The huge hit charity single, “We Are The World” by USA For Africa reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart exactly 30 years ago today. It remained there for four straight weeks. To commemorate this anniversary, I thought I’d provide some unique perspectives on the various artists who collaborated to make this one of the most successful singles in music history – as well as those who conspicuously were not involved in America’s answer to the UK’s highly successful “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” campaign by Band-Aid a few months earlier.
First, the facts behind the song. There were approximately 45 of the USA’s biggest recording stars who took part in the event, none bigger than Michael Jackson at the time. The occasion was conceived by noted fundraiser, Ken Kragen and the King of Calypso himself, Caribbean-American artist Harry Belafonte. (Scroll to the American Top 40 countdown excerpt below to hear the late radio personality Casey Kasem tell how Belafonte had been inspired by another famous Harry to come up with the concept.)
The charity single’s recording took place in Hollywood, California after the American Music Awards ceremony on January 28, 1985 – which many of the artists had attended. Notably absent from the session were superstar Prince, who had just come off having one of the biggest movie soundtracks in history (“Purple Rain” had completed a 24-week run at #1 and yielded five top-40 singles) and Madonna, who was also a rising superstar at the time having just achieved her first Number One album and single with “Like A Virgin.”
While the artists who made up USA for Africa were famously greeted at the studio with a sign that read “check your egos at the door,” it’s hard to imagine that being an easy task considering the talent involved. The song’s writers were Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, who had worked with world-famous producer Quincy Jones and select musicians to begin the music recording process a week earlier.
The enormous success achieved by those three men alone over the previous two years gave this effort the credibility it needed to secure the commitment from other artists. But it also gave them the mojo they needed to have very key roles in the song’s vocal recording. Richie, whose album “Can’t Slow Down” had just finished spending the entire year of 1984 in the top ten, sang the opening line in the first verse, while Jackson sang the opening line in the chorus and later the bridge. What was that again about checking egos?
Anyway, I thought you might enjoy a then-and-now perspective on each of the main artists who contributed to the huge worldwide success of “We Are The World,” which, according to Wikipedia’s sources, is one of the five biggest-selling singles of all time at 20 million copies sold.
The following were the main artists who provided lead vocals on “We Are The World” in order of appearance:
Lionel Richie. Then: He cowrote the song with MJ and notably only contributed solo vocals for the opening line, “There comes a time when we heed a certain call, when the world must come together as one” (the latter half of which he harmonized with Stevie Wonder). Now: Lionel’s major success faded in the 1980s but he ironically is the only artist on this list besides Bruce Springsteen to score a #1 album in the current decade. His “Tuskegee,” on which Richie featured a number of artists reinterpreting his past hits, reached #1 in 2012.
Stevie Wonder. Then: “We Are The World” was sandwiched between two of his biggest hits: “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and “Part-Time Lover,” #1 songs in 1984 and ’85, respectively. Like Richie, his last real top-40 success was in the 1980s. Now: Stevie is enjoying a renaissance thanks to his highly successful “Songs In The Key Of Life” tour, which is now in its second North-American leg.
Paul Simon. Then: Paul’s last top ten pop hit had occurred four-and-a-half years earlier (“Late In the Evening”; #6 in 1980). He and Art Garfunkel had been one of the most successful duos of all time, but Simon’s most critically acclaimed effort wouldn’t occur until nearly two years after “WATW”: 1986’s “Graceland.” Now: The Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Berklee College of Music where he’d been awarded an honorary doctorate.
Kenny Rogers. Then: Kenny Rogers was (and arguably still is) the most successful male country/pop crossover artist ever. He and Richie had teamed up for several big hits in the decade, including “Lady,” the #1 success of which had spelled the end of Richie’s career with his former group, the Commodores. Now: Google his image for a textbook example of why facial plastic surgery doesn’t work for everyone.
James Ingram. Then: Ingram was one of Quincy Jones’ biggest protégés, having contributed “One Hundred Ways” and “Just Once” to Jones’ legendary 1981 album, “The Dude.” He later had his first #1 pop hit in a duet with fellow Jones mentee, Patti Austin, with “Baby Come To Me.” That tune topped the chart in 1983 (before being replaced by another Jones production, “Billie Jean”). Now: Ingram reached #1 on his own in 1990 with “I Don’t Have The Heart.” Ingram was the second-youngest of the lead male artists to perform on WATW – next to Michael Jackson – making him the youngest living male artist of the group.
Tina Turner. Then: “Private Dancer” – need I say more? Now: After that huge comeback album and further success throughout the remainder of the ’80s, Turner was immortalized on the big screen in the 1993 biopic “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” starring the Oscar-nominated Angela Bassett. Turner, who is 75, has since retired from performing and reportedly lives in Switzerland.
Billy Joel. Then: Billy Joel had turned out several consecutive #1 hit albums in the late-1970s and early ’80s before his biggest album, “An Innocent Man,” was released in 1983 and produced six top-40 singles. Now: Joel still tours (including a highly successful joint tour with Elton John during recent decades), but his last top-10 hit occurred 22 years ago: “The River Of Dreams” peaked at #3 in 1993.
Michael Jackson. Then: “Thriller.” Now: Every other artist on this list lived to see their 60th birthday. MJ may have left us at age 50, but his legacy lives on through the beauty of his music and theatrical productions by the Canadian entertainment company, Cirque du Soleil. His recently released “Xscape,” which consisted of older tunes reproduced by contemporary producers Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins and others, reached #2 on the album chart last year. Still setting records, he became the first artist to reach the top ten during five consecutive decades when his single “Love Never Felt So Good” (with Justin Timberlake) made the mark last May.
Diana Ross. Then: Diana had the distinction of being one of two USA For Africa artists (along with Bruce Springsteen) who were also in the top ten with their own hits when “WATW” hit #1. Unfortunately for her, that song – “Missing You” – which was also written and produced by Lionel Richie, would be her last top-40 pop hit. Now: Diana is still touring (I saw her in 2012 and the show was great!) and has the distinction of being mother-in-law to Ashlee Simpson (remember her?). Her daughter Tracie Ellis Ross has had a very successful TV acting career.
Dionne Warwick. Then: She had major (unlikely) success in the ’80s and ’90s with songs like “Heartbreaker” and “Love Power,” a hosting stint on TV’s music countdown show “Solid Gold,” and as a late-night punchline on the infomercial “Psychic Friends Network.” But her biggest chart success would come a few months after “WATW” in another charity effort, the AIDS relief song, “That’s What Friends Are For” by the act billed as Dionne & Friends (Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John). Now: even after reportedly making $3M/year as host of PFN for nearly seven years, Warwick has had issues with the IRS and filed bankruptcy in 2013.
Willie Nelson. Then: Country star Willie Nelson enjoyed pop crossover success with hits like “On The Road Again,” “Always On My Mind” and “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.” While working on “WATW,” Nelson was also instrumental in setting up 1985’s Farm Aid, which continued the trend of charitable offerings from music celebrities during the mid-1980s. Now: Nelson is the oldest living member of this esteemed group at 81.
Al Jarreau. Then: Jazz crossover artist Jarreau had enjoyed moderate pop success with songs like “We’re In This Love Together” and “Mornin’.” He also provided the theme song to the popular ’80s TV show “Moonlighting.” Interestingly enough, he’s the only person on this list who’s never had a pop top ten hit. “We’re In…” came closest – peaking at #15 in ’81. Now: Jarreau recently made a full recovery from pneumonia and continues to tour.
Bruce Springsteen. Then: “Born In The USA” was in the middle of one of the longest top-ten runs by any album in history. The album’s 4th single, “I’m On Fire,” was in the top ten at the same time as “WATW.” Now: The father of three adult children in their 20s, Springsteen has been spending his most recent years championing such causes as marriage equality and gay rights. Oh – and he also still hits #1 regularly as six of his seven studio albums released during the 21st century have topped Billboard’s album chart. That’s double the three #1 studio albums he had in the 20th century.
Kenny Loggins. Then: Kenny was on his way to becoming the soundtrack hit king, with 1984’s “Footloose” behind him and Top Gun’s “Danger Zone” a year away. [My fave by him is still the lesser-known “Heart To Heart,” a non-soundtrack song that peaked at #15 in 1983.] Now: His last top-40 hit was “Nobody’s Fool” in 1988. Since then he’s hit the adult contemporary chart and has made appearances as himself in various TV and movie productions.
Steve Perry. Then: Steve Perry was still a member of Journey, which had achieved success with several top ten hits during the first half of the ’80s. But he had also enjoyed solo success in 1984 with an anthemic ode to his then-girlfriend, “Oh Sherrie,” which reached #3. Now: Through no (recent) effort of his own, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” from 1981’s Escape album has become one of the most downloaded and most popular old-school songs ever. On the LOL front, Perry can also be seen making a fool of himself at Major League Baseball games (Google it).
Daryl Hall. Then: there was a reason only Daryl Hall was invited to sing a lead part on “WATW,” while Oates (John Oates) was relegated to backup duties: that had been the formula for Hall & Oates’ success since their inception. Now: They still hold the distinction as the most successful duo in music history. Daryl Hall currently hosts a well-received TV and web-based program “Live From Daryl’s House,” which offers a platform for newer artists to showcase their musical talents.
Bridge (after Michael’s opening line):
Huey Lewis. Then: His band’s “Sports” album holds the distinction of being one of only five albums to reach #1 in 1984, making that the year with the fewest Number One albums ever. But it was the longevity of the other albums, not “Sports,” which contributed to that statistic. “Sports” only spent one week at #1 that year. The remaining four albums (“Thriller,” “Footloose,” “Born In The USA” and “Purple Rain”) accounted for the other 51 weeks. Now: Lewis hasn’t hit the top 40 in over 20 years, but he can be seen in pro-am golf tournaments as he is an avid golfer.
Cyndi Lauper. Then: Her debut album “She’s So Unusual” album had just yielded five top-40 singles (a trend in hit albums that year). The first four of those (“Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” “Time After Time,” “She Bop,” and “All Through The Night”) all reached the top five, making Lauper the only woman (at the time) to achieve that feat with her first four singles. Now: This year she was inducted in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, likely for her work on songs like the aforementioned and “True Colors” – her second #1 single (in 1986). She is the youngest living member of this illustrious group of artists.
Kim Carnes. Then: She had the biggest hit of 1981 with “Bette Davis Eyes. The song was one of only a handful of songs to be ranked as the biggest hit of the year by Billboard and to earn Grammys for both Record and Song of the year. Now: Would you believe she’ll be 70 years old in July? She resides in Nashville, TN with her husband of 48 years.
Final Chorus (which also includes notable adlibs by Ingram, Wonder and Springsteen):
Bob Dylan. Then: Along with Ray Charles and Al Jarreau, Bob Dylan was one of the three artists on this roster to not have had a top ten hit in the 1980s (or ever in Jarreau’s case). However, Dylan is considered one of the greatest rock-and-roll artists of all time by many of his peers and various music journalists. Now: Dylan is still considered a music legend (primarily due to his 1960s work). He now lives in Malibu, CA – likely basking in the glow of the reported 100 million records he’s sold over the past 50 years.
Ray Charles. Then: Ray Charles achieved most of his success in the 1950s and ’60s with huge hits like “I Got A Woman,” I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “What’d I Say,” “Hit The Road Jack” and “Georgia On My Mind.” The blind genius had the honor of finishing off “WATW” with his vocal adlibs during the song’s final chorus and as it faded at the end. I still say his vocals gave the song the gospel feel that took it over the top. Now: He’s been gone since 2004, but like Jackson, his legend lives on through his music and through the major film success of the Oscar-winning movie “Ray,” starring Jamie Foxx who took home the Oscar for the lead role.
Notably absent from “WATW”:
Prince. Although he contributed a previously unreleased single to the WATW album, his absence was conspicuous considering his major success in 1984.
Madonna. Even though she’d just achieved her first #1 single and album, it was likely her image that prevented her from being invited. She would have the last laugh (sort of): her second #1 single, “Crazy For You,” is the song that knocked “WATW” from the top of the chart in May 1985.
Whitney Houston. Her career hadn’t blown up yet. Her first top ten single, “You Give Good Love” had just debuted and was months from beginning the streak of hits that would make her one of the biggest artists of the decade and beyond.
Non-American artists. Even though the “USA” in USA For Africa did not stand for United States of America (it stood for United Support of Artists), this was clearly an all-American effort, although other artists were allowed to contribute songs to the album, including the Canadian supergroup Northern Lights (which featured Anne Murray, Corey Hart, Bryan Adams and many others).
And finally, what did Casey Kasem have to say about it?
If you’d like to hear what the late Casey Kasem, host of the world-famous American Top 40 radio countdown show, had to say about it back then, below is an audio file of an American Top 40 episode from 1985 in which Casey Kasem counted down to USA For Africa’s final week at #1 on the Billboard Chart (May 4, 1985). In it, he tells the story of how Ken Kragen and Harry Belafonte were inspired by another Harry, singer Harry Chapin, to come up with the concept of “We Are The World.”
Also, here’s a link to a YouTube clip of the official music video.
Hope you enjoy!