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Lionel Richie on the continuing power of "We Are the World"

Lionel Richie on the making of "We Are the World"
Lionel Richie on the making of "We Are the World" 08:29

In the universe of pop music from the 1980s, there's one song that's especially hard to shake. In 1985, "We Are the World" was made to raise money for food aid to Africa. The song, and the saga of recording it, are now the subject of a Netflix documentary, "The Greatest Night in Pop."

Lionel Richie co-wrote the song, and he's the man who helped 46 of the biggest music stars on Earth record it in one crazy, all-night session in January 1985.

How did he do it? " Naiveté, number one," he replied. "And number two, we didn't have any distractions. There was no internet. There was no cell phone. There was nothing but purity of a thought, an idea, and how to get it done."

It all started with "Do They Know It's Christmas," the British charity single meant to raise awareness (and open wallets) for food aid to famine-ravaged Africa. Singer and philanthropist Harry Belafonte thought American artists could do the same, so he called super-agent Ken Kragen to help round up talent, and Kragen got Richie and Michael Jackson to write a song. "At the beginning, there was no terror at all, because we had no deadline – Whenever you could write it, we can write it. There's no problem," said Richie.

They wrote at Jackson's house, with all of his pets, including a large snake, which rattled Richie: "I'm trying to write the lyrics to this song, and I'm screaming, and he's going, ''He wants to play with you, Lionel.'"

But Kragen kept calling more big names to join in, and the project started to snowball. "And next thing I know, Kragen calls on the phone and says, 'Ah, Bruce is in. Dylan's in.' 'Dylan, you mean, Bob Dylan? What are you talkin' about?' 'Well, Ray's coming.' 'Ray?' 'Charles. Ray is coming.' So, all of a sudden we went from just la-la-la to panic!"

Singer-songwriter Lionel Richie.  CBS News

Finally, with the song written, they made a plan to record it the night of the American Music Awards in January 1985, when all the big names in music were in Los Angeles. Richie hosted the three-hour show that night, but his main event started afterward, when the mega-stars started arriving for a recording session for the ages: Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and so many more.

Richie described it as "a room full of five-year-olds, and we're all amazed that we're there with each other, and getting used to each other. I call it the first day of first grade. So, you're all in the room without your parents, and we don't know exactly what we're doing. And Quincy's the parent. And he pulled it off."

So how did Quincy Jones keep the big talent, and all of those big egos, in line? Peer pressure. "I kept saying to Quincy, 'Is everyone going to go in a booth and sing their part?'" Richie recalled. "He said, 'No, we're gonna put them in a circle, and they'll be perfect every time we sing.' Why? 'Cause you're standing and looking into the rest of the class. You're gonna be perfect every time. And it was true. A little intimidating. In fact, did I say a little intimidating? I mean, now that I talk about now, it was terrifying!"

U.S.A. For Africa - We Are the World by USAforAfricaVEVO on YouTube

But the best moments of the night were when the immortals in the room let their guard down a bit, like when Diana Ross asked Daryl Hall for an autograph. "You just couldn't get enough of that," said Richie. "And then just to sit around and, 'Hey, man, I just want to tell you I'm a big fan,' and then we just melted into this family."

The session lasted well into the next morning, and for those in the room it was trying, and triumphant.

Asked if there was a moment he thought they wouldn't pull it off, Richie replied, "Several times. It was just fatigue at one point, once you get to four o'clock in the morning, and we're now putting on individual parts. Springsteen left the building on the last thing we put on this record at eight o'clock. So, around 7:30, 8:00 was his last la-la."

The single was released in March 1985. It went straight to #1, and raised tens of millions of dollars.

For one brief moment in time the world seemed to unite, just a little. "We actually thought we were going to wipe out hunger around the world," Richie said. "All we needed to do was just tell a few people, and the rest of the world would take over, and the whole world will run next door and save their next-door neighbors in their cities and their communities. And then, about three years later, the world went back to sleep."

But since the documentary premiered in January, there's been a renewed interest. The song "We Are the World" was back on the Billboard charts, and donations started flowing again – in the past six months, more than $600,000 and counting.

To Lionel Richie, it's not so much a song but a gift, and one that keeps on giving. "We raised a lotta money, yes," Richie said. "We kept thinking, Okay, we're gonna give away $5 million. Okay, hopefully we'll raise ten. Once you get to be 40 and 50? Whoa. What the heck just happened?

"But I remember calling Quincy on the phone. I said, 'Did we say we were giving away half the money or all the money?' He said, 'Don't try it. Lionel, don't try it. Don't try it. We're committing all the money.' I said, 'Oh, oh, yeah, I just wanted to make sure!' But then you realize we kept trying to stop 'We Are the World.' Okay, we're winding it down now. And the next thing we know, $2 million comes in. It's still breathing."

To watch a trailer for "The Greatest Night in Pop" click on the video player below:

The Greatest Night in Pop | Official Trailer | Netflix by Netflix on YouTube

For more info:

Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

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