Behind the scene of a pop miracle

AfricaKenny RogersDeathPrince (music artist)Documentary (genre)Quincy JonesPaul Simon

Early in "the session," the 45 artists began singing the chorus:

We are the world

We are the children

We are the ones who make a brighter day

So, let's start giving.

. . . And to their horror, many of the men discovered that the key was far too high for them.

But the video cameras were rolling, recording this historic event for posterity. They tried gamely to reach the notes.

The dissonance caused producer Quincy Jones to shudder.

There were moments in the landmark "We Are the World" recording session at the A&M Studios in Hollywood when the emotion ran so high that many of the pop-rock stars had tears in their eyes. The aforementioned, of course, was not one of those moments.

Diplomatically, Jones stopped the prerecorded instrumental tape and suggested that anyone having trouble with the notes just refrain from singing until later in the session. The chorus then would be reconstituted into a lower, more agreeable key.

With the cameras still panning the room, however, the singers were in an awkward position as the music started again. It would look strange in the video if they weren't singing. Some of the artists couldn't figure a way through the dilemma--so they just stood there and smiled. Others pretended to sing. If you look closely now at the video, you'll be able to tell the difference.

When the first break was called, a few of the men--including Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen--retreated to the far side of the room until Jones called for a more manageable register. After Jennings looked over and saw that Nelson, too, had bailed out, the old outlaw pals from Texas broke into laughter.

At the podium, Jones was all smiles. The chorus was finally singing in key.

During another break, Al Jarreau and Lionel Richie broke into a playful version of "Banana Boat Song" as a salute to Harry Belafonte's role in organizing the project. Better remembered as "Day-O," the song has been one of Belafonte's signature numbers since the '50s.

After several sing-along choruses, Stevie Wonder made up a verse that poked fun at his own blindness and that of Ray Charles, who stood near him. Smiling broadly, Wonder sang:

If you drink too much, I'll have to say

You're gonna have to be driven home by me or Ray.

Day-o. Day-ay-ay-ay-o.

Quincy Jones called the affair a "space-age Woodstock." Stevie Wonder described it as "something out of a dream." Paul Simon was moved by the "tremendous sense of community." Bette Midler felt it brought out "the best in all of us."

The public reaction to the single, whose artist proceeds are going chiefly to aid famine victims in Africa, has been equally emotional.

"We Are the World"--which also features such artists as Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and Diana Ross--appears to have touched a nerve across the country that wasn't at all automatic in this cynical age.

Of course, in terms of numbers, it has become one of the fastest-selling singles of the modern pop era. The initial shipment of 800,000 of the records sold out within three days of its release March 7; subsequent orders have lifted sales to an estimated 1.5 million.

But some friends have told me they were so taken by the gentle, uplifting spirit of the song that their eyes filled with tears the first time they heard it.

For the more hard-boiled, much of the initial curiosity was in trying to figure out who among the many artists was singing which solo. Gradually, however, even most of these listeners became caught up in the gentle, inspiring message of the record.

The greatest impact of "We Are the World" seems to have been the video, which lets us see the singers take their turns at the microphone without any sense of star ego. The most moving sequence for me is when Wonder and Springsteen trade lines with an intensity and heart that's as endearing a celebration of the virtues of brotherhood as I've ever seen on a screen.

To the descriptions above, I'd add this one: The session was nothing short of a pop miracle.

"We Are the World" was inspired by the year-end success of "Do They Know It's Christmas," the single by British rock stars to raise money to help famine victims in Ethiopia.

Bob Geldof, the leader of the Boomtown Rats rock group, organized that session last November in London and had tried to get U.S. artists to put together an American equivalent shortly before Christmas. But he had little luck in even reaching the U.S. stars.

"I was pissed off," he said during a break in the "We Are the World" session in Hollywood. "I shouldn't have had to call them in the first place. After they heard what we did with Band Aid (the name given to the group of musicians who made the British single), they should have been calling me. I don't care what they had to do, even if it meant canceling shows. Lives are at stake."

Independently, Harry Belafonte called Ken Kragen, the manager of Richie and Kenny Rogers, to discuss the feasibility of a concert to raise funds for Africa. Kragen didn't think a concert would raise sufficient money, so he suggested that a small group of artists, perhaps a dozen, make a record. But the industry response was so strong that Kragen had to end up turning down about 50 artists to keep the session from becoming unwieldy.

Among the other artists featured on the record: Daryl Hall, Billy Joel, Huey Lewis & the News, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Smokey Robinson, Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner and Dionne Warwick.

After assembling the cast and the song (written by Jackson and Richie), the next challenge fell on the shoulders of producer-arranger Jones, who agreed to produce the record. Jones' task: Get all these artists--some of whom are known for their unbending artistic independence and some of whom are known for their massive egos--to work smoothly together.

Along with demo tapes of the song, he sent each artist a playful order to check all egos at the front door of the studio.

Still, Jones and other key organizers were nervous before the start of session at the A&M studios in Hollywood. How would the artists react once they began assembling and saw how little input they'd have in the evening's creative process?

Jones already had recorded the instrumental tracks and had worked out with arranger Tom Bahler the parts in the song that each soloist would sing. This was done by listening to records by each of the artists to determine which voices worked best alongside each other. Among the interesting vocal pairings: Turner and Joel, Warwick and Nelson and Jackson and Prince.

(The latter match-up never occurred because Prince was a no-show, sparking the evening's only hint of controversy. Prince's participation was apparently always tentative. Though he reportedly expressed interest, he never formally agreed to attend the session. However, he subsequently donated a song to the "We Are the World" album, which will be released April 1. The LP will feature the single plus previously unreleased tracks by nine artists, including Springsteen and Turner.)

When the soloists began arriving at the studio around 10 p.m., they found their names written on pieces of tape on the floor. The names were arranged in a half-circle so that three singers would share each of the six microphones. After all 45 singers finished the chorus, the dozen or so soloists stepped to the taped lines and began singing their parts, moving from Richie, Wonder and Simon on the first microphone around to Lewis, Lauper and Kim Carnes on the final one.

It worked beautifully.

No one complained about position or authority. One reason: They seemed genuinely interested in the cause. So often charity projects are just another excuse for career exposure. But they listened to a moving talk by Geldof, who had just returned from a visit to Ethiopia and reported on the suffering there, and two Ethiopian women whose presence at the session had been arranged through Wonder.

Besides, there were too many top-level stars for anyone to assert his ego. What other writer in the studio could claim to have shaped modern pop more forcefully than Bob Dylan? What other singer could even begin to think that he or she rivaled the influence of Ray Charles?

Did any entertainer serve the cause of social justice in this country with any more consistent dignity and commitment than Belafonte? Who wanted to compete on any level with artists the stature of Jackson, Nelson, Springsteen or Wonder?

Even some of the artists seemed surprised at how smoothly things went.

Confessed a smiling Paul Simon: "I did expect to see more ego. . . . You know, 'The Gloved One' meets 'The Boss' and things like that, but it's really not. It's really a pleasureable experience, and I think everybody feels the same way."

During the session, six cameras shot 45 hours worth of tape. This will be edited into an hour documentary that'll debut May 1 on Home Box Office. The tape will be used for a second documentary that will be sold in stores this summer. Proceeds from these projects, too, will go to the USA for Africa campaign, which Kragen expects to raise more than $100 million.

Some of the interaction should be terrific, including an endearing sequence where Dylan--unaccustomed to the cameras and other hoopla in the studio--was having a hard time getting the proper intensity in his lines. Richie went over and put his arm around the singer, trying to relax him and Jones came over and gave him a pep talk. But Wonder proved to be the biggest help, calling Dylan over to the piano and singing the lines the way Wonder pictured Dylan should sing them, even mimicking Dylan's raspy vocal style.

After all this, Dylan stepped up to the microphone and delivered the lines with such conviction that it led to some of the spontaneous applause of the evening in the studio.

Many of the artists had a hard time concealing their excitement at being in the studio for the first time with artists they've long admired. Dylan and Charles, especially, were the ones cited by many of the singers as special favorites.

Near the half-way mark in the session, Warwick began collecting autographs on "We Are the World" sheet music for Wonder. This led to an epidemic of autograph signing. Among the more amusing sidelights: the distinguished Belafonte bending over, asking orange-haired Lauper for an autograph.

Admitted Kenny Rogers: "There's no question (this was one of the highlights in my life). In fact, I think it's a highlight of everyone in the room's life as witnessed by people . . . who hate signing autographs are (collecting) autographs. Everyone wanted a memento."

I was in the session to interview the artists in connection with the video, and several of them spoke eloquently about the evening. Because there is such a socially conscious foundation to much of their music, you'd expect artists like Springsteen, Belafonte and Wonder to be effective spokesmen.

Asked why he had flown here from New York to be on the record, Springsteen said: "I think anytime somebody asks you to take one night of your time to help people who are starving to death someplace, it's pretty hard to say no. . . . It's unbelievable the amount of wealth we have in this country (but there is also) hunger in this country and . . . people (need to) take a look around a little bit more. . . . This is what this (recording) is all about."

Wonder spoke on a more philosophical level. "There was a time where if you saw someone that didn't have a bite of bread to eat or a cup of water to drink, you would just naturally share or give," he said. "Now other things unfortunately have taken precedence over the very basic orders of life--politics, how many people think this group of people should eat or that other group of people."

Belafonte continued on a sociopolitical note. "I don't think most of the people of the world knew about (the situation in parts of Africa)," he said, sitting in a studio lounge shortly after midnight. "The people who did know about it were the officials of government, the people who sit in high places and have access to information. Rather than respond to what was happening in Africa and to try to head it off in the name of humanity, people saw an opportunity to manipulate the conditions in Africa towards ideological goals or to political ends. I think therein lies the great human tragedy."

Though identified with conservative country music, Jennings and Nelson were equally outspoken.

"I'm amazed to see people in Ethiopia starving, but I'm more amazed to see people in the United Sates starving," Nelson said. "There are people starving to death on our own streets and freezing to death every night on our own streets, right here in this country. That's why I'm glad that a portion of this whole idea is being directed toward our own problem here."

Added Jennings: "I really don't understand (why people are allowed to starve to death). They ought to make it mandatory for every leader of the world (to get up) every morning and have to look at the films of some of those people over there (in Africa). If we take, say, six months and not spend anything on nuclear weapons, and just spend it on food, I think we could make a big dent."

Geldof is a colorful, marginally talented rocker with the Boomtown Rats band, but he has been an impassioned and effective force in rallying the music business behind the hunger issue. His tactic is to keep calling for more rather than praising what has been done.

Still, he seemed touched by the spirit in the "We Are the World" session.

"There's an awful lot of hyperbole surrounding pop music in general, but in particular here, this is the capital of hype," he said. "But I think all the hype was stripped away (tonight). . . .

"I mean, it's the same in Britain. . . . When Boy George started singing (during the Band Aid recording)--I don't care what you think of him--that kid has got so much soul in his voice. . . . Out comes this passion, and the same with these guys tonight. I really think it's a nice thing."

It was dawn, but Jones and Richie were still in the studio, finishing up.

Richie, sitting on the otherwise empty riser that had held the chorus earlier in the evening, listened to the playback of the song.

"As songwriters, it is our job to write down what people can't say or (what they) find hard to put into words," he said. "That's what a hit record is, when a lot of people say, 'God, I feel that same way.' What we're hoping here is when the world hears this record, they'll go, 'God, why didn't I think of that?' It's an awareness. Hopefully, it'll go around the world."

When the playback ended, Jones walked over and hugged Richie. They weren't taking credit for the record. At 8 a.m., they were just the only artists left in the studio.

Jones had one more description for the night. He looked across the room at the row of microphones and he said: "Two weeks ago I'd have said this was an impossible dream, but you know what? We reached it."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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