On April 5, 1985, thousands of radio stations around the world joined in a simultaneous airing of “We Are the World,” the star-studded benefit record released under the name USA for Africa. On that Friday morning (which that year was Good Friday), “We Are the World” was the hottest song in the world — most likely hotter than anything since high Beatlemania21 years before.
The song had been recorded during an all-night session in January following the American Music Awards, which brought many of the top stars in music to Los Angeles. The week before, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones had worked up an arrangement and polished the song before sending cassette copies to the artists who had agreed to participate. They included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, and a host of others.
Some who were invited didn’t end up on the finished song: Prince didn’t show, although he did donate a track to the eventual We Are the World benefit album. Country singer Waylon Jennings left early, allegedly because he didn’t want to sing a line of the song in Swahili.
The song was released on March 7 and charted in Billboard on March 23. That spring, I was a young disc jockey and program director at a station in small-town Illinois. We got our music from a syndication service, but I couldn’t wait for them to add “We Are the World,” so I went down to our local record store and bought a copy — and promptly snapped it in two when I sat it on my desk, the only time in my life I’ve ever broken a record that way. So I went and got another one.
There was something exhilarating about playing “We Are the World,” the first few times at least. You knew you were part of an enormous cultural phenomenon, you were giving your listeners exactly what they wanted to hear (for they were caught up in the phenomenon too), and you even felt like you were personally helping feed starving Ethiopians.
The feeling didn’t last, however. “We Are the World” is the kind of record that burns out quickly. By the time it fell off the charts in June after a 13-week run, radio stations were ready to be rid of it. Although it would win Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Group Performance, and Best Short Form Video at the GRAMMYs, by the time it collected those awards in early 1986, it rarely got much airplay anymore. (It also won major awards from MTV in 1985.)
It’s estimated that “We Are the World” sold 20 million copies worldwide, and it has raised something like $63 million to date for African famine relief. And if it’s been a while since you’ve heard it — or if, by chance, you’ve never heard it before — here it is.