Early in "the session," the 45 artists began singing the chorus:
We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So, let's start giving.
. . . And to their horror, many of the men discovered that the key was far too high for them.
But the video cameras were rolling, recording this historic event for posterity. They tried gamely to reach the notes.
The dissonance caused producer Quincy Jones to shudder.
There were moments in the landmark "We Are the World" recording session at the A&M Studios in Hollywood when the emotion ran so high that many of the pop-rock stars had tears in their eyes. The aforementioned, of course, was not one of those moments.
Diplomatically, Jones stopped the prerecorded instrumental tape and suggested that anyone having trouble with the notes just refrain from singing until later in the session. The chorus then would be reconstituted into a lower, more agreeable key.
With the cameras still panning the room, however, the singers were in an awkward position as the music started again. It would look strange in the video if they weren't singing. Some of the artists couldn't figure a way through the dilemma--so they just stood there and smiled. Others pretended to sing. If you look closely now at the video, you'll be able to tell the difference.
When the first break was called, a few of the men--including Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen--retreated to the far side of the room until Jones called for a more manageable register. After Jennings looked over and saw that Nelson, too, had bailed out, the old outlaw pals from Texas broke into laughter.
At the podium, Jones was all smiles. The chorus was finally singing in key.
During another break, Al Jarreau and Lionel Richie broke into a playful version of "Banana Boat Song" as a salute to Harry Belafonte's role in organizing the project. Better remembered as "Day-O," the song has been one of Belafonte's signature numbers since the '50s.
After several sing-along choruses, Stevie Wonder made up a verse that poked fun at his own blindness and that of Ray Charles, who stood near him. Smiling broadly, Wonder sang:
If you drink too much, I'll have to say
You're gonna have to be driven home by me or Ray.
Quincy Jones called the affair a "space-age Woodstock." Stevie Wonder described it as "something out of a dream." Paul Simon was moved by the "tremendous sense of community." Bette Midler felt it brought out "the best in all of us."
The public reaction to the single, whose artist proceeds are going chiefly to aid famine victims in Africa, has been equally emotional.
"We Are the World"--which also features such artists as Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and Diana Ross--appears to have touched a nerve across the country that wasn't at all automatic in this cynical age.
Of course, in terms of numbers, it has become one of the fastest-selling singles of the modern pop era. The initial shipment of 800,000 of the records sold out within three days of its release March 7; subsequent orders have lifted sales to an estimated 1.5 million.
But some friends have told me they were so taken by the gentle, uplifting spirit of the song that their eyes filled with tears the first time they heard it.
For the more hard-boiled, much of the initial curiosity was in trying to figure out who among the many artists was singing which solo. Gradually, however, even most of these listeners became caught up in the gentle, inspiring message of the record.
The greatest impact of "We Are the World" seems to have been the video, which lets us see the singers take their turns at the microphone without any sense of star ego. The most moving sequence for me is when Wonder and Springsteen trade lines with an intensity and heart that's as endearing a celebration of the virtues of brotherhood as I've ever seen on a screen.
To the descriptions above, I'd add this one: The session was nothing short of a pop miracle.
"We Are the World" was inspired by the year-end success of "Do They Know It's Christmas," the single by British rock stars to raise money to help famine victims in Ethiopia.
Bob Geldof, the leader of the Boomtown Rats rock group, organized that session last November in London and had tried to get U.S. artists to put together an American equivalent shortly before Christmas. But he had little luck in even reaching the U.S. stars.
"I was pissed off," he said during a break in the "We Are the World" session in Hollywood. "I shouldn't have had to call them in the first place. After they heard what we did with Band Aid (the name given to the group of musicians who made the British single), they should have been calling me. I don't care what they had to do, even if it meant canceling shows. Lives are at stake."