Superstar squabbles! Shiny tracksuits! Michael Jackson! Inside the epic all-nighter that birthed USA for Africa"s charity smash

“Check your egos at the door” read the sign on the front door of A&M Studios in Los Angeles on the night of January 28th, 1985. Producer Quincy Jones had placed it there because dozens of the nation’s biggest singers were walking through that door, & he had exactly one night khổng lồ cut a record that would save lives by raising money to lớn help alleviate a famine in Ethiopia.

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The result, USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” was released 35 years ago, on March 7th, 1985. The 46 vocalists who showed up may have formed the ultimate musical supergroup of all time, và the mission was serious, but the vibe was loose. As Jones told the collected singers that night, “We bởi proms too, babes.”

0:00 The clip begins with synthesizers (sounding state of the art for 1985) & a computer-generated globe. As the globe spins around, we see a lot more of the U.S.A. Than Africa.


Last year, Richie remembered the craziness of hosting both the show and the sessions on the same night: “I’m coming off of tour, I’m reviewing a script this thick, I’m trying to lớn organize this thing, who vày we get lớn show up?”


0:31 Stevie Wonder steps up to the microphone lớn harmonize with Richie. During rehearsals, Wonder flubbed a note, & Richie joshed him, “Stevie messed up? Is that legal?” They decided khổng lồ blame it on his alter ego, Eivets Rednow. No longer the unstoppable commercial powerhouse he was in the Seventies, Wonder was still a force on the charts in 1985: “Part-Time Lover” would hit Number One later in the year. Wonder was originally supposed to be Richie’s cowriter, but Quincy Jones knew Wonder was busy making an album (In Square Circle), so he suggested Michael Jackson instead. According to Richie, during a break from recording, when Ray Charles asked where the bathroom, Wonder said, “I’ll show you where it is, Ray. Follow me!” Wonder took Charles by the hand and led him down the hall khổng lồ the appropriate door, while the other stars watched gobsmacked at the blind literally leading the blind.

0:41 Paul Simon takes over on “oh, it’s time to lớn lend a hand,” clutching the sheet music. With his jacket và his plaid shirt, he’s setting the fashion template for Rivers Cuomo’s entire career. In 1985, Simon hadn’t had a hit in years; it looked like he might not have much left in the tank other than perpetual cameo appearances on Saturday Night Live. The following year, however, he released the career-defining Graceland.


0:53 Richie’s hand extends into the frame, cueing Kenny Rogers, who’s wearing a USA for Africa sweatshirt like he’s a particularly big fan of the group. (Other stars sporting the shirt include Al Jarreau and, for some of the night, Diana Ross.) Rogers was as big a pop-country star as there was in 1985 (but not yet a roasted-chicken maven); he was also a client of manager Ken Kragen, who handled Lionel Richie and was the driving force in recruiting talent for the session. Kragen says that USA for Africa was spurred by Harry Belafonte calling him up just before Christmas, wanting to bởi vì a benefit concert. It became a recording session instead, following in the mode of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which had hit the charts weeks earlier — but Kragen had less than a month lớn set up everything before the AMAs. He hit the phones, determined lớn book two major artists every day — according khổng lồ Kragen, the turning point was when he convinced Jon Landau that Bruce Springsteen should show up.

0:59 James Ingram has shown up for the session in a shiny silver tracksuit, as if he came directly from a workout on the space shuttle. Ingram had a Number One single (“Baby, Come lớn Me”) two years prior, but just as importantly, he was well-connected lớn both Jackson and Jones, having cowritten the hit single “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” with Jones for Jackson’s Thriller.

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1:06 Tina Turner’s hair is barely restrained by the headphones crowning her head. In 1985, Turner was still peeling hit singles off her massive comeback album, Private Dancer. When her work was done here after a long night, she would shout in celebration, “Fish burger!” Turner harmonizes with a bearded Billy Joel (who was in a brief lull between the hit albums An Innocent ManThe Bridge). Earlier in the evening, when Joel spotted Ray Charles entering the studio, he said, “That’s lượt thích the Statue of Liberty walking in.” Jones introduced them: “Ray, this is the guy who wrote ‘New York State of Mind."” (The song was an homage lớn Charles.) Joel was visibly shaking, but the pianists hit it off: the following year, they released the duet “Baby Grand,” & in 1999, Charles inducted Joel into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.


Joel was accompanied by his fiancée, Christie Brinkley (they were married just weeks later). The recording studio was for musicians only: 500 guests watched the sessions from a tiệc ngọt at an adjoining soundstage. (The A&M studio complex had been Charlie Chaplin’s headquarters decades earlier; these days, it’s the home of the Jim Henson Company.) Aside from Brinkley, notable names in attendance at the tiệc ngọt included Brooke Shields, Jane Fonda, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Steve Martin.

During one runthrough, Joel took a moment lớn walk over to lớn a nearby piano & play the tuy vậy himself, confirming what key it was in. “E,” he said, looking disgusted. “Ihate E.”


1:19 Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star in the universe circa 1985, sings the chorus, multitracked with himself. He stacked these vocals at 9 p.m., while the other musicians were still arriving at the studio. The tuy vậy may be called “We Are the World,” but sometimes Jackson wanted lớn make a world by himself. Awesomely, he has glittering socks khổng lồ coordinate with his right glove.

Before he started recording, he askedJones, “Quincy, bởi you think, should I say ‘you & me’ or ‘you & I’ at the end?” They decided that “you và me” was more soulful. Jones called Jackson “Smelly”; Smelly giggled whenever he flubbed a take. Once Jackson got into the groove, he started nhảy đầm behind the microphone, moving his body toàn thân as much as he could without disrupting the recording.

Richie & Jackson wrote the tuy nhiên at Jackson’s house — they had known each other since Jackson was a child, when Richie’s Commodores opened up for the Jackson 5 on tour. Last year, Richie told Billboard about the songwriting session: “I’m on the floor in Michael’s bedroom. I don’t think he had a bed — he just slept on the floor. There’s a bunch of albums around the wall, và there’s a carpet & a little bench. I’m writing the first verse — ‘There comes a time’ — and I hear over my shoulder, hhhhhhhhhhhh. There was a goddamn fucking python. A boa constrictor, a python, who cares what the hell it was. It was a big-ass, ugly-ass snake. I’m from Alabama — what you vì chưng with a snake is you call the police và you shoot the damn thing. I was screaming. And Michael’s saying, ‘There he is, Lionel, we found him. He was hiding behind the albums. We knew he was in the room, we just didn’t know where he was.’ I said, ‘You’re out of your freaking mind.’ It took me about two hours to calm my ass back down.”


1:32 Some of the vocal pairings on “We Are the World” seem random, or considered more generously, were designed lớn contrast stars of different genres. But Diana Ross had history with Michael Jackson dating back to lớn 1969, when Motown claimed that she had discovered the Jackson 5 (she didn’t, but she “presented” their debut album anyway). Jackson wrote & produced the hit single “Muscles” for Ross, and as the years went by,his face started lớn resemble hers. Ross’ career as a hitmaker was basically over by 1985, but she was overqualified to lớn begin her career as a full-time legend. When she entered the studio on this evening, she promptly hopped onto Bob Dylan’s lap.