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The Unsung Organizers Of 'We Are The World'

February 13, 1985|DENNIS HUNT | Times Staff Writer

No one wants to take credit for the remarkable "We Are the World" benefit project.

While three of the primary organizers--pop music manager Ken Kragen, Harry Belafonte and producer Quincy Jones--were willing to discuss the project, they also wanted to avoid the media spotlight.

"We're not looking for glory or publicity for ourselves," Kragen explained. "If you could talk about the project and forget us, that would be nice." That unselfish spirit pervades this project.

The focal point is a single, "We Are the World," written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and recorded by 46 pop and rock stars to benefit the victims of the African famine.

The vocal session--Jan. 28 at the A&M studio in Hollywood--was a summit meeting of most of America's top singers, including Richie, Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Huey Lewis, Hall and Oates, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Jeffrey Osborne, Billy Joel and Ray Charles.

The single, produced by Quincy Jones, was completed Tuesday and will be released March 11 in a basic, 5 1/2-minute form as an extended 12-inch and as a video. Incidentally, Kragen said the single will not, as previously reported, be premiered on the Feb. 26 Grammy show.

An album, consisting of previously unreleased tracks by various stars, will be out April 1. About the same time, an hourlong videocassette, distilled from 45 hours of tape shot at three recording sessions, will be released by a company not yet selected.

According to Kragen, the album and single will be on the same label. The record deal, he reported, has basically been completed. However, the name of the label won't be revealed for 5 to 10 days.

This unique all-star group is called USA for Africa. That's also the name of the foundation established to administer the money.

"We expect to raise at least $20 million and possibly as much as $50 million," Kragen said.

So far, the project, which would normally be staggeringly expensive, has cost hardly anything. More than a million dollars in goods and services have been donated, not including artists' time and expenses.

When the project was conceived, just before Christmas, no one involved expected it to approach this magnitude. Singer Harry Belafonte, a veteran political and social activist, came up with the idea. He was impressed with the single, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" recorded by an all-star group of British singers called Band Aid. So far that record and video have generated $9.2 million worldwide.

"When I heard what those British artists had done, it made no sense that the pop artists in this country weren't organizing to do something on that scale," Belafonte said.

According to reports, Belafonte originally envisioned this as an all-black project. "That's not true," he said. "That's too limiting. I do agree that black artists should be doing more. If Jews were starving to death in Israel, you can bet American Jews would organize and raise millions to feed their foreign brethren. I wish blacks in this country had that same spirit."

Originally, Belafonte wanted to organize a benefit concert. He contacted concert promoter Ron Delsener, who suggested that Kragen was the best man to organize the show. Due to the charitable efforts of his clients, Kenny Rogers and the late Harry Chapin, Kragen is familiar with the fight against world hunger; also, he manages another top singer, Lionel Richie, whose participation would attract other stars.

"When Harry called, I told him I wanted to help organize something but I doubted that a concert would be effective," Kragen recalled. "I didn't think we could do a concert in the proper size and scope. Making a record seemed to make more sense."

Kragen recruited producer Quincy Jones and called Richie, who wanted to write the song with Stevie Wonder. Richie asked Michael Jackson to sing at the session but Jackson also wanted to help compose. Since Wonder was out of town most of January, Jackson wound up writing "We Are the World" with Richie.

"They wrote it in two or three days," Jones said. "First, they wrote the melody. We needed something with a universal, sing-along quality. Then they wrote the lyrics. We had to do some polishing at the last minute, changing some words here and there, but not that much."

The instrumental tracks were recorded Jan. 22. There was no rehearsal for the Jan. 28 vocal session after the American Music Awards show. Instead, the artists had to do homework; each was mailed demonstration cassettes of the song and lyric sheets.

"The single best decision I made was to do this on the night of the awards," Kragen said. "The majority of the artists would already be in town for the show."

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