 28, 2015, right after the American Music Awards. Many of the singers had either done live performances at the American Music Awards, won awards, or both. Lionel Richie was the presenter at the awards, plus won five of them. Afterwards, Richie and the others got into their limousines and made if over to the A&M studios on La Brea Ave. in Los Angeles. Only Bruce Springsteen drove himself.

Many of the artists were star-struck as they entered. Here were all the music giants of the time, with mega stars that had been famous for decades as well as the top new names in the industry. Despite the overwhelmingness of it all, they all worked together to help make a difference in the world.

The recording started around 10 pm that night and went into the early morning hours, finally fully ending at 8 a.m. It was a long night of singing, both for the chorus and for the soloists.

Each part of the song took several takes to get right. At one point, Cyndi Lauper's jewelry, which she wore a lot of, began clinking into the microphone, sounding like chatter. It took her a minute or two to untangle herself from it all for the next take.

As late as it got, the singers didn't lose their humor or their thankfulness for this special opportunity. At one point, they broke into a spontaneous rendition of "Day-O," one of Harry Belafonte's signature songs, in honor of the man who had started this project.

Popular

When the recording was done, it still took a few weeks of tweaking to get finalized. Then, on March 7, 1985, the song "We Are the World" was released. It became instantly popular. Bringing tears to peoples eyes and a call to action that just could not be ignored, people bought up the single in mass quantities.

 

"We Are the World" hit #1 on the top charts on April 13 and stayed there for four weeks. At the 28th Grammy Awards ceremony, "We Are the World" won four awards, including Record of the Year and Best Music Video.

Royalties from "We Are the World" are still being collected and still providing support through USA for Africa, but the song has already brought in more than $60 million in humanitarian aid.

The Full List of Singers

  • Dan Aykroyd
  • Harry Belafonte
  • Lindsey Buckingham
  • Kim Carnes
  • Ray Charles
  • Mario Cipollina
  • John Colla
  • Bob Dylan
  • Sheila E.
  • Bob Geldof
  • Bill Gibson
  • Daryl Hall
  • Chris Hayes
  • Sean Hopper
  • James Ingram
  • Jackie Jackson
  • LaToya Jackson
  • Marlon Jackson
  • Michael Jackson
  • Randy Jackson
  • Tito Jackson
  • Al Jarreau
  • Waylon Jennings
  • Billy Joel
  • Quincy Jones (conductor)
  • Cyndi Lauper
  • Huey Lewis
  • Kenny Loggins
  • Bette Middler
  • Willie Nelson
  • John Oates
  • Jeffrey Osborne
  • Steve Perry
  • Anita Pointer
  • June Pointer
  • Ruth Pointer
  • Lionel Richie
  • Smokey Robinson
  • Kenny Rogers
  • Diana Ross
  • Paul Simon
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Tina Turner
  • Dionne Warwick
  • Stevie Wonder