What happened the night 45 famous pop stars gathered in secret?

Nine things we learned from The Greatest Night in Pop documentary
The Greatest Night in Pop

On January 28, 1985, 45 of the biggest names in music gathered in a tiny recording studio in Los Angeles to record the song We Are The World to raise money and awareness for the Ethiopian famine. Now, 39 years later, Netflix’s The Greatest Night in Pop is giving us an intimate look at what is, perhaps, the greatest pop ‘heist’ of all time. 

By the end of 1984, Ethiopia was in the throes of the country’s worst famine in over a century. The famine left hundreds of thousands dead, millions starving, and many more orphaned. 

In response to this, Bob Geldof orchestrated a British and Irish supergroup to record the single Do They Know It’s Christmas?. Over in the US, legendary singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte was inspired by Bob Geldof’s efforts. Harry quickly enlisted Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones to create an American version. 

“‘We have white folks saving black folks. We don’t have black folks saving black folks,’” Lionel Richie says in the documentary, recalling how Harry Belafonte enlisted his help, 

“‘We need to save our own people from hunger.’ He was trying to get us, the younger group, involved in what was happening in Africa. I said, of course.”

From there, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie, Billy Joel, Daryl Hall, Bruce Springsteen and a litany of other stars were enlisted to lend their iconic vocals to the charity track.

Here’s nine things we learned from The Greatest Night in Pop.

Cyndi Lauper was picked over Madonna

Though We Are The World brought together some of the biggest names in 80s pop and broader American music, there was one superstar missing amongst the sea of A-listers – Madonna. Appearing on the Jimmy Kimmel show recently, Lionel Richie was pressed on why the song’s creators picked Cyndi over Madonna.

“It’s probably one of the is probably one of the most interesting questions in the world,” Lionel, 74, told Jimmy. “Because we had only half a line to sing.”

“But the point was, you have to have an identifiable voice,” Lionel explained. “And whatever reason it was just Cyndi had that sound.”

“You know I’m gonna I’m gonna say this now on national and international television. You’re right, you’re right,” the All Night Long singer added. “We made a mistake.”

The Netflix documentary also delved into why Madonna was snubbed in favour of the effervescent Cyndi Lauper.

“I wanted Madonna. ‘Material Girl’ and all of the things she did would bring a really different audience, but Ken wanted Cyndi [Lauper],” Harriet Sternberg, who was head of creative services at Kragen and Co., recalled. “We had a fight about that.”

Whilst they ended up picking Cyndi Lauper, the Girls Just Want To Have Fun singer almost pulled out of the project altogether just hours before. During the American Music Awards, Lionel recalled that Cyndi’s boyfriend had told her that We Are The World wouldn’t be a hit.

“Well, nobody knew. It certainly was a group of great people. But I was so punch-drunk tired. And after the show it was like, ‘Alright, you have to just go there,’” Cyndi says. 

“[But] I felt it was an important thing to do. I do believe that rock and roll can save the world, or we should try.”

Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson wrote the song in less than 10 days

Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson were tasked with penning the song. The idea to release a charity song came at the end of 1984 and the plan was to have the song written and recorded by the end of January. 

Lionel admits that the deadline crept up on him and Michael quite quickly. “Michael and I thought we had all the time in the world,’” Lionel recalls. However, once the duo got to work, the All Night Long singer says that it was Michael who plucked the song’s title ‘We Are The World’ seemingly out of thin air.

To get all 45 artists in the room on the same night turned into a ‘heist’

The act of getting 45 of the biggest names in American music into one room together became a ‘logistical nightmare’. Singers can be booked for months in advance with tours, appearances and recording commitments. However, Hollywood manager Ken Kragen – who was instrumental to the coordination and success of We Are The World – knew that the American Music Awards would bring a majority of the supergroup to Hollywood. 

Because the award show was going to bring most of the big names into town, Ken scheduled the recording of We Are The World to take place right after the show. To get 45 A-listers into one room together for a top secret project required a ‘heist’.

“Kragen was really worried about this leaking, they were so paranoid about it,” the documentary asserts. 

Michael Jackson almost didn’t sing on the track

Though Michael had penned the song, injecting it with his undeniable star power, the iconic singer almost never lent his vocals to the track. 

“He thought it was overexposure at first,” Quincy Jones says in the archival footage. “I talked Michael into being on the thing, you know? That would’ve been one of the biggest mistakes of his career if he hadn’t showed up. But he was there, man. He was more than there.”

However, Michael ended up being one of the first celebrities to arrive and lay down his signature vocals, and the rest is history. 

Prince was supposed to be there

As well as Madonna, the other pop force missing from the room was Prince. From the start, the project organisers made it abundantly clear that they wanted Prince’s star power involved in the song.

To try and persuade Prince into the room, they invited Sheila E – Prince’s collaborator and on-again-off-again girlfriend – to join.

“I was looking forward to singing one of the verses, but they kept asking, ‘Well, do you think you can get Prince here?’ I’m like, ‘Wow, this is weird,’” Sheila E recalls in the doc. 

“And I just started feeling like, ‘I feel like I’m being used, to be here, because they want Prince to show up and the longer they keep me, maybe Prince will show up.’ I already knew he wasn’t gonna come, ‘cause there was too many people and he would feel uncomfortable. I told Lionel, I said, ‘I’m gonna go.’ They never intended on having me sing a verse, which was a little bit… heartbreaking.”

When Prince didn’t show, Lionel and Quincy decided to give his line to Huey Lewis.

Stevie Wonder helped Bob Dylan through a moment of stage fright

Whilst We Are The World saw some of the hottest contemporary artists come together, there were also a substantial amount of music legends present too. Despite being one of the most influential artists of his generation, Bob Dylan, who had appeared rather surly up until this point, was clearly nervous as he went to record his solo in We Are The World.

Bob was not sure how to deliver his solo and so Stevie Wonder stepped in to save the day. Stevie sat down at a piano and mimicked Bob’s folky vocals with eerie accuracy, showing the singer how he could nail his solo. Bob then steps up to the microphone and sings the line with his legendary smoky vocals which earns him the praises of Stevie and Quincy Jones.

Waylon Jennings walked out

Though Waylon Jennings storming out of the studio was well documented before the documentary aired, it’s still worth rehashing. Early on in the night, Stevie Wonder became adamant that they should sing parts of the song in Swahili. This visibly rubbed country singer Waylon Jennings the wrong way. 

“I just heard him go, ‘Well, ain’t no good ol’ boy ever sung Swahili. I think I’m outta here,’” cameraman Ken Woo recalled in the documentary.

 “[He was like] ‘I’m not dealing with this. I don’t know what that means, but I am not gonna say it.’ And we lost Waylon right there,” Lionel adds.

It took Bob Geldof and a host of other celebrities to tell Stevie that Swahili was not spoken in Ethiopia in order to keep progressing.

The celebrities were all getting each other’s autographs

As the recording session hit the early hours of the morning, everyone took a break for a late-night snack. During the break, Diana Ross sauntered up to Daryl Hall to ask him for his autograph.

“Diana walks up to Daryl Hall with her music in her hands and says, ‘Daryl, I’m your biggest fan. Would you sign my music for me?’ And we all looked around and said ‘Holy moly,’” vocal arranger Tom Bahler says in the documentary. 

After this, everyone began turning to their favourite artist to get their sheet music signed.

The celebrities surprised Harry Belafonte with a rendition of Day-O

One of the most spontaneous and hair-raising parts of the documentary comes after the supergroup finishes recording the chorus. Quincy Jones commanded the A-listers’ attention to thank Harry Belafonte for conceptualising the project when Al Jarreau burst into an impromptu rendition of Banana Boat (Day-O).

From there, the likes of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Daryl Hall all joined in, harmonising and vocalising the catchy tune in honour of Harry – even eliciting a rare grin from Bob Dylan.

The Greatest Night in Pop

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