By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist
With more than 40 years in the music business, Lionel Richie has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. As a solo artist and member of the Commodores, he has scored dozens of hits, making him one of the most beloved American recording artists of all time. In honor of his upcoming May 26 show with Mariah Carey at Amalie Arena, here’s a look at the making of one his most famous songs: “We Are the World.”
1.The whole thing began with Harry Belafonte. The singer and activist had heard Bob Geldof’s UK charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and wanted to do something similar with U.S. artists. Belafonte planned for the proceeds to go to a charity called USA for Africa, to help with famine relief, particularly in Ethiopia. Belafonte reached out to Ken Kragen, the manager of Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie, among others, to ask if the artists Kragen represented would be interested in participating in the charity single. Richie not only agreed to participate, but volunteered to write the song.
2. Lionel Richie invited his former Motown labelmate Stevie Wonder to participate, because they needed another big name. Besides Richie and Kenny Rogers, adding Stevie Wonder to the project in the beginning lent the endeavor serious weight, allowing them to more easily enlist other artists to the project. Wonder agreed to co-write the song, although he later had to drop out of the song’s writing due to his busy schedule.
3. Richie also invited Michael Jackson. Another former Motown pal, Jackson agreed to participate and asked if he could help write the song. Richie agreed. With Jackson came newly legendary producer Quincy Jones, who had produced the Thriller album.
4. Writing the song was a process of stops and starts. For a week, Richie and Jackson worked on the song every night. They were convinced that simple was better—the song should be memorable, easy to sing, with simple lyrics. Richie wrote two melodies for the song, and passed them on to Jackson. To Richie and Quincy Jones’ surprise, Jackson added music and words to the song the same day, quickly completing a demo that he passed on to Richie and Jones. Then the process stalled; Jackson and Richie couldn’t seem to complete the song. The night before the recording session, the duo finished the song in a two and half hour burst of creativity.
5. The recording sessions were interesting. Jackson and Richie recorded a guide vocal, to be sent to the participating artists so they could learn the song. Less than a week later, the final version of the song was recorded. Jackson arrived early, to complete his own vocals before the other artists arrived. A sign posted at the entrance to the studio read, “Please check your egos at the door.” With almost 50 top recording artists, the studio was packed. Stevie Wonder acted as a greeter, joking to each new arrival that if the song wasn’t recorded in one take, he and Ray Charles would personally drive everyone home. The session began at 10:30 p.m. and lasted until early the next morning.
6. The song was not only a number one hit, it raised almost 11 million dollars in four months. The song is also one of the biggest selling singles of all time, with more than 20 million copies sold. The music video, featuring the star-studded recording session, was also a hit on MTV.
Jessica Wheeler is a columnist for AliveTampaBay.