Sunday, I was riding home from church with my wife and we were listening to an old replay of a Kasey Kasem’s American Top 40 from this week in 1985. We spent the trip home laughing and reminiscing about the songs being played. All of these songs were popular in the first couple months of our marriage, so it was fun to remember some of the stupid things we were doing at the time. But, the biggest charge came when we heard what was the number one song at the time, ending it’s four-week reign. The song was the mega-charity hit “We Are the World”.
Back in the winter of 1984, Bob Geldof, the lead singer of the new wave band the Boomtown Rats, watched a BBC news report concerning the famine in Ethiopia at the time. He was so moved that he wrote a song with Midge Ure of the band Ultravox that became “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by the one-off supergroup Band Aid. The way the English musicians came together to record this now-Christmas standard influenced American singer and philanthropist Harry Belafonte to do the same with American musicians.
According to legend Belafonte approached Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie about the endeavor. Lionel was charged with writing a song. Richie called Stevie Wonder in order to add some star power. Belafonte got Quincy Jones to sign on to produce. Then, Richie contacted the white-hot Michael Jackson to join in. Jackson said he would if he could help Richie write the song. After that Richie and Jackson buckled down to write the song, which they wanted to sound stately, like a national anthem. Jones, Belafonte and Rogers recruited the other singers and musicians.
As many of know by now, Prince did not participate. Richie says that Prince was nervous about performing with all of the superstars, while his Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin, said that Prince thought the song sucked and that he did not want to hang around the others. I tend to believe that it may have been a combination of those reasons. The idea was that Michael Jackson and Prince would sing back to back lines to hype the battle that was going on concerning which artist was the greatest at the time. So, instead of Prince, we got a working man’s line from Huey Lewis. Oh, but what might have been. That may have been Prince’s biggest mistake.
On another interesting note, the hottest artist at the time was Madonna. Unfortunately, she was never approached about the gig. Also missing were any of the popular hair metal singers. For some reason, the only current rock artist with any pedigree at the time that was invited was Bruce Springsteen. That means that John Mellencamp, Tom Petty and Bob Seger were all also uninvited, as well as Peter Cetera of Chicago (who were in the midst of a big comeback at the time), the guys from the Cars, neither David Lee Roth nor Sammy Hagar of Van Halen, and none of the Go-Go’s OR the Bangles. So, there was a galaxy of current star power left on the sidelines in order to use mostly artists whose major popularity was behind them.
What I have decided to do is rank the artists’ solo performances. After you read this, go back and listen to the song to hear what I am talking about. Twenty-one artist had solo parts, so I will be going in descending order.
21. Billy Joel – At the time of this song’s recording, Joel was between hit albums. He was coming off a major hit with An Innocent Man, this was before the sessions for The Bridge. Whatever the reason, Joel just seems like he is going through the motions as he finished up the second verse of the song.
20. Kenny Loggins – Mr. Soundtrack was in the middle of a hot hit streak with songs from Caddyshack (“I’m Alright”) and the theme song from Footloose. But, he rarely had hits from his own albums. And, now he was being thrown in with all of these all-stars. Unfortunately, Kenny seems like he is trying way too hard. If he had simply relaxed a bit, his true talent would have shined. Instead, we got a shrill line between Bruce Springsteen and Steve Perry in the third verse.
19. Paul Simon – I love Paul Simon, but at the time he was just a regular musical guest on SNL. All of this was before he released his masterpiece work Graceland. Maybe, this session work motivated him.
18. Steve Perry – Perry has golden pipes, but this song was not made for his soaring grandeur.
17. Daryl Hall – Can you believe I am ranking my man Daryl Hall so low?!?! Hall is a soul singer, and this is NOT a soul song.
16. Kim Carnes – Really? She got invited? Sure, she did a serviceable job. Wasn’t Whitney Houston available?
15. Kenny Rogers – Country music’s Santa Claus came in, sang his line well, and then we forgot about him being on the record. Sounds like his career in a nutshell to me.
14. Tina Turner – Miss Turner was on one of the greatest rock comebacks of all time, and this is the line she was given?!?! Just like Daryl Hall, Turner’s a soul singer, so give her some soulful lines.
13. James Ingram – The least famous name in this line-up does a good job. Ingram had a hit off of Quincy Jones’ hit album a few years earlier, so he was a Jones pick. Still, the man holds his own between Kenny Rogers and Tina Turner. Ingram was one of those vanilla-sounding R&B singers that were sort of popular at the time. I guess Luther Vandross couldn’t be pulled away from a KFC to sing that line.
12. Al Jarreau – The great jazz singer got his moment on a pop song and did good job after Willie Nelson.
11. Huey Lewis – If Prince won’t sing, who ya gonna call? Huey Lewis! Lewis was stepping into an epic row by singing after Michael Jackson and before Cyndi Lauper’s otherworldly performance.
10. Lionel Richie – The man who co-wrote this song set the whole song up with his usual affable vocals. Someone has to lead off, and Lionel did a great job setting the table, so to speak.
9. Diana Ross – Miss Ross was not the mess back then; she was a diva. And, she sang her part majestically.
8. Dionne Warwick – Long before Miss Warwick became a spokeswoman for some pychic’s phone network, she was a legendary singer. And, she proves why she is a legend with her vocals beginning the third verse.
7. Willie Nelson – So, Warwick sets the tone for verse three and hands it off to none other than country music’s grand old outlaw singer/pothead Willie Nelson, who nails the line like he actually wrote it.
6. Bob Dylan – Bob was scared to sing this song. It was nothing like he had ever sang before. So, Stevie Wonder, imitating Dylan’s voice, showed Bob how to do it. When Dylan sang, it gave the song some authority from the legends of rock music.
5. Michael Jackson– How can I rank him so low? He was THE musician at the time, along with Prince. And, he did his usual stellar job. It’s just four others did it with urgency.
4. Stevie Wonder – Stevie was the MVP of the recording session. The man displayed his talent throughout the song. If it wasn’t for the other three’s performances, then this song would be remembered for Stevie.
3. Bruce Springsteen – The Boss showed everyone why he was called The Boss. After pulling up in his truck and parking across the street, while the others arrived by limo, Springsteen walks in and delivers his lines with the passion that he always sang. Personally, I feel like this song set him up to have the big year that he ended up having.
2. Cyndi Lauper – Between Lauper and Madonna, many thought Lauper was going to be the long-term success. Guess we were wrong. But, man, did she ever deliver a soulful line that defied anything else she had recorded.
1. Ray Charles – Brother Ray, all ready a living legend, came in and was the person to whom all other singers and musicians deferred. He was the calming influence, the cattle prod, and the zen master all wrapped up into one. And then he did his call-and-response thing with the choir that still brings chills up and down my spine. And, Ray had been doing this his whole career. His was the best performance.
For a song that was recorded in the wee hours after the 1985 American Music Awards, this song is a standard for all times. The motivation for the song was unparalleled, though the unity the song brought about has long since been broken by greed and selfishness. I hold the song up as a standard to which to appeal. Maybe, one day, we will come together as one.