Live Aid: The Complicated History of the World's Biggest Charity Concert, 35 Years Later

George Michael, Bob Geldof, Bono, Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, and Howard Jones gather together for the Live Aid finale at London's Wembley Stadium.
George Michael, Bob Geldof, Bono, Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, and Howard Jones gather together for the Live Aid finale at London's Wembley Stadium.
Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pop music didn’t suddenly discover altruism in the 1980s. The idea of the star-studded charity concert dates at least as far back as 1971, which is when former Beatle George Harrison organized The Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit for refugees in the former East Pakistan. But do-gooder musicians took it to the next level in the '80s—the decade of “We Are the World,” Farm Aid, Band Aid, and of course, Live Aid.

Bono performing with U2 at the Live Aid charity concert in London in 1985. Dave Hogan/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Live Aid, which took place on July 13, 1985 for a global audience of 1.9 billion people, was a massive, bicontinental pop concert created to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief. It was the brainchild of Bob Geldof, leader of the Irish new wave band The Boomtown Rats. Geldof was spurred to philanthropic action after seeing a BBC report in October 1984 that featured footage of starving children. His first thought was to make a charity single.

Geldof enlisted his buddy Midge Ure, the frontman of the band Ultravox, to help him write and record “Do They Know It’s Christmas” just a few weeks later. The single, which was released on December 3, 1984, was credited to Band Aid—an amalgamation of the day’s biggest pop stars, including George Michael, Boy George, and Bono. It reached No. 1 on the UK charts and raised more than $28 million for the cause. But that wasn’t enough for Geldof. At least not if the Band Aid organization was going to buy a fleet of trucks to move food and supplies to Ethiopians in need, as Geldof hoped. So he took the next logical step and planned a concert.

Setting the Stage

Much has been said and written about Live Aid over the last 35 years. To some, it was a beautiful moment of idealism and compassion. Others question the motives and effectiveness of a bunch of wealthy celebrities—most of them white—trying to swoop in and save Africa.

David Bowie performing at the Live Aid concert in London on July 13, 1985.Georges De Keerle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To measure the success of Live Aid, one needs to consider three different things: numerical data, entertainment value, and overall impact. By the first of these metrics, sheer numbers, Live Aid was an overwhelming triumph. Geldof and company secured both Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia to host the concert on two continents. Using industry connections, persuasion, and a little bit of trickery, Geldof was able to book more than 50 of the music industry's biggest names, including Queen, David Bowie, Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Who, Bob Dylan, U2, and Madonna.

“He had to call Elton and say 'Queen are in and Bowie's in,' and of course they weren't,” production manager Andy Zweck told The Guardian of Geldof’s tactics. “Then he’d call Bowie and say 'Elton and Queen are in.' It was a game of bluff.”

With the help of producer Michael C. Mitchell, Live Aid sold broadcast rights to 150 countries, at least 22 of which aired telethons. Both MTV and ABC carried the feed in the United States, the latter in the form of a primetime special hosted by Dick Clark. All told, Live Aid raised approximately $140 million.

A Musical Twofer

Of course, Live Aid wasn’t just about fundraising. It also had to be a great show—or else why would people bother to watch it in the first place? As it happened, the day was filled with memorable performances on both sides of the Atlantic. The consensus pick for Live Aid MVP is Queen, whose 21-minute Wembley set included “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” and “We are the Champions.” Mercury "strutted and preened, carrying his microphone on a metal pole that he treated as a vaudevillian’s cane, an air guitar, and, of course, a phallus," The New York Times wrote of Mercury's performance. "He was a rock star playing a rock star, leather-lunged and imperious but also grinning to let everyone share the joke ... For 21 minutes, Freddie Mercury undeniably made the world his stadium." In 2005, Queen’s Live Aid set was voted the greatest rock gig in history by a panel of music industry experts.

Less than two hours before Queen hit the stage, U2 wowed Wembley with a performance that cemented their status as future stadium kings. During their 11-minute rendition of “Bad,” Bono plucked a 15-year-old fan named Kal Khalique from the crowd and slow-danced with her as if no one else was watching. Of course, U2 knew everyone was watching, and while Khalique has claimed that Bono saved her from being crushed, the mulletted rocker may have engineered the moment for TV cameras. Either way, it worked.

Live Aid was also a big day for Run-DMC, and hip-hop in general. In 1985, pop radio stations were still reluctant to play this new form of music, and the Queens rappers undoubtedly raised some eyebrows as they took the stage in Philly with no band—just DJ Jam Master Jay behind two turntables. “We got a whole lot of rock groups backstage tonight, but D wants y’all to know one thing," Joseph “Run” Simmons told the crowd, just before launching into “King of Rock.” Run-DMC later boasted about their Live Aid win on 1986’s “My Adidas,” rapping, “Stepped on stage, at Live Aid, all the people gave, and the poor got paid!”

One man who literally went the distance for the cause was Phil Collins. The Genesis frontman and chart-dominating solo artist performed with Sting at 3:15 p.m. in London, then jumped on the Concorde and flew to Philly to play his own set and serve as drummer for Eric Clapton and a reunited Led Zeppelin. Most people agree that the Zeppelin set was a total disaster—the band was under-rehearsed and out of tune. But decades later, Collins’s ocean-hopping stunt is what people remember. “I was in England this afternoon,” Collins told the Philly crowd. “Funny old world, innit?”

Other highlights included Madonna getting into the groove, Mick Jagger turning up the heat with Tina Turner, and Elton John and George Michael dueting on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” Bob Dylan planted the seeds for another charity concert, Farm Aid, when he took a moment during his performance with Keith Richards and Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones to suggest that some of the money be used to help struggling American farmers.

The Diversity Divide

In all, the shows offered a good mix of Baby Boomer favorites (Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney) and hip younger acts (Elvis Costello, The Style Council, Adam Ant, Thompson Twins). But Live Aid did have a diversity problem.

Run-DMC performing at Live Aid in 1985.Frank Micelotta Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

About a month before the show, legendary concert promoter Bill Graham said that “every major Black artist on the Billboard 200 chart and R&B chart” had been approached. Many artists, including Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Prince, had simply declined to perform. But others, including Dionne Warwick, said they’d never been invited. As the concert date grew closer, Live Aid organizers scrambled to add more Black artists, including The Four Tops, Tina Turner, and Patti LaBelle.

“After the concert, we were lambasted for not having enough Black artists on the bill. It became this anti-colonial diatribe, ‘You whites, telling us poor Black guys what to do,’” Midge Ure told the Independent. “It was unfair but it happened.”

The lasting impact of Live Aid remains a far greater source of controversy. In 1986, SPIN ran a story titled “Live Aid: The Terrible Truth” which claimed that food and aid money were bolstering the government of dictator Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the man most responsible for Ethiopia’s suffering. According to SPIN, Mengistu used food to lure people into camps that allowed his regime to forcefully relocate hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. Mengistu reportedly also used Western aid to purchase arms from the Soviets to use in his fight against rebels.

In a 2005 piece for The Guardian, David Rieff paraphrased Ethiopia expert Alex de Waal and wrote that Live Aid cut the famine death toll by “between a quarter and a half.” “The problem is that it may have contributed to as many deaths,” Rieff added.

Geldof has always defended Live Aid’s use of funds. “I said as early as January 1985, I will shake hands with the devil on my left and on my right to get to the people we are meant to help,” he said in response to the SPIN exposé. Geldof later said that Live Aid was “almost perfect in what it achieved.” He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1986 in recognition of his work in helping Africa's starving population.

The Live Aid Legacy

One thing Live Aid definitely did was put Ethiopia on Americans' and Europeans' radars. It also created a new template for high-profile musical benefits. Farm Aid launched in 1985; three years later, in 1988, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and others crossed the globe as part of the Human Rights Now! tour on behalf of Amnesty International. There was The Concert for New York City after 9/11 and The SARS Benefit Concert in 2003. In 2005, Geldof revisited the Live Aid model with Live 8, a series of concerts aimed at convincing the G8 leaders to forgive debt for African nations and enact fairer trade laws.

In 2007, Al Gore helped to organize Live Earth, which was essentially Live Aid for climate change. Geldof was critical of the event, which he said lacked “a final goal.” “I would only organize this if I could go on stage and announce concrete environmental measures from the American presidential candidates, Congress, or major corporations,” Geldof said.

Geldof made headlines again in March 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when he helped pop singer Rita Ora design an emblem to promote the WHO and UN’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. In an interview with the Toronto Sun, Geldof gave Ora most of the credit for the logo. The man who mobilized the world for a single cause 35 years earlier also seemed less convinced that human beings—musicians or otherwise—were any match for humanity itself.

“The Achilles heel of humanity is its hubris,” Geldof said. “We think that we can dominate everything but nature just comes along and wipes us out.

“What’s positive is that people understand how fragile we are and they also understand the bravery of all the people who are working to help ... But that will fade over a very short period when we go back to the same old, same old. It’s simply a function of globalization and that’s not going anywhere.”

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12 Festive Facts About White Christmas

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 1953, Paramount Pictures set out to make a musical built around and named after the most popular Christmas pop song of all time. At that point “White Christmas” had already become a holiday classic thanks in no small part to Bing Crosby’s hit recording of the song, but would it translate to the same success on the big screen?

With Crosby’s star power leading the way and Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair, White Christmas overcame some early development struggles and even some anxiety from composer Irving Berlin to become one of the most celebrated holiday movies of all time. Here are 12 facts about its production and reception.

1. The song "White Christmas" was already a hit.

Though the film didn’t come along until 1954, the story of White Christmas actually began more than a decade earlier, when Irving Berlin composed the future holiday classic that would become the title track. Berlin wrote the song in 1940, and the next year Bing Crosby—the singer still most identified with the song, despite many cover versions—sang it on his Christmas radio show.

By 1942, Crosby had recorded the song, and over that same year it made its first film appearance in Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film helped earn “White Christmas” the Oscar for Best Song in 1943, and over the course of the 1940s the song climbed to #1 on the charts several times. It would go on to hold the title of bestselling single of all time for decades, until it was finally eclipsed by Elton John’s rewritten 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind.” Because of the song’s enduring popularity, particularly during the World War II years, it was only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize, and by 1949 what would eventually become White Christmas began to take shape at Paramount Pictures.

2. White Christmas was originally set to co-star Fred Astaire.

By the late 1940s, Irving Berlin and executives at Paramount Pictures were working on piecing together White Christmas as a movie musical with the title song as its centerpiece, and they had big plans for the film’s stars. The project was originally envisioned as the third installment of an unofficial trilogy of buddy musicals starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The duo had already teamed up for Holiday Inn in 1942 (which also featured “White Christmas”) and Blue Skies in 1946, and White Christmas was supposed to mark a triumphant reunion. Unfortunately, Astaire ultimately turned the project down, reportedly due to lack of interest and a concern that he might be getting too old for such a film.

3. Bing Crosby almost passed on White Christmas.

While most of the casting drama surrounding the film was tied to the Phil Davis character, there was also a point during pre-production on White Christmas that the film almost had to go searching for a new Bob Wallace. In January of 1953, when Astaire decided to back out of the project, Crosby also decided he wasn’t sure the film was right for him, and initially planned to take time off to be with his son following the death of Crosby’s wife, actress Dixie Lee. Later that some month, though, Crosby decided to stick with the project, and White Christmas moved ahead.

4. Danny Kaye was cast at the last-minute.

Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

With Fred Astaire out of the picture, Paramount had to search for a new star to play Phil Davis to Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace, and settled on Donald O’Connor, who was fresh off the success of Singin’ in the Rain. O’Connor was all set to play Davis in the film, but became ill shortly before production was set to begin. Now anxious to find a new co-star in time, the studio offered the role to Danny Kaye, who decided to go for broke and request a salary of $200,000 plus a percentage of the film’s gross. Kaye was apparently certain the studio would say no, but they agreed to his terms rather than attempting to wait it out for O’Connor’s health to improve. Kaye was cast as Phil Davis, and O’Connor would later go on to work with Crosby on Anything Goes.

5. Rosemary Clooney couldn’t dance.

Rosemary Clooney was one of the most acclaimed and beloved singers of her generation, and with White Christmas she became a co-star of one of the most acclaimed and beloved musical films of all time. Clooney was able to do this despite one particular shortcoming, which she was always honest about in both interviews and in her eventual autobiography: She was not a dancer. Clooney’s character, Betty Haynes, only has two real moments of dance in the film—in “Sisters” and in the “Minstrel Show” medley—and both times the choreography is rather simple and (in the case of “Sisters”) makes use of a prop to help make the scene visually interesting without too much actual dancing involved.

6. Vera-Ellen couldn’t sing.

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

To complete the duo of the Haynes sisters, Rosemary Clooney was paired with Vera-Ellen, who was already an experienced and acclaimed movie musical performer considered by many to be one of the best dancers in Hollywood at the time. Clooney recalled feeling “inadequate” when paired with her new co-star in terms of learning her limited White Christmas choreography, but also noted that their dynamic was rather evened out by both Vera-Ellen’s patience and the fact that she couldn’t sing. Vera-Ellen’s vocals were dubbed in White Christmas, largely by an uncredited Trudy Stevens, but by Clooney herself for the song “Sisters.”

“If they could have dubbed my dancing, now, we would have had a perfect picture,” Clooney later joked.

7. Bing Crosby improvised a lot of his White Christmas dialogue.

By the time White Christmas came along, Bing Crosby was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a veteran singer and actor who could pack audiences in and commanded respect on the Paramount Pictures lot. This meant his job came with a lot of perks, including the opportunity to embellish and flat-out improvise much of his dialogue on the fly. As co-star Rosemary Clooney recalled later on a commentary track for the film, when Bob Wallace used phrases like “slam-bang finish,” it was often because the phrases were favorites of Crosby’s. Clooney also recalled that the little monologue Crosby’s character goes on when they meet in the Columbia Inn lounge for sandwiches and buttermilk was largely made up by Crosby on the spot, faux German accent and all.

8. Bing Crosby didn’t like shooting White Christmas's "Sisters" scene.

One of the most famous scenes in White Christmas involves Bob Wallace and Phil Davis rolling up their pant legs and lip-syncing to Judy and Betty Haynes’s song “Sisters” in an effort to cause a diversion so the sisters could escape a vengeful landlord and hop on a train to Vermont. It’s an instantly memorable, and very funny movie moment, but apparently Bing Crosby was actually somewhat uncomfortable about the scene. In an effort to liven the performance up and get a rise out of his co-star, Danny Kaye improvised the moment when he begins to slap Crosby with his feathered fan. If you watch the scene closely, you can see Crosby caught off guard by this, and by the end of the scene the two men are cracking up on camera for real. According to Rosemary Clooney, Crosby was convinced that the take was unusable, but director Michael Curtiz liked the spontaneity of it, and used it in the finished film.

9. White Christmas features an Our Gang cameo.

Early in the film, as Bob and Phil get to know the Haynes sister, they discuss the sisters’ brother Benny, who Bob and Phil knew from the army and who ostensibly connected them for their meeting at the club. Judy Haynes then offers to share a recent photo of Benny, who Phil had already referred to as “Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy.” The photo appears only briefly, but fans of the Our Gang series of comedy shorts might recognize Benny Haynes. He’s played in the photo by Carl Switzer, who was Our Gang’s Alfalfa.

10. White Christmas was the first movie released in a new format.

A scene from White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

At the time White Christmas was produced, film was having to increasingly compete with television for the attention of the American public, and this meant numerous gimmicks were deployed to get people to go to the movies. This included even more prevalent use of color on the movie screen (at a time when television was still a black and white medium), as well as a more ambitious use of aspect ratios to emphasize the “big” in big-screen. White Christmas was envisioned as a Technicolor showcase, but it also became the first film to be released in Paramount’s new widescreen format, VistaVision.

The format featured special film magazines that were mounted to the side of the camera lens, which fed the film negative through the camera horizontally rather than vertically. This created a more detailed widescreen exposure that was then printed vertically just like any other film. The result was a format that could play on virtually any movie screen and offer an increase in quality, unlike other contemporary large format options like CinemaScope, which required an adapter.

11. Irving Berlin was nervous about White Christmas.

By the time White Christmas was in production, the title song was one of the bestselling and most beloved songs in the world, and had already been in heavy circulation for more than a decade. Still, that didn’t stop Irving Berlin from being nervous about how the film would be received. Though he wasn’t always on the soundstage during shooting, Rosemary Clooney later recalled that Berlin showed up every day at the cast’s recording sessions for the soundtrack, and as Crosby and company recorded the finale version of “White Christmas” the legendary composer couldn’t stop nervously pacing around the studio. Eventually, Berlin’s worried look proved so distracting that Crosby went over to him and said: “There’s nothing we can do to hurt this song, Irving. It’s already a hit!"

12. White Christmas was the biggest movie of 1954.

White Christmas was released in the fall of 1954 and, on the strength of Berlin’s songs and the Technicolor and VistaVision production values, quickly became a hit for Paramount. The film was the highest-grossing movie of 1954 with a box office take of $12 million. It was also the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz’s career, which was impressive considering his resume already included classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca.

Additional Sources:
White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney (2000)
White Christmas commentary track by Rosemary Clooney (2000)
Backstage Stories from White Christmas (2009)
Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold (2018)