U.S.A. for Africa

“Check your egos at the door” read the sign on the front door of A&M Studios in Los Angeles on the night of January 28, 1985. Producer Quincy Jones had placed it there because dozens of the nation’s biggest singers were walking through that door, and he had exactly one night to cut a record that would save lives by raising money to help alleviate a famine in Ethiopia.

The result, USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” was released thirty years ago, on March 7, 1985. The 46 vocalists who showed up may have formed the ultimate musical supergroup of all time, and the mission was serious, but the vibe was loose. As Jones told the collected singers that night, “We do proms too, babes.”

0:00 The video begins with synthesizers (sounding state of the art for 1985) and a computer-generated globe. As the globe spins around, we see a lot more of the U.S.A. than Africa.

0:18 A graphic where various stars appear to be autographing their names in colored ink. Diana Ross and Anita Pointer have the most prominent signatures; with a giant stylized O, John Oates has the most distinctive. Stevie Wonder signs with a fingerprint, but Ray Charles has remarkably neat handwriting. Lindsey Buckingham claims the prime real estate underneath the USA for Africa logo, which is about as prominent as he will get in this video.

0:26 Lionel Richie, cowriter of “We Are the World” with Michael Jackson, kicks things off, assigning himself the opening vocal so he can be done and get out of the way. Richie was on top of the world in 1985: he was coming off the multiplatinum Can’t Slow Down, and would hit the top of the singles charts one last time later in the year with “Say You, Say Me.” Earlier on this evening, Richie had hosted the American Music Awards, where Prince’s Purple Rain beat out Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the category of favorite pop/rock album. The “We Are the World” session was scheduled the same night as the AMAs because many of the major stars would be in Los Angeles for the show.

Last year, Richie remembered the craziness of hosting both the show and the sessions on the same night: “I’m coming off of tour, I’m reviewing a script this thick, I’m trying to organize this thing, who do we get to show up?”

0:31 Stevie Wonder steps up to the microphone to harmonize with Richie. During rehearsals, Wonder flubbed a note, and Richie joshed him, “Stevie messed up? Is that legal?” They decided to blame it on his alter ego, Eivets Rednow. No longer the unstoppable commercial powerhouse he was in the 70s, Wonder was still a force on the charts in 1985: “Part-Time Lover” would hit #1 later in the year. Wonder was originally supposed to be Richie’s cowriter, but Quincy Jones knew Wonder was busy making an album (In Square Circle), so he suggested Michael Jackson instead. According to Richie, during a break from recording, when Ray Charles asked where the bathroom, Wonder said, “I’ll show you where it is, Ray. Follow me!” Wonder took Charles by the hand and led him down the hall to the appropriate door, while the other stars watched gobsmacked at the blind literally leading the blind.

0:41 Paul Simon takes over on “oh, it’s time to lend a hand,” clutching the sheet music. With his jacket and his plaid shirt, he’s setting the fashion template for Rivers Cuomo’s entire career. In 1985, Simon hadn’t had a hit in years; it looked like he might not have much left in the tank other than perpetual cameo appearances on Saturday Night Live. The following year, however, he released the career-defining Graceland.

0:53 Richie’s hand extends into the frame, cueing Kenny Rogers, who’s wearing a USA for Africa sweatshirt like he’s a particularly big fan of the group. (Other stars sporting the shirt include Al Jarreau and, for some of the night, Diana Ross.) Rogers was as big a pop-country star as there was in 1985 (but not yet a roasted-chicken maven); he was also a client of manager Ken Kragen, who handled Lionel Richie and was the driving force in recruiting talent for the session. Kragen says that USA for Africa was spurred by Harry Belafonte calling him up just before Christmas, wanting to do a benefit concert. It became a recording session instead, following in the mode of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which had hit the charts weeks earlier–but Kragen had less than a month to set up everything before the AMAs. He hit the phones, determined to book two major artists every day–according to Kragen, the turning point was when he convinced Jon Landau that Bruce Springsteen should show up.

0:59 James Ingram has shown up for the session in a shiny silver tracksuit, as if he came directly from a workout on the space shuttle. Ingram had a #1 single (“Baby, Come to Me”) two years prior, but just as importantly, he was well-connected to both Jackson and Jones, having cowritten the hit single “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” with Jones for Jackson’s Thriller.

1:06 Tina Turner’s hair is barely restrained by the headphones crowning her head. In 1985, Turner was still peeling hit singles off her massive comeback album, Private Dancer. When her work was done here after a long night, she would shout in celebration, “Fish burger!” Turner harmonizes with a bearded Billy Joel (who was in a brief lull between the hit albums An Innocent Man and The Bridge). Earlier in the evening, when Joel spotted Ray Charles entering the studio, he said, “That’s like the Statue of Liberty walking in.” Jones introduced them: “Ray, this is the guy who wrote ‘New York State of Mind.’ ” (The song was an homage to Charles.) Joel was visibly shaking, but the pianists hit it off: the following year, they released the duet “Baby Grand,” and in 1999, Charles inducted Joel into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Joel was accompanied by his fiancée, Christie Brinkley (they were married just weeks later). The recording studio was for musicians only: 500 guests watched the sessions from a party at an adjoining soundstage. (The A&M studio complex had been Charlie Chaplin’s headquarters decades earlier; these days, it’s the home of the Jim Henson Company.) Aside from Brinkley, notable names in attendance at the party included Brooke Shields, Jane Fonda, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Steve Martin.

During one runthrough, Joel took a moment to walk over to a nearby piano and play the song himself, confirming what key it was in. “E,” he said, looking disgusted. “I hate E.”

1:19 Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star in the universe circa 1985, sings the chorus, multitracked with himself. He stacked these vocals at 9 P.M., while the other musicians were still arriving at the studio. The song may be called “We Are the World,” but sometimes Jackson wanted to make a world by himself. Awesomely, he has glittering socks to coordinate with his right glove.

Before he started recording, he asked Jones, “Quincy, do you think, should I say ‘you and me’ or ‘you and I’ at the end?” They decided that “you and me” was more soulful. Jones called Jackson “Smelly”; Smelly giggled whenever he flubbed a take. Once Jackson got into the groove, he started dancing behind the microphone, moving his body as much as he could without disrupting the recording.

Richie and Jackson wrote the song at Jackson’s house–they had known each other since Jackson was a child, when Richie’s Commodores opened up for the Jackson 5 on tour. Last year, Richie told Billboard about the songwriting session: “I’m on the floor in Michael’s bedroom. I don’t think he had a bed–he just slept on the floor. There’s a bunch of albums around the wall, and there’s a carpet and a little bench. I’m writing the first verse–‘There comes a time’–and I hear over my shoulder, hhhhhhhhhhhh. There was a goddamn fucking python. A boa constrictor, a python, who cares what the hell it was. It was a big-ass, ugly-ass snake. I’m from Alabama–what you do with a snake is you call the police and you shoot the damn thing. I was screaming. And Michael’s saying, ‘There he is, Lionel, we found him. He was hiding behind the albums. We knew he was in the room, we just didn’t know where he was.’ I said, ‘You’re out of your freaking mind.’ It took me about two hours to calm my ass back down.”

1:32 Some of the vocal pairings on “We Are the World” seem random, or considered more generously, were designed to contrast stars of different genres. But Diana Ross had history with Michael Jackson dating back to 1969, when Motown claimed that she had discovered the Jackson 5 (she didn’t, but she “presented” their debut album anyway). Jackson wrote and produced the hit single “Muscles” for Ross, and as the years went by, his face started to resemble hers. Ross’s career as a hitmaker was basically over by 1985, but she was overqualified to begin her career as a full-time legend. When she entered the studio on this evening, she promptly hopped onto Bob Dylan’s lap.

1:48 Dionne Warwick also appeared to be in full legend mode by the time of this session, but she hit #1 later in the year with a different charity single, “That’s What Friends Are For,” made with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder to raise money for AIDS research. She’s joined here by Willie Nelson, who had an improbable #1 single the year before with his Julio Iglesias duet, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Nelson, who spent much of the night drinking with Waylon Jennings and Ray Charles, remembered telling Charles that he thought the project was great “but wouldn’t it be nice if we did something for the people in our own country”–the seed that would come to fruition as Farm Aid. One of the marks of USA for Africa’s impact was how it inspired so many–both the stars in attendance and the people who just heard the record–to start charitable movements of their own.

Nelson also chatted with Dylan, asking him if he played golf. “No, I’ve heard you had to study it,” Dylan replies.

“You can’t think of hardly anything else,” Nelson tells him.

With a squint, Nelson delivers the oddest line in the song: “As God has shown us, by turning stone to bread.” Actually, there is no Biblical passage where God transforms stone to bread, although He gets a shout-out for bringing forth all food from the earth in Psalms 104. In Matthew 4, however, the Devil comes to Jesus Christ in the desert after he’s been fasting for forty days, and trying to tempt him, tells him that he should change the stones into bread. Christ spurns him with the aphorism “Man shall not live on bread alone.” So the Bible seems to be against turning stone into bread (not that it comes up often as an option in most people’s lives). In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus writes about John of Leyden, who in 1535 told the people of Munster, Germany, suffering from a blockade, that God would turn the city’s cobblestones into bread. People tried to eat the cobblestones, and found that they were not feeling groovy. The bottom line: when people are suffering from famine, it seems cruel to bring up the possibility of stones being edible.

2:09 Jazz singer Al Jarreau gets ten syllables (nine more than Jimmy Thudpucker got in Doonesbury‘s cartoons about the sessions, where there was a bottleneck at the front of the studio from rock stars checking their egos but demanding a receipt). Jarreau also sang the theme song for Moonlighting in 1985–the show debuted two days before “We Are the World” was released. Jarreau took the opportunity during the sessions to introduce himself to Bob Dylan: “Bobby, in my own stupid way I just want to tell you I love you.” Dylan walked away from Jarreau without even making eye contact. According to David Breskin of Life magazine, Jarreau then said “My idol!” and started sobbing.

2:14 Bruce Springsteen steps up to the microphone and with his eyes closed, belts out the chorus. Springsteen fans don’t usually think of his voice as one of his principal assets, but landing on the song like a tractor-trailer full of gravel, he demonstrates here that it’s a powerful instrument. In early 1985, the Boss was at his commercial peak, halfway through his record-tying streak of seven top-ten singles from a single album (Born in the U.S.A.). The night before, he had played a four-hour concert at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. While most of the stars arrived in limousines, accompanied by security guards, Springsteen drove himself in a pickup truck, parked it nearby in a grocery-store lot, and walked into the studio by himself.

2:21 The camera pans around to Kenny Loggins, who in the 80s had massive singles when they were on movie soundtracks and less-massive singles when they were just part of his albums: the title track to Footloose was one year in his past, while “Danger Zone” from Top Gun was one year in his future. (Springsteen can be seen dancing in the background, or at least rocking from one foot to the other.) In the unofficial USA for Africa beard-off, Loggins beat Billy Joel in the semifinals but fell to silver-haired Kenny Rogers in the finals. (In the mustache division, John Oates triumphed over Lionel Richie.)

Originally, Jones had planned to record the artists’ solos one at a time, but when time ran short, he switched to his backup plan: putting 21 microphones in a U formation and having them perform side by side. “Taking this kind of chance is like running through hell with gasoline drawers on,” he said. “Any talking or outside noises, laughing, giggling, even a creak in the floor, could ruin the whole thing.”

Steve Perry (on a break from Journey for a successful solo album, Street Talk) leans in to wail his line, followed by Daryl Hall (who would be taking a break from John Oates the following year for a not-as-successful solo album, Three Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine), who croons his: two soulful white guys in black shirts, both making the most of their moments. “We Are the World” doesn’t particularly rock: it’s a midtempo pop anthem that gives an array of stars a chance to show off their vocal chops. Richie said that before he and Jackson wrote the song, they listened to national anthems: they wanted something that big and stately.

2:42 “When you’re down and out, and there seems no hope at all”: Jackson takes a solo turn, leading the song into the bridge. Richie sits on the floor behind him, leaning against the wall, surveying the scene. With sunglasses and a jacket covered in gold brocade, Jackson appears to be the star most aware that there is a camera crew in the room. 

In his autobiography Moonwalk, Jackson told a story that he claimed was the origin of “We Are the World”: “I used to ask my sister Janet to follow me into a room with interesting acoustics, like a closet or the bathroom, and I’d sing to her, just a note, a rhythm of a note. It wouldn’t be a lyric or anything; I’d just hum from the bottom of my throat. I’d say, ‘Janet, what do you see? What do you see when you hear this sound?’ And this time she said, ‘Dying children in Africa.’ ‘You’re right. That’s what I was dictating from my soul.'”

2:47 Huey Lewis takes the next line, pumping his fist and rhyming “But if you just believe, there’s no way we can fall.” Huey Lewis and the News were at the apex of their career in 1985: sandwiched between their #1 albums Sports and Fore was their best single, “The Power of Love.” But this line was designated for Prince, which would have provided the frisson of the Jackson / Prince rivalry, up close and in real time.

Prince apparently never wanted to sing at this session, although he had agreed to show up: he was willing to contribute a song to the USA for Africa album, or to send Sheila E. as the Paisley Park representative, or to play guitar on the track. When his manager Bob Cavallo called up Jones to lobby for Prince to do just that, he says that Q’s angry response was “I don’t need him to fucking play guitar!” Cavallo told Prince that if he was going to skip the session, he needed to claim illness, and that no matter what, he couldn’t go out to party after the AMAs, because the publicity would be terrible if people knew he had blown off the charity gig. Prince did, in fact, head out to a club on Sunset Boulevard, where his bodyguard got into a fracas and ended up in jail; on a night where music’s biggest stars were visibly selfless, Prince was the one who stood out as selfish. He ultimately told his side of the story in the song “Hello,” the B-side to “Pop Life.”

“I wasn’t allowed to say the real reason” Prince didn’t show up, Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin recently told Alan Light for the book Let’s Go Crazy. “Because he thinks he’s a badass and he wanted to look cool, and he felt like the song for ‘We Are the World’ was horrible and he didn’t want to be around ‘all those muthafuckas’.”

2:53 Cyndi Lauper splatters her vocal cords all over the song. She got permission from Jones first, privately asking Jones, “Is it alright if I improvise?” A delighted Jones told her, “Absolutely. This is not ‘The Rite of Spring.'” Lauper, who at the time of the session was still releasing hit singles from her mega-huge debut solo album (She’s So Unusual) gave the song an adenoidal jolt that went something like “Whoa-whoa-waah-let-us-realize.”

There’s video of Jackson, Lewis, Lauper, and Kim Carnes–or as Lauper calls them, “the bridge people,” working out their sequence, and how they would harmonize together; Hall, Perry, and Loggins sit in the background watching, while Richie comes over periodically to coach them. After the fourth take, there’s a voice from the control room, telling Lauper, “You have a lot of bracelets.”

“Oh, is that–oh, my earrings,” Lauper says. She’s adorned with big clattering jewelry–bracelets, earrings, necklaces–that can be heard on the microphone. She apologizes and starts pulling off a necklace, somehow getting it off without removing her headphones first. While Lauper systematically removes her jewelry, putting it in a small heap on the studio floor, Lewis practices his line and jokes, “I sang a couple out of tune just to see if anybody would notice.”

After the fifth take, Lauper asks, “Am I still clinking?” Steve Perry then raises his hand like he’s in a social studies class and, clearly impressed, tells Jones, “Q! Listen to it, it’s like harmonic things happening when she sings. It almost sounds like conversation–it’s amazing.”

The seventh take is the keeper: when they nail it, the room breaks into spontaneous applause.

3:01 Kim Carnes sings “When we” before Lewis and Lauper join her, giving her the shortest solo on the record at two syllables. Nevertheless, she got a solo, even though “Bette Davis Eyes” was four years behind her, while heavy-duty talent like Smokey Robinson and Bette Midler stayed on the bench. Coincidentally, Carnes (like Lionel Richie) was managed by Ken Kragen.

3:08 The chorus, 46 stars strong. The solo lines were done between 4 AM and 5 AM, but the chorus took much longer: from around 10:30 PM to 3 AM, as the night of January 28th turned into the morning of January 29th. Jones reasoned that the entire group needed to be recorded first, so that stars wouldn’t just check out after punching in their line. He kicked off the choral recording by telling everyone, “Okay, let’s start chopping wood.”

In his autobiography Q, Jones says that each star had a spot marked on the floor where they would be standing during the chorus. “We didn’t want to encourage decision making during the session. Any decision. Where they would stand, what they would sing, when they sing it–we had to think it through and spell it all out. Over the years I’d learned the hard way that once a group of this size and stature gets involved in making decisions, you’re in trouble.”

Sure enough, there was an epic argument after 1 A.M., centered on some nonsense words that Jackson had finished the chorus with: “sha-lum sha-lingay.” Bob Geldof, the man behind Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” the year before (and Live Aid later this same year), who had begun the evening by telling the throng about the brutal realities of the famine in Ethiopia (“you see dead bodies lying side by side with the live ones”), objected that if they sang “sha-lum sha-lingay,” they would sound like they were mocking Africans.

Jones had the cameras turned off while the stars discussed the issue; Stevie Wonder left to call a friend in Nigeria to get an appropriate Swahili phrase. When Wonder came back and reported that the correct lyrics would be “willi moing-gu,” Jones said, “the shit hit the fan.”

Ray Charles shouted out, “Say what! Willi what! Willi moing-gu, my ass! It’s three o’clock in the goddamn mornin’. Swahili, shit–I can’t even sing in English no more.” At this point, Waylon Jennings took off, completely unwilling to sing in Swahili. Geldof observed that Ethiopians don’t actually speak Swahili, a point underscored by Lauper, who said that it was like “singing to the English in German.”

Lauper, Simon, and Jarreau started lobbying for a meaningful phrase, and Jarreau came up with “One world, our world,” which got modified to “one world, our children.” Tina Turner, so tired she had her eyes closed, said to herself, “I like sha-lum better. Who cares what it means?”

3:21 “There’s a choice we’re making / We’re saving our own lives.” Sure, this lyric seems self-absorbed (although Jane Fonda, who hosted the official making-of video, compared it there to the John Donne line “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”). But originally it was going to be “There’s a chance we’re taking / We’re taking our own lives”–Richie and Jackson changed it when they recorded the demo so that the group wouldn’t seem to be unduly congratulating themselves for advocating mass suicide.

3:36 Hello, John Oates!

3:45 Hello, La Toya Jackson!

3:49 After the soloists finished, around 5 A.M., it was time to record a few superstars singing the chorus. “Where’s Bobby Dylan?” Jones asked. “Let’s get Bobby in here.” Bob Dylan, grizzled and clad in a leather jacket, wasn’t much of a commercial force by 1985 (his album that year: the forgettable Empire Burlesque), but he remained an icon. The problem: Dylan was tentative and barely audible. “He’s not a melodic guy, and it was a very specific melody,” John Oates noted.

“Half singing, half talking,” Jones instructed Dylan. “Your thing is modulating.”

“Stevie,” Dylan asked. “Can you play it one time?” Dylan then moved over to the piano, where Wonder coached the voice of a generation through his performance. Initially, Wonder was doing a better impression of Dylan than the man himself, but eventually Dylan’s mumbling vocals blossomed into his distinctive adenoidal wheeze. “‘We are the children,’ that’s nice,” Jones reassured Dylan as he positioned him closer to the microphone. “That’s the only time we use the whole octave.”

“Is that sort of it? Sort of like that?” an uncertain Dylan asked after another take. After yet another runthrough, he told Jones, “I don’t think that’s any good at all. You could erase that.” But when Jones gave him a hug and told him it was perfect, Dylan’s face lit up with a big smile. “If you say so.”

4:20 Hello, Anita Pointer of the Pointer Sisters! Hello, Harry Belafonte! Hello, Dan Aykroyd! Wait–Dan Aykroyd?! With a jacket, tie, and big glasses, looking like a junior accountant more than a movie star? Admittedly, he did have a #1 album (Briefcase Full of Blues, with the Blues Brothers in 1978), which is more than some people in the room could claim. So how did he end up as part of USA for Africa? “Totally by accident,” he told New Hampshire Magazine in 2010. “My father and I were interviewing business managers in L.A. and we walked into this office of a talent manager”–presumably, Kragen–“and realized we were in the wrong place. I was looking for a money manager, not a talent manager. I managed myself at that time and always have. But he said, so long as you are here, would you like to come and join this ‘We Are the World’ thing? I thought, ‘How do I fit in here?’ Well, I 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.”

4:29 Next icon: Ray Charles, not just the godfather of American rhythm and blues, but one of Quincy Jones’ oldest friends and collaborators, dating back to the Seattle jazz scene in 1947. At this time, he had reinvented himself once again as a country star (and had topped the country charts the year before with the duet album Friendship). His vocals were actually recorded a few days after the main session. Charles was revered by most of the musicians in attendance, and although he didn’t run the session the way Jones, Richie, and Jackson did, he was apparently crucial in reminding the other musicians to stay on track. He also had one of the night’s funniest lines, when he stepped out of the studio around 2 A.M., announcing that he hadn’t had no good lovin’ since January. It did not go unnoticed that it was, in fact, January.

4:54 The single’s most thrilling section, the duet between Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, wasn’t planned before the session–or really, at all. After Dylan finished his section, Jones summoned Springsteen to the microphone. Jones remembered, “God must have tapped me on the shoulder to save the record by suggesting that I ask Bruce Springsteen–for no logical reason at all–to supply solo answers to the choir melody on the title choruses because of the textures and intensity of his truly unique vocal equipment, especially in this register.”

“You sounded fantastic, Dylan,” Springsteen told him as he got ready to sing. Dylan stayed in the room to listen to Springsteen.

Jones instructed him, “It’s like being a cheerleader of the chorus.”

“I’ll give it a shot,” Springsteen said, stuck his sheet music in a back pocket, and nailed it. “Broke in a genuine sweat,” he said after his take, and soon headed out the door, walking past a half-dozen limos on his way to his pickup truck. By 8 A.M., everyone had called it a night.

When he woke up, Jones listened to the tapes and realized he didn’t have enough material: “The energy I needed to conclude had dissipated earlier than I had anticipated. The power of the choir had peaked after two choruses and one change of key.” Then he realized he could use the Springsteen vocals–and give them some extra kick by replacing the choir with Stevie Wonder. So he summoned Wonder back to the studio (he’s wearing a multicolored patchwork shirt in this section, not the blue-and-black sweater he sported on the night of January 28th), had him record the chorus, and patched it all together “with the vocal intensity of these two master artists.” Their call-and-response earned almost a full minute of the single’s running time.

5:53 Hello, Bette Midler! Nice new-wave haircut!

6:05 Hello, Jeffrey Osborne!

6:07 Hello, Lindsey Buckingham! In 1985, Fleetwood Mac was on hiatus (between 1982’s Mirage and 1987’s Tango in the Night); Buckingham had put out the modestly successful Go Insane solo album in 1984. He was one of the first artists to commit to show up, being a client of Kragen, but was consigned to the chorus. Buckingham says that one of his most enduring memories of the day was running into Michael Jackson in the bathroom: “It kind of freaked him out! He was quite nervous, just to be startled by someone walking in, and I just nodded my head.”

6:15 Here’s how highly Jones and Jackson rate James Ingram: he earned one of the ad-lib slots, getting to pump both his fists and carry the chorus to the final fade (cut together with a Ray Charles reprise).

6:40 Jones wildly waves his right arm, as if he were trying to hail a cab outside the studio on La Brea Avenue. The chorus keeps singing and shimmying. Filling out the celebrity choir and feeling lucky not to be sent to the green-room party: Ruth and June of the Pointer Sisters; Marlon, Randy, Tito, and Jackie of the Jackson family (but not Jermaine); and the members of the News not named Huey Lewis (Mario Cipollina, Johnny Colla, Bill Gibson, and Chris Hayes). If not for Prince’s absence, Huey Lewis would have spent the evening hanging out with his bandmates.

6:47 As the seven-minute-plus single heads for its final fade-out, Lionel Richie gives the camera a big thumbs-up. “We Are the World” went on sale five and a half weeks later, on Thursday, March 7, 1985, with an initial shipment of 800,000 copies. Over that first weekend, the single sold out; the song ultimately spent four weeks at #1. It was knocked off the top by Madonna’s “Crazy for You”–Madonna being arguably the biggest artist of the era who wasn’t at the “We Are the World” session.

The single sold over 8 million copies in the United States (some sources claim as many 20 million copies worldwide), while the accompanying album (which included the track Prince had promised, “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” plus the Canadian all-star song from Northern Lights, “Tears Are Not Enough,” but not the heavy-metal famine benefit group called Hear’n Aid) sold over 4 million more. USA for Africa have raised over $75 million for famine relief; “We Are the World” still earns money today.

Although distributing food in Ethiopia was a logistical and political nightmare, and some of the money raised was squandered, the song did a lot of good in the world. Stone may not have been turned into bread, but music was turned into rescued lives. “We Are the World” had a faint messianic aroma and a self-congratulatory aftertaste, but the hearts of its participants were fundamentally in the right place. As Springsteen said that night, “Anytime somebody asks you to take one night of your time to stop people starving to death, it’s pretty hard–you can’t say no.”

By Gavin Edwards. Originally published on the Rolling Stone website in March 2015 as “’We Are the World’: A Minute-by-Minute Breakdown.”