No one wants to take credit for the remarkable "We Are the World" benefit project.
While three of the primary organizers--pop music manager Ken Kragen, Harry Belafonte and producer Quincy Jones--were willing to discuss the project, they also wanted to avoid the media spotlight.
"We're not looking for glory or publicity for ourselves," Kragen explained. "If you could talk about the project and forget us, that would be nice." That unselfish spirit pervades this project.
The focal point is a single, "We Are the World," written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and recorded by 46 pop and rock stars to benefit the victims of the African famine.
The vocal session--Jan. 28 at the A&M; studio in Hollywood--was a summit meeting of most of America's top singers, including Richie, Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Huey Lewis, Hall and Oates, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Jeffrey Osborne, Billy Joel and Ray Charles.
The single, produced by Quincy Jones, was completed Tuesday and will be released March 11 in a basic, 5 1/2-minute form as an extended 12-inch and as a video. Incidentally, Kragen said the single will not, as previously reported, be premiered on the Feb. 26 Grammy show.
An album, consisting of previously unreleased tracks by various stars, will be out April 1. About the same time, an hourlong videocassette, distilled from 45 hours of tape shot at three recording sessions, will be released by a company not yet selected.
According to Kragen, the album and single will be on the same label. The record deal, he reported, has basically been completed. However, the name of the label won't be revealed for 5 to 10 days.
This unique all-star group is called USA for Africa. That's also the name of the foundation established to administer the money.
"We expect to raise at least $20 million and possibly as much as $50 million," Kragen said.
So far, the project, which would normally be staggeringly expensive, has cost hardly anything. More than a million dollars in goods and services have been donated, not including artists' time and expenses.
When the project was conceived, just before Christmas, no one involved expected it to approach this magnitude. Singer Harry Belafonte, a veteran political and social activist, came up with the idea. He was impressed with the single, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" recorded by an all-star group of British singers called Band Aid. So far that record and video have generated $9.2 million worldwide.
"When I heard what those British artists had done, it made no sense that the pop artists in this country weren't organizing to do something on that scale," Belafonte said.
According to reports, Belafonte originally envisioned this as an all-black project. "That's not true," he said. "That's too limiting. I do agree that black artists should be doing more. If Jews were starving to death in Israel, you can bet American Jews would organize and raise millions to feed their foreign brethren. I wish blacks in this country had that same spirit."
Originally, Belafonte wanted to organize a benefit concert. He contacted concert promoter Ron Delsener, who suggested that Kragen was the best man to organize the show. Due to the charitable efforts of his clients, Kenny Rogers and the late Harry Chapin, Kragen is familiar with the fight against world hunger; also, he manages another top singer, Lionel Richie, whose participation would attract other stars.
"When Harry called, I told him I wanted to help organize something but I doubted that a concert would be effective," Kragen recalled. "I didn't think we could do a concert in the proper size and scope. Making a record seemed to make more sense."
Kragen recruited producer Quincy Jones and called Richie, who wanted to write the song with Stevie Wonder. Richie asked Michael Jackson to sing at the session but Jackson also wanted to help compose. Since Wonder was out of town most of January, Jackson wound up writing "We Are the World" with Richie.
"They wrote it in two or three days," Jones said. "First, they wrote the melody. We needed something with a universal, sing-along quality. Then they wrote the lyrics. We had to do some polishing at the last minute, changing some words here and there, but not that much."
The instrumental tracks were recorded Jan. 22. There was no rehearsal for the Jan. 28 vocal session after the American Music Awards show. Instead, the artists had to do homework; each was mailed demonstration cassettes of the song and lyric sheets.
"The single best decision I made was to do this on the night of the awards," Kragen said. "The majority of the artists would already be in town for the show."
Jones, Kragen and a few others met and planned the whole session--who would sing which solos, who would stand where. "The decisions were made musically," Kragen said. "It was based on whose voice would sound better singing a certain line. Figuring out where everyone stood was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. When they arrived at the studio, their names were taped on the floor--all they had to do was go to their spot. We never left anything to doubt."
Jones observed: "You can't be democratic when you have that many stars working together. If you try to be democratic, you're in for chaos."
With Jones, probably the most respected producer in the business, at the helm, chaos was unlikely. "Ken wanted me to produce because he thought I could get along with all those people," Jones said. "I had worked with most of them before. Besides, I'm older than all of them," he said wryly. "They have to respect the senior citizen."
Jones had also produced an all-star single, "State of Independence," for a Donna Summer album. The 14 stars at that vocal session had included Richie and Wonder.
"I knew what to expect from this new project," Jones said. "You have all these strong star egos. Together, they're strong enough to bowl me over. Fortunately, they didn't."
Initially, Kragen envisioned a small group of stars recording the single. "I tried hard to cut it off at 15," he said, "but word got out and I started to get calls from everybody. I tried hard to cut it off at 28--to this day I don't know how it got to be 46. Still, we turned down almost 50 artists."
For Kragen, who's often called Mr. Nice Guy, rejecting artists was the most unpleasant part of the project: "How do you turn down well-meaning artists? How do you turn down John Denver? He's been involved in fighting world hunger for years." (Denver is not on the single.)
Being a hatchet man, Kragen discovered, can have unhappy consequences. "I've had calls from some very angry people," he said. "I hope I didn't lose some friends, but I may have."
In selecting artists, Kragen tried carefully to strike a key balance: aiming for variety, while getting singers who are basically hip and prestigious.
"We wanted stars that other stars wanted to work with," he said. "We didn't want to scare certain stars away by having certain people. Some stars are very conscious of whom they work with. We didn't want the wrong people there. We wanted the right people so we could attract the right people. Needless to say we made some very arbitrary decisions."
Desperate for ways to limit the roster, Kragen initially said no groups. But he made an exception for Huey Lewis, who said he didn't work without his group, the News.
Then, based on the group name, USA for Africa, Kragen limited the roster to Americans. But there was another exception--Irish rock star Bob Geldof, the chief organizer of the Band Aid project.
"We had to have Bob," Kragen said. "I've talked to him daily since this started. He's been very helpful."
At first, there were no nationality restrictions. Kragen contacted such foreign singers as Elton John, David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart but, due to previous commitments, none could be there for the recording session. McCartney wanted to tape his segment separately and have it added to the final version. Kragen vetoed that suggestion:
"I was worried that if I allowed one artist to record his part somewhere else, other artists might want to do the same thing and they wouldn't show up at the session. We didn't want that. Part of the impact of this thing was getting all that great talent together in one session."
The nationality restriction forced Kragen to exclude his friend, Olivia Newton-John. "I hated to refuse her," he said. "I wrote her a long letter and explained it to her. We've remained friends."
On the album, Kragen will make another exception to the nationality restriction. Northern Lights, a group of Canadian artists including producer David Foster, Anne Murray and Joni Mitchell, recorded a song Sunday in Toronto that will be used on the album. The song is "Tears Are Not Enough," written by Foster and Bryan Adams.
Currently, Kragen is concentrating on assembling the album, tentatively also titled "We Are the World."
Prince, maligned for missing the vocal session, redeemed himself by being the first artist to turn in a track. His "Tears in Your Eyes" was written specifically for the album.
Kragen is hoping for tracks from such stars as Springsteen, Lewis, Wonder and Hall and Oates. Getting finished songs by the March 1 deadline won't be so easy.
"Some people don't have any good spare material and they don't have time to go into the studio," he said. "Promising a track and delivering it are two different things."
Most likely Kragen will again have to play hatchet man.
"People whose tracks aren't used on the album will be mad," he said. "I'm going to be cold and blunt about it. I have to be. All I have to do is keep in mind an image of some starving African child with flies on his face. The best possible way to help that child is to put out the best possible record. I'll do what I have to do to get the best possible record."