USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” and the history of the Charity Single

Benefit concerts are so ubiquitous that just about anyone can understand the concept of trading entertainment for charity. We’re familiar with that concept, ourselves.

Prior to 1984, the idea of a bunch of artists getting together to record a song that benefits one single given cause was kind of a weird idea. But then Bob Geldof’s Band Aid pulled together a bunch of UK chart-toppers for “Do They Know it’s Christmas,” and we were off and running!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of a recording nobody even knew was happening until it was over.

On January 28, 1985, following the American Music Awards, the greatest collection of pop and rock icons ever assembled under one roof happened at the A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood to record “We Are the World,” a song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie that was to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief.

Jackson went first, recording his solo bit, as the rest of the 45 musicians arrived (another 50 had to be turned away). Producer Quincy Jones famously told them to check their egos at the door. They were also greeted by Stevie Wonder, who proclaimed that if the recording was not completed in one take, he and Ray Charles would drive everybody home.

IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE

Lionel Richie
Stevie Wonder
Paul Simon
Kenny Rogers
James Ingram
Tina Turner
Billy Joel
Michael Jackson
Diana Ross
Dionne Warwick
Willie Nelson
Al Jarreau
Bruce Springsteen
Kenny Loggins
Steve Perry
Daryl Hall
Huey Lewis
Cyndi Lauper
Kim Carnes
Bob Dylan
Ray Charles (Also playing Piano and Keyboards)

Behold…

There are a couple of names missing from the Class of 1985 (arguably the greatest year in pop music history), including Prince, who dominated the American Music Awards earlier that evening. Some reports claimed the Purple One didn’t want to record with other acts. Another noted that he had a beef with Jones, who had called him a “creep.” Either way, Prince did contribute a track to the We Are the World album, called “4 the Tears in Your Eyes.”

Also missing in action: Madonna, who was blazing the charts with an impressive list of endless Top 10s. Again, no real reason exists except that many considered her a flash in the pan. 30 years later, Madonna can take solace in the fact that she ended up becoming, well, Madonna, and that the following icons weren’t there either: Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Donna Summer, Pat Benatar, Cher, Mick Jagger, Patti LaBelle or Luther Vandross.

The song was released on March 7, 1985, as the only single from the album. It became the fastest-selling American pop single in history, hitting #1 all over the world and racking up an impressive ukposter01Quadruple Platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America. Critics hated the song, of course, but when all was said and done, “We Are the World” raised over $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa and the US.

It also inspired Live Aid the following summer. It was the concert heard round the world, still considered the greatest music event of the decade.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

After the trifecta of Band Aid, USA for Africa and Live Aid, it seemed everyone wanted to get into the charity record business. And while nobody can begrudge the metal industry for wanting to lend a helping (leather gloved) hand, one of the strangest spin-offs was called Hear ‘n Aid.

Their song, “Stars,” was a power ballad that featured Ted Nugent, Yngwie Malmsteen, Tommy Aldridge and members of Dio, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Quiet Riot, Dokken, Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, Queensrÿche, Blue Öyster Cult, Vanilla Fudge, Y&T, Night Ranger and more.

Even Spinal Tap showed up, because, well duh.

Not to be outdone, band manager Bruce Allen assembled a collective of Canadian artists under the moniker Northern Lights for the single “Tears are not Enough.” It was release December, 1985.

On the roster: Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Dan Hill, Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Bruce Cockburn, Liberty Silver, Geddy Lee (Rush), and Mike Reno (Loverboy).

Also in 1985, Bruce Springsteen’s E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt organized “Sun City,” a protest song against apartheid in South Africa. The song and video contained the most badass collection of do-gooders of the bunch, and it’s nothing short of a minor miracle that the following cats not only appeared on the same record but managed to create the one supergroup song that didn’t sound like a damn tampon commercial.

“Sun City” featured Springsteen, Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, The Fat Boys, Ruben Blades, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr and his son Zak Starkey, Lou Reed, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Jackson Browne, U2, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Peter Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Pete Townshend, Pat Benatar, Clarence Clemons and Joey Ramone.

Charity records don’t get much play beyond their initial run, unless your seasonal hit has the word “Christmas” in it. But the one tune that still gets prime rotation on “listen at work” FM stations across the land is “That’s What Friends are For,” by Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John. 

The ballad benefited the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) and was just about the last hurrah for all of them, save for Elton, who still had at least one more charity song in him.

By 1986, the USA for Africa team obviously hadn’t realized that numerous singles, albums and Live Aid had just about turned MTV into the rock and roll equivalent of a PBS pledge drive. Their bold new plan, called Hands Across America, was to release a song and video that would ask six million Americans to “join hands from Los Angeles to New York to take a stand against hunger and homelessness in America.”

And this time, they didn’t bother to call any superstars.

They just called Toto (Jeff Porcaro, Mike Porcaro, Steve Lukather, Steve Porcaro, Bo Tomlyn, David Paich, Tom Keane) and a choir.

Ferry Aid was a charity project created following the Zeebrugge Disaster, in which 193 passengers and crew were killed when the MS Herald of Free Enterprise capsized.

Ferry Aid didn’t just have a Beatle on board. It was the only charity single to actually record a Beatles song, “Let it Be.” The tune featured Paul McCartney, Boy George, Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), Andy Bell (Erasure), Kim Wilde, Nik Kershaw, Edwin Starr and Kate Bush.

And then there was Voices that Care, the 1991 single so top-loaded with current hitmakers, it could have been produced by K-Tel: Ralph Tresvant, Randy Travis, Celine Dion, Peter Cetera, Bobby Brown, Brenda Russell, New Edition, All-4-One, Luther Vandross, R. Kelly, Garth Brooks, Michael Bolton, Boyz II Men, En Vogue, Salt-n-Pepa, Will Smith, and … Kevin Costner?

“Voices that Care” (also the name of the song) had two objectives: to boost the morale of U.S. troops involved in Operation Desert Storm, and raise money for the International Red Cross organization.

Alas, timing is everything. The single received its world premiere during a Fox special on February 28, 1991, coincidentally the day fighting in Desert Storm ended.

SEQUELS

In the entertainment world, you can’t have a hit without getting the inevitable sequels. You can retcon all the snark in the world for the original Band Aid and USA for Africa recordings, but nothing anyone can say can take away from the massive pop culture impact (not to mention financial goodwill) of those two efforts. And let’s face it, they were both pretty timeless.

But about those sequels…

Whoo-boy.

Band Aid II‘s version of “Do They Know it’s Christmas” was recorded in 1989 and reeks of the syncopated Stock, Aitken and Waterman production that ruined many a decent song at the time. There was also a 30-year anniversary version released in 2014.

As far as “We Are the World” is concerned, that song made another brief appearance in 2010, when the 25-year anniversary edition sought to benefit the Haitian earthquake relief efforts and the rebuilding of Haiti. It’s not bad, and actually features a posthumous appearance from Jackson.

But there’s a lot more autotune, and that freaky Haitian chant from Wyclef Jean, and… wait, is that Justin Bieber? Yes, it is… (shudder)

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