Back in the Day: Reflecting on "We Are the World" 30 years later

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The following Back in the Day column originally appeared in the Fairfield Daily Republic on Oct. 16, 2015

By Tony Wade

On Jan. 28, 1985, 45 music superstars gathered to record the Lionel Richie/Michael Jackson-penned Ethiopian famine relief song “We Are the World” at A&M Studios in Hollywood.

A sign at the entrance read “check your egos at the door.”

Many of the luminaries came directly from the American Music Awards that took place that evening.

The record was the brainchild of singer/activist Harry Belafonte and the session’s conductor was celebrated producer Quincy Jones. The project followed on the heels of British all-stars Band Aid who had recorded the famine relief single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” the previous year.

The American project was dubbed USA for Africa and the resulting song was a No. 1 hit. It became the fastest-selling American pop single in history and sold 20 million copies worldwide.

The featured singers included Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen and many more.

The stellar chorus for "We Are the World" included Bette Midler, Jeffrey Osborne, the Pointer Sisters, Dan Aykroyd, Sheila E. and Smokey Robinson among others. Wait . . . Dan Aykroyd?

Another member of the chorus was Suisun City’s own Johnny Colla, who was there with Huey Lewis and The News.

“Truth be told I think The News (like The Jacksons and the Pointer Sisters) were merely wallpaper – more faces, voices and bodies to fill out the riser for the group shot and backing vocals,” Colla said. “But that didn’t bother me. I was in the presence of many of my musical heroes past and present, and was honored to be a part of pop music history.”

Famous in his own right, Colla still fully indulged his inner fan.

“I must have been like The Thing That Wouldn’t Go Away, because when the group vocals were completed, I managed to hang out in the studio and booth with the engineers, producers and reporters for the duration of the session, praying someone wouldn’t ask who I was and what business I had being there,” Colla said.

No guests were allowed in the session and A&M set up a gigantic tent in the parking lot with food, drinks and a large screen TV to watch the recording, according to Colla. He recalled model Christie Brinkley, then the “Uptown Girl” wife of Billy Joel, trying to pull a Yoko Ono by entering the session, but quickly being escorted out.

Then there was late outlaw country singer Waylon Jennings.

“There’s a pop-up video showing Waylon Jennings in the group shot, with the bubble saying he left the session due to a disagreement of some type with the lyrics,” Colla said. “My conversation with Waylon was short and to the point. I said, ‘Waylon, I’m a big fan of yours,’ to which he replied, ‘Ain’t there any beer around here?’ I said I didn’t think so. Next thing I knew, Waylon was gone.”

Colla shared some behind-the-scenes recollections of the recording process:

“For the group harmony, Quincy Jones had us sing one note at a time so they would have more control over the blend later, and so the choir would sound bigger (30 bodies times four notes equals 120 voices). For the high notes, all the women (and a few men who could hit the notes like myself) would sing,” Colla said. “The inverse applied to the low notes, and this went on and on until we had a complete chord. I remember standing next to Ruth Pointer (who sang all the men’s notes with that big voice) while I was singing the high notes. She said, ‘Damn, boy, you get up there!’ ”

One classic moment happened between Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder.

“At one point everyone gathered around a piano ‘in the round’ to rehearse the solo lines with Billy Joel accompanying. It’s going fine, everyone’s finding their parts, except Bob Dylan. He would either sing way off melody or freeze and not sing at all,” Colla said. “No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t get it right. Finally, Stevie Wonder breaks in and says, ‘Man, just sing it like Bob Dylan,’ and mimics Bob’s voice perfectly. They go around to his part again and he finally sings it ‘like Bob’ to huge applause.”