Written by New Zealand broadcaster Tim Roxborogh
28th Jan 2015
It’s 30 years today since USA For Africa’s We Are The World was recorded. The perennially cool Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac) was part of the all-star chorus and I remember him telling me that one of his defining memories of that day was bumping into Michael Jackson in the bathroom.
For the record, I was interviewing Lindsey just after Michael’s death in 2009. He said he already could tell – even at that stage in Michael’s life – that MJ was a troubled soul. And a genius too.
Lindsey Buckingham: “I think I walked into the bathroom and he was in there and it kind of freaked him out! He was quite nervous just to be startled by someone walking in and I just nodded my head. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to engage him in a ‘hello’ at that point. He was really at the top of his game and I think probably even then was dealing with a lot of demons that were probably from way back when he was a kid. You know, I just didn’t want to intrude at all on his trip…”
Me: “Certainly not in the bathroom…”
LB: (Laughs) Yeah, especially not in the bathroom but not otherwise either.”
Innocuous as it is, this anecdote does give a sense of how even at a gathering with as much talent and ego as 30 years ago, there was an understanding that Michael Jackson was something altogether different.
Speaking of ego, We Are The World producer Quincy Jones famously put up a sign at the studio reading, “Please check your ego at the door.” When you consider not just the incredible names present, but the divvying up of lead and chorus lines, it would’ve been easy for things to get messy. How do you tell Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson and John Oates they’re not getting leads when Kim Carnes, Al Jarreau and Daryl Hall are? Not to mention who would sing the first line? Well, co-writer Lionel Richie got dibs on that and fair enough too.
As things turned out, Ray Charles took on a kind of fatherly, authoritative role that commanded the respect of his younger, arguably even more famous, peers.His presence plus the purpose of the song in the first place – to raise money and awareness for extreme poverty in Africa – helped keeps things relatively convivial and on-task.
Produced by Quincy Jones, written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson (at the urging of activist Harry Belafonte) and featuring more than 40 superstars like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Hall & Oates, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and many others, We Are The World would top charts around the world, ultimately selling more than 20 million copies. More importantly, the song (plus its parent album and associated merchandise) has raised in excess of an estimated US $60 million for humanitarian causes over the past 30 years.