In the late evening on January 28, 1986, a collective group of some of the most recognized musical artists in the world left the American Music Awards festivities and congregated under a shroud of secrecy at A&M studios in Hollywood. The result of this unparalleled collaborative effort was “We Are the World,” a song written to raise money for the victims of famine in Africa. The resulting single, released on March 7th of the same year, would go on to sell 20 million copies, raising significant money for the cause and becoming one of the best remembered songs of the 80s.
The idea for this ambitious project came from an earlier effort in the UK headed by Irish singer and activist Bob Geldof, who organized a similar collective of artists called Band Aid. The single that resulted, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” went to the top of the British charts and caught the attention of American singer, Harry Belafonte. He joined forces with manager Ken Kragen (who was managing Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers at the time) to help coordinate the fundraising effort and assemble a formidable group of talent under the name USA For Africa.
Kragen turned to industry heavyweights Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, who collaborated to write “We Are the World.” They finished the song the night before the recording session and hours later, a steady stream of limousines began arriving at A&M Studios, a historic building in downtown Hollywood where Charlie Chaplin had created most of his iconic films decades earlier, and later became one of the finest studios in the world, producing music for such A&M artists as The Carpenters, The Police, The Captain and Tennille, Supertramp and Carole King, to name but a few. An impressive roster to be sure, but nothing compared to the who’s who arriving on that late January evening.
The word “supergroup” is often thrown around to describe an assembly of established artists, but the cast of “We Are the World” was unmatched. There were 21 soloists, including Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Tina Turner. Another 23 artists helped out as part of the chorus, and many others were unfortunately turned away due to space limitations. The all-night session concluded at 8am the following morning, and a little over a month later, the single was released to much fanfare. On April 5th, some 8,000 radio stations around the world broadcast the song simultaneously.
“We Are the World” quickly rose to the #1 spot on the American Billboard charts. It would do the same in Australia, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. Some 800,000 copies of the single were sold within three days. It would eventually become the biggest selling single of the 80s decade and the first to go multi-platinum. People around the world played the song over and over, trying to figure out who was singing each part, an effort made considerably easier by the release of the video. The song would go on to win four Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year. And, for it’s efforts, the song raised over $50 million for the cause.
The success of “We Are the World” led to a number of other significant charity efforts, including Hands Across America, Live-Aid, Farm-Aid and Comic Relief, all of whom have raised awareness and money for a number of causes, home and abroad, making its impact immeasurable.
If you have any memories of first hearing “We Are the World,” we hope you will take a moment to share them in our comments section, as we tip our hats to one of the greatest collection of artists ever assembled.