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Ken Kragen, who helped organize ‘We Are the World,’ dies at 85

Harry Belafonte, left, and Ken Kragen in 1986
Harry Belafonte, left, and Ken Kragen with awards from the 1986 American Music Awards for their efforts in the “USA for Africa” project and the hit song “We Are the World.”
(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

Ken Kragen, a top entertainment producer, manager and philanthropist who turned to such clients as Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers in helping to organize the 1985 all-star charity single “We Are the World,” has died. He was 85.

Kragen died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, according to a statement released by his family.

“Ken worked tirelessly on behalf of the artists he represented, but what I loved most about him, other than the essence of his spirit, was that he had a 360-degree understanding that the combination of art & commerce could be used to make the world a better place,” Quincy Jones, who produced “We Are the World,” tweeted this week.

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“As one of the original organizing partners on ‘We Are the World,’ w/o Ken’s expertise & specific skill set, we may never have made the enormous global impact that we did,” Jones tweeted.

Kragen was a Harvard Business School graduate whose other credits included producing “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Gambler” television movies that starred Rogers. His most famous project began late in 1984 with a phone call from Harry Belafonte, who was anxious to raise money for starving people in Africa, notably in Ethiopia, where a famine had killed millions. The British recording “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” that featured George Michael, Bono and many others had been a major success, and Belafonte wanted to organize a U.S. effort.

He first contacted Kragen, whom he didn’t even know.

“I needed a younger generation of artists, the ones at the top of the charts right now: Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers and Cyndi Lauper. When I looked at the management of most of these artists, I kept seeing the same name: Ken Kragen,” Belafonte wrote in his memoir “My Song,” published in 2011.

Kragen was hesitant at first, Belafonte wrote, but called Richie, who said yes. Rogers said the same, as did Jones and dozens of others, including Jackson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder. “We Are the World,” co-written by Jackson and Richie, went on to sell tens of millions of copies and win Grammys for record and song of the year. Kragen later received a United Nations Peace Medal.

Kragen also managed Trisha Yearwood, the Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John among others. His other charitable works included the “Hands Across America” fundraiser from 1985, when a cross-country human chain featured notable names such as President Reagan, Yoko Ono and Robin Williams.

Kragen’s survivors include his wife, actor Cathy Worthington; their daughter, cinematographer Emma Kragen; and her husband, director/producer Zach Marion.


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