Had the 1985 single “We Are The World” bore than name Diana Ross in its artist credit, it would have been considered the singer’s 19th career #1 hit. It was the first song featuring her voice to top the pop charts since 1981’s “Endless Love,” and was an enormous, Grammy-winning success — an endlessly imitated and parodied all-star charity single that dominated radio that year. Unfortunately for Diana’s chart-tally, the single was credited to USA For Africa, the collective name of the diverse group of stars who took part in the recording. Along with Miss Ross, the voices of Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and more appeared on the track, produced by Quincy Jones. Again, the success was immediate, and massive: “The single arrived in stores March 7. Over 800,000 copies were shipped, and all were sold out by the weekend. Less than a year after its release, the total estimated worldwide sales of singles, albums, videos and related products added up to $44 million” (The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits, 344).
Because the major participants in the song — writers Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and producer Quincy Jones — had all been important parts of Diana Ross’s career, it’s no surprise she would be included in the recording of the single, which was a fundraiser to help fight famine in Africa. Miss Ross was, of course, also one of the biggest music stars in the world, and she was given a prime solo spot, sharing the first chorus with Jackson himself. She was also apparently an important player behind the scenes, helping round up the superstar artists for the major recording session in January of 1985. This occurred directly after the end of that year’s American Music Awards, during which her own “Missing You” was played in tribute to the recently-deceased Marvin Gaye, leading to that song’s rise to #1 R&B and #10 pop (interesting trivia: according to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli, Diana was the only performer featured on “We Are The World” to have another song in the top 10 at the time, which was “Missing You”).
Sixteen years later, Miss Ross would be part of another star-studded charity single. In the wake of the devastating September 11th attacks in 2001, songwriter and producer Nile Rodgers (of Diana’s classic diana album and her return-to-Motown release Workin’ Overtime) undertook re-recording his classic 1979 Sister Sledge hit with more than 200 personalities (which ultimately led to his creation of the We Are Family Foundation) — all in order to promote diversity and tolerance. The roster of names included ranged from Patti LaBelle and Queen Latifah to David Hasselfoff and Macaulay Culkin. Nile Rodgers has publicly stated his admiration that Miss Ross hopped in her car and drove to the recording session — all to be in the chorus, without any featured part in the song. For a star of her status, this is a pretty impressive move — you have to imagine there are a few who wouldn’t dream of appearing on a single if they didn’t get a solo section. And even though Diana’s voice isn’t necessarily audible on the finished recording, it’s fun to her in the video and see so many of her friends — Luther Vandross and Ashford & Simpson, for example — take part with her.
We Are The World: Opening with co-writer Lionel Richie quietly singing the now-classic, “There comes a time…when we heed a certain call…,” the famous voices that make up USA For Africa trade-off lines in rapid succession; Richie is followed by Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, and Billy Joel. This all occurs in about 1:20 of running time; the quickness of pace wisely keeps any one artist from outshining another, and also doesn’t give listeners enough time to really digest the difference in tone that otherwise might seem too jarring. At roughly the 1:25 mark, Michael Jackson takes over the chorus, his voice clearly recorded separately from the rest of the group and given special treatment by producer Jones; the echoed, hushed effects laid over his vocals makes it seem like Jackson is singing from an entirely other dimension. He handles the instantly-memorable hook, singing, “We Are The World…we are the children…we are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving…” At the start of 1985, Jackson was at the peak of his popularity, and not just any artist could have followed him, so it makes sense that his idol and mentor shares this important section of the song. Diana sings in a crisp, clear soprano, keeping her delivery simple and dedicated to the words; her “There’s a choice we’re making…we’re saving our own lives…” is perfectly done, as is her harmony with Jackson during the remaining line, “…it’s true, we’ll make a better day, just you and me.” That, then is her brief but pivotal moment in the spotlight on “We Are The World” — there are outtakes of Diana ad-libbing with Stevie Wonder at another point in the song, but those were obviously cut from the final product. Still, Miss Ross easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her peers on the recording, something that a singer with “limited range” and talent (according to her critics) would never have been able to achieve. It’s also important to note that while many continue to label Ross as a “diva” with a huge ego, there has never been any indication that she had any trouble sharing the spotlight here; there are stories of other artists that either refused to take part in the recording or left the session because of the artist overcrowding, but Diana remained a player here from start to finish.
We Are Family: A jubilant, joyful recreation of the massive 1979 Sister Sledge hit, which had originally peaked at #1 on the R&B chart and #2 on the pop chart. The song has become an anthem on radio and television, so ubiquitous that it’s almost hard to appreciate the brilliance of the catchy melody and lyrics anymore. The song, however, is a great one — not surprising considering it was written by the great Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, both of whom gave Diana two of her biggest hits (“Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”) a year after this song originally peaked. There’s a real party atmosphere to this recording — it’s a far more buoyant and energetic piece than “We Are The World” — and there’s an extremely eclectic mix of talent involved. Diana’s contemporaries — including Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, and Ashford and Simpson — all get featured time and sound good. The choir sounds robust and completely invested in the song; in Spike Lee’s video of the recording sessions, it’s a pleasure to see Miss Ross in a black tank top doing her signature “shake” at 2:17. Fans may be disappointed that the diva isn’t featured more, but clearly it was important to her to simply take part in a song with a message of tolerance and universal love.
With the huge success of the single, a We Are The World album was put together and released; it featured songs “donated” by artists like Prince, Tina Turner, and Kenny Rogers. The album was also an instant hit, shooting to #1 and selling millions. Diana is only featured on the title track; interestingly, the album is far more rock-oriented than anything else, with no solo inclusions from Richie, Jackson, Ross, Stevie Wonder, or Ray Charles, the major R&B aritsts involved with the single. But because of her prominent placement on the first refrain — not to mention cuddling with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the front row of the chorus in both pictures and the music video, Miss Ross was closely identified with the song and an important part of its success.
Meanwhile, as noted before, the recording of “We Are Family” also led to something much bigger than a song; according to the official website, “In what seemed like a natural next step, the We Are Family Foundation – a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) – was formed by Nile Rodgers to promote the message of a global family by creating and supporting programs that foster respect, understanding and cultural diversity.” Considering Diana’s fan base is an extremely diverse group, it’s fitting that she would support such a venture. And whether her voice is out front or part of chorus, at the end of the day both of these releases spotlight a little-known side to the diva — her charitable one.
Best Of The Bunch: “We Are The World”
“We Are The World” took home three trophies at the 28th Annual Grammy Awards.
The nominees for Record Of The Year were:
USA For Africa, “We Are The World” (Winner)
Dire Straits, “Money For Nothing”
Don Henley, “The Boys Of Summer”
Huey Lewis And The News, “The Power Of Love”
Bruce Springsteen, “Born In The U.S.A.”
The nominees for Song Of The Year were:
Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, “We Are The World” (Winner)
Mark Knopfler and Sting, “Money For Nothing”
Don Henley and Mike Campbell, “The Boys Of Summer”
Daryl Hall, “Everytime You Go Away”
Mick Jones, “I Want To Know What Love Is”
The nominees for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals were:
USA For Africa, “We Are The World” (Winner)
Mr. Mister, “Broken Wings”
Philip Bailey and Phil Collins, “Easy Lover”
Foreigner, “I Want To Know What Love Is”
Huey Lewis And The News, “The Power Of Love”