Lionel Richie on Two Crucial Elements of We Are the World

Lionel Richie on Two Crucial Elements of We Are the World

Lionel Richie recently reflected on the creation of the iconic charity single “We Are the World,” emphasizing two crucial elements that made the project a success. The song, co-written by Richie and Michael Jackson, was a monumental effort to raise funds for African famine relief. It brought together 46 of the biggest names in music for a single recording session on January 28, 1985. The project, spearheaded by entertainment manager Ken Kragen, included stars like Kenny Rogers, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles, and Tina Turner. The single topped charts, won four Grammy Awards, and raised over $80 million for humanitarian aid.

Richie attributes the success of “We Are the World” to two main factors: the purity of the idea and the absence of modern distractions. “We didn’t have any distractions,” Richie told CBS News. “There was no Internet, no cellphones, just the purity of a thought and how to get it done.” This simplicity allowed the artists to focus entirely on the project without the interruptions that are common today.

The song’s creation began with Richie and Jackson writing the lyrics at the Jackson family home in Encino, surrounded by Michael’s exotic pets. Richie recalled, “I’m trying to write the lyrics to this song, and I’m screaming, and he’s going, ‘He wants to play with you, Lionel.’” The project quickly gained momentum as more artists signed on. Richie remembered the moment when Kragen called to say that Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan had agreed to participate. “All of a sudden, we went from just la la la to panic,” Richie said.

The recording session took place in Los Angeles right after the American Music Awards, ensuring that most of the talent would be in one place. Richie described the atmosphere as “a room full of five-year-olds, all amazed to be there with each other.” Quincy Jones, who produced the song along with Michael Omartian, played a crucial role in managing the egos and ensuring that the recording went smoothly. Jones had each musician sing in a circle to “the class” to keep everyone grounded.

Richie admitted that the experience was intimidating. “Now that I talk about it, it was terrifying,” he said. Despite the initial fear, the project was a resounding success, raising millions for humanitarian aid in Africa. The song’s legacy continues, recently re-entering the charts thanks to a Netflix documentary detailing the events leading up to “The Greatest Night in Pop.”

Reflecting on the project’s financial success, Richie said, “We kept thinking, ‘OK, we’re gonna give away a lot of money. Hopefully, we’ll raise 10 million.’ Once you get to 40 and 50 million, whoa, what the heck just happened?” He recalled a conversation with Quincy Jones where they decided to commit all the money raised to the cause.

The documentary “The Greatest Night in Pop,” directed by Bao Nguyen, delves into the behind-the-scenes moments of that night. Nguyen likened the assembly of the star-studded team to a heist film, with Quincy Jones as the mastermind. The documentary features archival footage and audio recordings, providing a detailed look at the making of the song.

Richie served as Jones’ “floor man” during the recording session, helping to keep his anxious peers on task. He was also hosting the American Music Awards that night, adding to the adrenaline-fueled process. Richie and Jackson wrote the song in a two-week sprint, often distracted by the animals at the Jackson home. “We were all over the place,” Richie said. “We were down at the house and watching the dog argue with the bird — who could talk. Looking at the snake and Bubbles.”

Quincy Jones famously put up a sign in the recording studio that read, “Check your egos at the door.” This helped manage the various personalities and ensure that the focus remained on the music. Richie explained that the song’s lyrics were carefully crafted to avoid any slang or phrases that would date the song. “There’s no words in there like, ‘Right on.’ Once you say ‘Right on,’ you’re locked into the ’60s,” he said.

One of the mysteries of the night was the absence of Prince, who was supposed to have a solo part. Huey Lewis ended up singing his part. Richie speculated that Prince’s absence was due to his rivalry with Michael Jackson and his preference for working alone. “At that time, he wasn’t a group person. He was Prince,” Richie said.

The recording session was a unique experience, with all the artists singing their parts while facing each other in a half-circle. This setup ensured that everyone was focused and engaged. Richie noted that the artists chosen for the lead vocals were not just singers but stylists with instantly recognizable voices.

Richie believes that a project like “We Are the World” would be difficult to replicate today due to the changes in the music industry and the rise of the internet. “What made ‘We Are the World’ so fantastic was we snuck up on the world. It came out fast. You could surprise somebody,” he said. The internet has made everyone famous, making it harder to create a similar impact.

Despite the challenges, the legacy of “We Are the World” endures, serving as a testament to the power of music and collaboration in making a difference.

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