The Greatest Night in Pop: 10 Facts About the Making of “We Are the World”

The new Netflix documentary ‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ recounts the A-list all-nighter that led to USA for Africa’s “We Are the World.”
A scene from “The Greatest Night in Pop”
A scene from “The Greatest Night in Pop” / © 2024 Netflix, Inc.

In the ’80s, pop music decided to take on the world’s problems. There was Band Aid, Live Aid, Farm Aid, and of course, “We Are the World,” the massive 1985 charity single that brought together nearly 50 of America’s hottest musical superstars to raise money for African famine relief. At the recording session, producer Quincy Jones hung up a sign that read, “Check your ego at the door,” and for the most part, everyone did. 

“We Are the World” dominated radio, topped the charts, and raised tons of money for a very worthy cause. In honor of the song’s 40th anniversary—a milestone commemorated in the new Netflix documentary The Greatest Night In Pop—here are 10 fascinating facts about this singular moment in music history.

1. “We are the World” began with Harry Belafonte (and also Bob Geldof).

In late 1984, famed actor, singer, and activist Harry Belafonte saw a BBC report about the devastating famine in Ethiopia. Feeling compelled to help, he contacted music manager Ken Kragen and suggested a fundraising concert. Kragen proposed they instead record an all-star charity song, just as Bob Geldof had done in the UK with Band Aid’s humongous “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (Geldof had seen the same BBC report.)

“Geldof has shown us the way,” Kragen told Belafonte, according to Esquire. “And we’ve got bigger stars here. Let’s go right from the Billboard charts. Who’s big? We want to sell records.”

2. Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson wrote the song with an ear for history.

Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson in 'The Greatest Night in Pop' (2024).
Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson in 'The Greatest Night in Pop' (2024). / Netflix

One of Ken Kragen’s clients was Lionel Richie, who signed up for the project after speaking with Belafonte on the phone. (“Black folks dying, Lionel,” Belafonte told him. “I need some Black folks to save them.”) It transpired that Richie would write the song with Michael Jackson, and despite getting distracted by all the animals in Jackson’s house, they finished it within a two-week window. They were careful to avoid lyrics that would make the song sound dated.

“As we were putting it together, we were also thinking about how the words would last over a period of time,” Richie told The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s no words in there like, ‘Right on.’ Once you say ‘Right on,’ you’re locked into the ’60s. If you say, ‘Yo, dawg,’ you’re locked into the ’90s. So you can’t use anything hip or slick. It has to be really well thought-out.”

3. The recording of “We Are the World” could have only happened on one particular night.

How do you get dozens of America’s biggest musical stars in one recording studio at the same time? You hold the session on the night of a major awards show. The historic session that yielded “We Are the World” took place at A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles on January 28, 1985, right after the American Music Awards, which were held the same evening at the nearby Shrine Auditorium.

The apparently tireless Richie hosted the AMAs and then played “floor man,” or chief problem solver, for “We Are the World” producer Quincy Jones as the A-listers arrived to record their vocals.

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4. Prince was notably absent from the proceedings. 

Prince / David Tan/Shinko Music/GettyImages

In 1985, there were few artists in America or anywhere else on the planet bigger than Prince, who was just coming off the gargantuan success of the previous year’s Purple Rain film-album combo. Prince picked up three trophies at the 1985 AMAs, but he was a no-show later that night at A&M Recording Studios. His absence likely had something to do with his rivalry with Michael Jackson.

“Do you want to stop the rivalry and join a group of people singing a song, standing next to his rival?” Lionel Richie told The Hollywood Reporter. “No. I mean, from a strictly egotistical point of view, I could see it.” Richie also conceded that Prince “wasn’t a group person,” and that “We Are the World” wouldn’t have fit with his brand. 

Instead, Prince spent the evening at the Mexican restaurant Carlos & Charlie’s, where his bodyguards allegedly roughed up a couple of photographers.

5. Madonna was also missing—though not by choice.

Madonna attends the American Music Awards in 1985.
Madonna attends the American Music Awards in 1985. / Chris Walter/GettyImages

Hot on the heels of 1984’s Like a Virgin, Madonna was definitely Prince-level famous at the time of “We Are the World.” And yet, amazingly enough, she was not invited to sing on the recording. This didn’t sit well with Harriet Sternberg, who worked with Ken Kragen on organizing the project. “I wanted Madonna, but Ken wanted Cyndi [Lauper],” Sternberg says in the new doc. 

Why would the organizers not want Madonna? “Because they didn’t think she could sing,” said Like a Virgin producer and legendary Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers in a recent interview. “It broke her heart.” Madonna was still upset in July 1985, when she performed at Live Aid but opted not to join the “We Are the World” finale. 

6. Dan Aykroyd was there “totally by accident.”

Dan Aykroyd on the set of 'Ghostbusters' (1984).
Dan Aykroyd on the set of 'Ghostbusters' (1984). / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

When the “We Are the World” music video hit the airwaves, one question was on everyone’s mind: Why the heck was Dan Aykroyd—a comedian who’d only dabbled in music as one-half of the Blues Brothers—part of the chorus? Turns out it was a total fluke.

In a 2010 interview with New Hampshire Magazine, Akroyd explained that he and his father were interviewing business managers on the day of the session. They somehow wound up in the office of a talent manager, which is not what Akroyd needed. But the guy invited Akroyd to come and join “We Are the World.”

“I thought, ‘How do I fit in here?’” Akroyd said. “Well, we did sell a few million records with the Blues Brothers and in my other persona I am a musician, so I showed up and was a part of it but it was totally by accident.”

7. Bob Dylan had kind of a rough time.

In the “We Are the World” music video, everyone looks pretty calm and happy—except for maybe Bob Dylan. There’s an intensity to his performance, and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage shows just how stressed Dylan was while figuring out his part.

According to Richie, Dylan was having a “nervous breakdown” over how to handle his solo portion of the song. “He’s trying to sing it,” Richie told The Hollywood Reporter. And we said, ‘No, we don’t want you to sing it, just do it like Bob Dylan.’” 

The idea, said Richie, was to give solos to people with super-distinct voices. “Now, Bob Dylan has an identifiable voice instantly,” Richie said. “But he was trying to sing it another way. We kept saying, ‘No, just sing it like Bob Dylan.’ But did you see that look on his face? He was like, ‘Well, what does that sound like?’”

8. Eddie Murphy missed his chance to be there.

Eddie Murphy Pondering Joke
Eddie Murphy / Cheryl Chenet/GettyImages

On the day of the epic “We Are the World” recording, comedian and sometime singer Eddie Murphy was in Stevie Wonder’s studio, working on some music. “He was like, ‘Hey, come over. We’re doing this thing,’” Murphy recalled Wonder telling him in a 2019 interview with Jimmy Kimmel. “And I was like, ‘Hey man, I’m recording the song, ‘Party All the Time.’”

Now, “Party All the Time” is a fun little pop song that made it all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. (Perhaps fittingly, Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” kept it from notching the top slot.) But even Murphy admits he should have accepted Stevie’s invitation. “Then I realized afterwards what it was,” Murphy said of “We Are the World,” “and I felt like an idiot.”

9. Not everyone liked “We Are the World.”

Lionel Richie and Cyndi Lauper work to record "We Are the World."
Lionel Richie and Cyndi Lauper work to record "We Are the World." / Netflix

Hours before the “We Are the World” session, Cyndi Lauper tried to wriggle out of the whole thing. “Cyndi came to me during the (AMAs) and said, ‘My boyfriend heard the song and he doesn’t think it will be a hit, so I can’t come,’” Richie says in The Greatest Night In Pop. “I said, ‘Cyndi, it’s pretty important for you to make the right decision.’” She wound up participating, though as she says in the doc, nobody knew the song would be such a smash. 

“I don’t think anybody liked it,” Billy Joel told Esquire. “There was a lot of, like, side-eye. There was a lot of looking at the other person, and I remember Cyndi Lauper saying, ‘It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.’ There was a couple of chuckles and a few grunts. That was pretty much the consensus, I think. But nobody was gonna say, ‘I’m not doing that.’”

10. “We Are the World” was a resounding success.

Credited to USA for Africa, “We Are the World” spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified quadruple platinum on April 1, 1985, less than a month after its release. Around the world, “We Are the World” sold more than 7 million units, and USA for Africa raised $63 million for the cause. 

A sequel of sorts arrived In 2010, as a supergroup dubbed Artists for Haiti recorded “We Are the World 25 for Haiti” to raise money for victims of that year’s major earthquake in Haiti. Richie and Jones were once again at the helm, and the roster of 80-plus artists included Justin Bieber, Snoop Dogg, Celine Dion, Miley Cyrus, Usher, and Tony Bennett.