The new Netflix documentary The Greatest Night in Pop, featuring interviews with Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen and more, is streaming now
Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and co. had one night only to nail their recording of “We Are the World” — and nail it they did, with the charity single becoming one of the most successful hits of all time.
On Jan. 28, 1985, A&M Studios in Los Angeles was a who’s who of music’s biggest stars, all of whom were gathered to record a song in support of African famine relief, specifically in Ethiopia.
Richie and Jackson wrote the track together, and it was produced by Quincy Jones, with everyone from Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bette Midler lending their vocals to bring it to life.
“If you’ve ever been in a symphony and you’re sitting close to the orchestra, you feel all that vibration and that energy and that music like a wave over you,” cameraman Ken Woo tells PEOPLE. “That’s what it was like in the studio when they sang it the very first time. It just blew everybody away —my jaw dropped.”
The new Netflix documentary The Greatest Night in Pop (streaming now) peels back the curtain on the iconic song’s creation, from its inception via Harry Belafonte and Ken Kragen to the way in which organizers wrangled all their talent the same night Richie hosted the American Music Awards.
“It’s such a beautiful night, and so special,” vocal arranger Tom Bahler tells PEOPLE. “It was just love, love, love.”
Below, revisit some of the greatest and most surprising moments from the making of one of music’s biggest success stories.
Michael Jackson’s pets nearly interrupted the writing of the song.
While writing the song together at Jackson’s home, Richie had some curious run-ins with the singer’s collection of pets.
Early on, Jackson asked Richie to say hello to Bubbles the chimp, and also had to explain why his dog and his bird had beef.
“There’s a full-on fight going on downstairs. [Barks] ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up.’ [Barks] ‘Shut up! Shut up!’” Richie recalls in the doc. “‘What’s happening in the kitchen, Michael, what’s going on?’ He says, ‘Ah yeah, Ricky the myna bird is having a fight with the dog.’ Because the bird can talk, and the dog is mad at the bird.”
Later, Richie spotted some albums falling over and heard a hissing noise, only for a massive snake to appear. Richie says Jackson had lost the snake, but believed he’d reemerged when he heard them singing.
“I am screaming like it’s…. This is the end,” Richie says. “I saw this horror movie, and it’s not good for the brother.”
There was debate over whether Madonna should join the group.
Harriet Sternberg, head of creative services at Kragen & Co., felt strongly about bringing Madonna into the fold — but Ken Kragen had another idea.
“I wanted Madonna. ‘Material Girl’ and all of the things she did would bring a really different audience, but Ken wanted Cyndi [Lauper],” she says in the doc. “We had a fight about that.”
They eventually did go with Lauper, but nearly lost her the night of recording, with Richie saying that she approached him backstage at the American Music Awards to say her boyfriend had heard the song and didn’t think it would be a hit, so she was out.
“Well, nobody knew. It certainly was a group of great people. But I was so punch-drunk tired. And after the show it was like, ‘Alright, you have to just go there,’” Lauper says in the doc. “[But] I felt it was an important thing to do. I do believe that rock and roll can save the world, or we should try.”
Paul Simon lightened the mood with a dig at John Denver
As recording stretched on into the wee hours of the morning, Paul Simon kept spirits up by cracking a joke — at the expense of country star John Denver.
“[He joked], ‘Wow, if a bomb lands on this place, John Denver’s back on top,’” Kenny Loggins recalls in the doc.
Denver, who died in a plane crash in 1997, had actually asked to join the legendary lineup, and later expressed his disappointment at missing out. Kragen reportedly has said that turning Denver down was “the hardest” rejection he’d had to deal, but that there were fears his image would hurt the song’s credibility as a rock/pop anthem.
Diana Ross fangirled over Daryl Hall — then shed tears at the night’s end.
Recording stretched deep into the night, and the group took a quick food break to order chicken and waffles from Roscoe’s.
During that break, Diana Ross found her chance to chat up Daryl Hall, recalls Bahler.
“Diana walks up to Daryl Hall with her music in her hands and says, ‘Daryl, I’m your biggest fan. Would you sign my music for me?’ And we all looked around said ‘Holy moly,’” he says in the doc.
Before long, the floodgates had opened, and the stars all began signing autographs for each other.
“It seemed like once Diana Ross started doing it, everybody was getting everybody else’s autograph in there, and it was kind of a love fest,” Woo, who is featured in the doc, tells PEOPLE. “I think a lot of these artists had not met any of the other artists before. It was amazing.”
Bahler adds to PEOPLE: “We took 45 minutes or longer to sign everybody’s music. When it was over, we were family."
Later, Ross cried as she lingered long after everyone else was gone — and when Quincy Jones asked if she was alright, the singer replied, “I don’t want this to be over,” according to the doc.
“She was completely vulnerable, which I had never seen before,” Bahler tells PEOPLE. “It was so beautiful. To see a woman of that strength and brilliance just letting it go, it was so validated to what the whole night was about.”
Waylon Jennings left early after Stevie Wonder started singing in Swahili.
At some point during recording, Stevie Wonder began singing a translation of the song in Swahili, as he felt it was important to incorporate the language into the track.
That didn’t sit well with country star Waylon Jennings, who took that as his sign to leave.
“I just heard him go, ‘Well, ain’t no good ol’ boy ever sung Swahili. I think I’m outta here,’” Woo recalls in the doc.
Remembers Richie: “[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.”
Though Jennings didn’t return, someone eventually alerted Wonder that Swahili was not spoken in Ethiopia, and Bob Geldof eventually convinced the star to drop it, as they feared turning off potential donors.
Michael Jackson initially didn’t want to sing on the song.
Though Jackson was the first person to show up the night of recording at A&M Studios, it had taken him some convincing to get there.
In an archival interview, Quincy Jones says that Jackson initially only wanted to write, and did not want to sing on the track or be featured in the video.
“He thought it was overexposure at first,” says Jones. “I talked Michael into being on the thing, you know? That would’ve been one of the biggest mistakes of his career if he hadn’t showed up. But he was there, man. He was more than there.”
Bahler tells PEOPLE that Jackson, with whom he’d worked since the singer was 13, was “very quiet” by nature, and often struggled in large groups.
“I noticed that if he was around 12 people or less, he was comfortable and himself. But if you put him in a group that was bigger than that, he got very quiet and went inwards,” says Bahler. “He stood next to Kim Carnes... And she said, ‘It was great, but he never even said a word to me.’ I said, ‘That’s because there’s too many people here.’”
Everyone honored Harry Belafonte with a group rendition of “Day-O.”
“We Are the World” was Harry Belafonte’s brainchild, and when the group finished recording the chorus, Quincy Jones hushed everyone in order to give him a shoutout.
Then, without warning, Al Jarreau started singing Belafonte’s 1956 classic “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” and everyone jumped in.
“Harry Belafonte was the most inspirational person for all of us who were there,” Smokey Robinson says in the doc.
Steve Perry and Daryl Hall brought down the house.
Woo recalls Hall and Perry singing back-to-back, and notes it was a stunning moment.
“They sang their part and it was just stunned silence in the room,” he tells PEOPLE. “Their voices were so incredibly pure, especially when there was no music. You couldn’t hear any music. All you could hear was their voice. And it was like people were just amazing, and they started applauding. It was a lot different than hearing anybody else sing. When they sang, people were like, ‘Wow.’”
Sheila E. was hurt after realizing she’d been invited in the hopes of getting Prince to show up.
The event organizers felt strongly about getting Prince involved, as he was a superstar who was commanding the charts at the time. To help sweeten the deal, they got his collaborator and on-again, off-again girlfriend Sheila E. on board.
At one point during recording, she called the “Purple Rain” star to let him know how things were going, and that he should come join, as they were all having a great time. Soon, Richie was talking on the phone to Prince, who said he wanted to play a guitar solo in another room.
The “When Doves Cry” singer never showed — and Sheila E. soon realized her invitation may have had ulterior motives.
“I was looking forward to singing one of the verses, but they kept asking, ‘Well, do you think you can get Prince here?’ I’m like, ‘Wow, this is weird,’” she recalls in the doc. “And I just started feeling like, ‘I feel like I’m being used, to be here, because they want Prince to show up and the longer they keep me, maybe Prince will show up.’ I already knew he wasn’t gonna come, ‘cause there was too many people and he would feel uncomfortable. I told Lionel, I said, ‘I’m gonna go.’ They never intended on having me sing a verse, which was a little bit… heartbreaking.”
Huey Lewis’ solo was meant for Prince.
Once it became clear that Prince wasn’t going to show, there was a scramble to figure out who was going to step in for his solo. Michael Jackson turned to Kenny Loggins for help, and the “Danger Zone” singer suggested Huey Lewis.
“So now I get Prince’s line. I mean, those are pretty big shoes to fill!” Lewis recalls in the doc. “From that moment on, I was nervous out of my brain.”
Cyndi Lauper’s loud jewelry caused confusion.
Cyndi Lauper was so nervous ahead of her solo that she could only focus on “trying to remember to breathe.”
When she did take the mic, there was a technical difficulty in which a weird, loud noise was being picked up every time she sang. Eventually, Lauper realized it was her large earrings and dangly jewelry causing feedback.
“We needed that little moment of laughter to bring us back down before we rounded that corner,” Richie says in the doc of the moment.
Bahler tells PEOPLE that when Lauper did record her part, she was unhappy with it, and said aloud, “Oh, I hate what I did.”
“Quincy’s in the booth, and he said, ‘Oh baby, that’s it,’” Bahler recalls. “She goes, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve been standing here for two hours while everybody else does every take they want to take, and you’re going to give me one take?’ Quincy says, ‘Come on in here for a minute.’ She walked into the booth and he played it back and she said, ‘OK, I’m done.’ I love the way Quincy handled it. Quincy could be the ambassador of the world.”
Stevie Wonder helped a nervous Bob Dylan get through his solo.
Despite his status as a musical legend, Bob Dylan faced a bit of stage fright when it came time for him to sing his solo. Though Quincy Jones tried to help talk him through it, it was Stevie Wonder who stepped up to assuage Dylan’s nerves.
Wonder sat down at a piano and sang the lines while mimicking Dylan’s signature delivery, and the singer-songwriter finally cracked a smile. Because he was overwhelmed by the large number of people, they cleared the room, and Wonder and Dylan worked on it together until Dylan was happy with his part.
Afterwards, Dylan and Jones shared a hug, and Jones told him his performance was perfect.
He also enjoyed a jam session with Ray Charles.
Woo tells PEOPLE that his favorite interaction of the entire night was one that was caught by a only a few people.
“One of the times everybody took a break, everybody left the studio except Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles,” he recalls. “And Stevie brought out this machine that you could write music in Braille on it, and was showing it to Ray Charles. And then they started jamming on the piano together and it was like, ‘Oh my God, Stevie Wonder jamming with Ray Charles, and I’m shooting it.’ It was like, nobody’s going to believe this! It’s incredible.”
He continues: “They didn’t sing, they were just kind of jamming on the piano and making music and laughing and chuckling together and having a great time. And they didn’t want to leave the studio because they needed their handlers to take them to the studio and back, and I think they just said, ‘We’re just going to stay here and kind of fool around a little bit,’ and it was terrific. Sitting together on the same bench at the piano together, just kind of goofing.”
The Greatest Night in Pop is now streaming on Netflix.
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