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American Idol Season 18 has just gotten underway, and the finale isn’t until May 17. But this week, as USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” turns 35, Idol judge Lionel Richie (who cowrote the 20 million-selling charity single with Michael Jackson) already has a plan for a season-closing celebration: A finale group number not only with the current contestants, but past Idols ranging from Carrie Underwood to Adam Lambert. “Get everybody. Bring everybody!” he exclaims excitedly when Yahoo Entertainment suggests the nostalgic idea.
American Idol has a history of charitable endeavors, like the Idol Gives Back television specials, so this would be the ideal time to carry on that tradition with “We Are the World,” Richie says. “The awareness of it all is fabulous, and the fact that we have the finale of the show. That would be perfect, perfect.”
Of course, when “We Are the World” came out on March 7, 1985, followed by Bob Geldof’s international Live Aid concerts in July ’85 (both of which, like the Geldof-organized Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” benefited African famine relief), it was a very different time. Media was more streamlined and centralized, and it was much easier to get a message out widely. Which is why American Idol, a show that has brought generations together since 2002, might be the perfect forum.
“Getting the world's attention, it's almost impossible now,” says Richie. “I'm telling you, unless there's just some catastrophic… I hate to say this, but 40 people dying of gunshots, that passes in a day now. We're just so desensitized. What’s it going to take? I loved it back then that we had ABC, NBC, CBS, and a brand-new station at that time called CNN. We had the world covered, and of course the BBC was on that side. We had it all covered. The problem now is while [disasters are] going on, everyone's looking at themselves on their own phones, because everybody is their star now. So it's very difficult to get the world’s attention.”
“We Are the World” certainly got the world’s attention 35 years ago. However, Richie says even in January 1985, when he was organizing the USA for Africa recording session at Los Angeles’s A&M Studios (after his manager, Ken Kragen, and Harry Belafonte came to him with the concept), he had no idea what the response or turnout would be.
“None of us knew,” he insists. “I mean, sure, we knew it was going to be impactful. But remember now, it started out with just four of us: Michael [Jackson], Stevie [Wonder], Quincy [Jones], and myself. The buzz went out that ‘Michael and Stevie and Lionel are doing something, what's going on?’ And then the phone calls came in, and others wanted to be on this.
“Unbeknownst to me and Michael, we thought it was going to be the four of us. And then we came out they said, ‘Well, they got about 35 artists that want to be on this.’ Holy crap, now we have pressure! But the beauty of it is, we were all starting in our careers… we were the new kids on the block. And then, something amazing happened. Bob Dylan came on board. And then Ray Charles came on board. And then Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen. And then we needed Dan Akroyd, just because it was the Ghostbusters moment, you know what I'm saying?” (Side note: Quincy Jones’s business partner and the associate producer/arranger of “We Are the World,” Thomas Bähler, told Yahoo Entertainment in 2015 that Akroyd earned his spot in the chorus. "Dan can sing," Bähler said. "I’ve worked with him before, and he sings beautifully.")
Eventually, 46 superstars signed on. “When we got Dylan, it was the real thing,” Richie says. “Then we realized, ‘We’re standing next to some of our heroes.’ Everything was in place because all of our egos [were in check].”
Famously, a sign that read “Check Your Egos at the Door” was posted at the studio’s entryway. As Jones told Yahoo Entertainment in 2015: “Those 46 singers came into the session with one thing on their minds: to try and make a difference. And they did. Every artist in the studio that night was at the peak of his or her career, but it was their collective star power that made ‘We Are the World’ a global event. If you’re not using your celebrity as a currency to bring attention to things that matter, what good is it, really? ‘We Are the World’ still stands as the most successful and unified outreach in the history of music.”
The significance of what Richie, Jackson, Jones, and their peers had achieved didn’t truly sink in until the single came out a little over a month later. “That evening was one of the most memorable parts of it, because no one really knew where this was going to go. And I remember I got the phone call and Michael said, ‘You're not going to believe this! Turn on the television!’” Richie recalls with a huge smile. “And they showed that in the streets of Tokyo, people were singing it. In the streets of Paris, they were singing it. In the streets of London, New York. And I kept thinking, ‘What did we just do?’ And Michael said, ‘Lionel, we did the world.’”
“We Are the World” becoming the fastest-selling American pop single in history, and the first single to be certified multi-platinum. It later won four Grammy Awards (including Record and Song of the Year) and Song of the Year at the American Music Awards, and it raised more than $63 million (the equivalent to $147 million today). But despite all that success, Richie realizes now that — as well-intentioned and awareness-raising as projects like Band Aid, Live Aid, and USA for Africa were — none of them offered a quick or easy solution. But maybe that’s why it’s time to bring back the song (which was re-recorded 10 years ago by a new cast of all-stars, including Idol alum Jennifer Hudson and then-judge Randy Jackson, for Haitian earthquake relief), this time via American Idol.
“[In 1985], in our naivete, we thought we had solved the world's hunger problem. And of course, the irony of all that is everybody goes back to sleep again,” Richie laments. “And it just becomes harder and harder to get the world to understand. But we are exactly what's happening in the world. We have to be able to help people survive.”
Additional reporting by Billy Johnson Jr.
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