As of this week, The Greatest Night in Pop documentary is streaming on Netflix, which takes viewers behind the scenes with never-before-seen footage of the recording process for the massive 1985 hit “We Are The World.”
The song of course features vocals from over 45 of music’s biggest names, including Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson (who wrote the song), Cyndi Lauper, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, Bruce Springsteen Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick, just to name a few. It also includes country music’s own Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kenny Rogers.
The Recording Process
Produced by Quincy Jones, the producers pulled off an incredible feat getting all of those artists in the studio together at one time (largely thanks to Richie and Jackson), which they recorded directly after the American Music Awards in order to get more of them to agree to do it, since they’d already be in L.A.
They talk about the logistics a good bit in the beginning of the film, which I found particularly fascinating, considering how busy every artist was. They were the stars of a generation, and part of what makes the single so impressive is the sheer fact that they pulled it off, even though they recorded through the night and were all exhausted.
Anywho, one of the most fascinating stories to come out of this whole recording process is how Waylon walked out in the middle of the recording. For years, we only got bits and pieces of it, but in this documentary, they break down exactly what happened.
Lionel Richie essentially narrates the doc, and he admits that one of his biggest jobs that night was making sure they stay on track and record the song they originally wrote. He (rightfully) explains:
“One line you can never use in life: ‘I’m not sure about this, what do you think?'”
Obviously, he was afraid that if everyone got input, they’d end up with 47 different versions of the song and not even finish it because everyone would have a different suggestion or idea and time was certainly of the essence.
Apparently, at one point, Stevie Wonder suggested that they use Swahili somewhere in the song, and some of the artists start singing and working on a line.
Waylon Walks Out
According to the Independent, Waylon and a few others were against doing that (who thought it would come across as though they were mocking the language), with Ray Charles finally sounding off:
“Willi what! Willi moing-gu, my ass! It’s three o’clock in the goddamn mornin’ – I can’t even sing in English no more.”
Waylon might have been one of the more vocal artists in the conversation, but he wasn’t alone. A number of them also voiced their disagreement with the Swahili line because they were so short on time and knew it would probably end in disaster in terms of everyone’s pronunciation.
Time went on, Waylon clearly grew annoyed, and a photographer close to Waylon heard him say:
“Well, ain’t no good ole boy ever sung Swahili, I think I’m out of here.”
Lionel Richie adds from his viewpoint:
“Waylon walks out of the door. [He was like] ‘I’m not dealing with this. I don’t know what that means, but I am not gonna say it.’ And we lost Waylon right there.”
They even included the vintage shot of him walking out, which I’d never seen before and was a pretty low-key, but brisk, exit.
After Waylon left, they all came to the conclusion that because of the wide variety of languages in Africa, it might’ve made sense to avoid the whole idea altogether. Eventually, after a heated debate, the group agreed upon singing a line in English that read “One world, Our children”.
In addition, it was discussed that they didn’t need to talk to the people who were starving, as the song is for everyone else to bring attention to the cause and get people to donate.
Ray Charles was clearly ready to move on, telling his producer:
“Ring the bell, Quincy. Ring the bell.”
If anything, this documentary clears up the fact that Waylon was featured on some of the choruses, which is why his name is featured on the final credits. He didn’t get a solo line, and it’s unclear if he was supposed to have one before he walked out, as Willie and Kenny both had solos.
In fact, Lionel notes at the beginning of the film what a big deal it was to get Kenny Rogers on the single, and you see quite a few shots of those two cutting up and laughing in the studio, which was really fun to see. You also get to see a part of Willie recording his solo alongside Dionne Warwick, which was cool.
The Song Becomes A Hit
There were several more disagreements and bumps in the road (I guess that “Check your ego at the door sign” Quincy Jones hung up only did so much), and the group finished the final version at 8AM.
“We Are The World” went on to become one of the biggest hit singles of all time, selling more than 20 million copies and raising more than $63 million (equivalent to $168 million today) for famine relief in Africa.
The lasting inspiration of it remains, and the track was redone in 2010 with more modern artists after Haiti was hit with a devastating magnitude seven earthquake, and was also a big success, peaking at #2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
You can check out the trailer for The Greatest Night in Pop below, and I highly recommend doing so if you’re a music fan of any kind. The documentary is now streaming on Netflix and it’s well-worth a watch: