we are the world

The 11 Greatest Stories From The Greatest Night in Pop

Photo: Netflix

In 1985, dozens of singers pulled an all-nighter in California while recording a charity single for famine relief in Ethiopia. Or as Lionel Richie puts it in The Greatest Night in Pop, Netflix’s nostalgia-trip documentary about the making of “We Are the World”: “The greatest artists of a generation came together, with all of our ego, with all of our talent, to save some lives.”

The giant music collab, produced by Quincy Jones and written by Richie and Michael Jackson, was still being written ten days before the recording session. But the schedules of artists like Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, and more were only in brief alignment due to the American Music Awards. There was little time to make a lot of history. Below, here are the greatest stories from The Greatest Night in Pop, involving everything from the King of Pop’s pet snake to Stevie Wonder’s Bob Dylan impression.

Michael Jackson’s menagerie interrupted the songwriting process

When Lionel Richie came over to Michael Jackson’s house to work on the song, Richie declined an invitation to hold Bubbles the chimpanzee. At one point, he was startled by a loud fight downstairs between a talking bird and a dog. But then Richie turned to see “the biggest frickin’ snake.” Jackson was excited because his pet had apparently been lost in the room. “He came out when he heard us singing,” he told Richie. “He wanted to meet you. He wants to say hello to you.” Richie, however, was too busy screaming. “I’ve seen this horror movie, and it doesn’t end well for the brother,” Richie recalls.

Country singer John Denver caught a stray

“We Are the World” brought together a slate of music’s biggest stars, many of whom came straight from the American Music Awards ceremony. After everyone took their spots, Kenny Loggins remembers Paul Simon joking, “Wow, if a bomb drops on this place, John Denver is back on top.”

Waylon Jennings walked out

At one point, mid-recording, Stevie Wonder suddenly wanted some of the lyrics to be sung in Swahili, but this late-night suggestion was too much for Jennings. A cameraman recalls hearing Jennings say, “Well, ain’t no good ol’ boy ever sung Swahili. I think I’m out of here,” and heading for the door. Wonder was later informed that Ethiopians don’t speak Swahili, and Bob Geldof also personally talked him out of the idea. (Michael Jackson’s suggestion to use the made-up words “sha-la” and sha-lin-gay” to get “something cultural in there” was later abandoned as well.)

The blind led the blind

During a break between takes, Ray Charles told Stevie Wonder that he needed to go to the bathroom. Wonder grabbed Charles by the arm to guide him there, prompting the rest of the room to crack up at a quip about the blind really leading the blind. It wasn’t the first vision-related joke of the night — earlier, during an impromptu “Day-O” cover, a tribute to Harry Belafonte, Wonder scored big laughs when he swapped out some lyrics to sing about being “driven home by me or Ray.”

Diana Ross kicked off the fangirling

At one point during the night, Ross walked up to Daryl Hall and declared that she was his “biggest fan.” She asked him to sign her sheet music, and suddenly everyone was walking around asking for signatures as if they were holding yearbooks on the last day of school.

Sheila E. felt that she was only invited to get to Prince

Prince’s collaborator and on-and-off girlfriend did call him during the recording process, telling him that everyone was having a great time. (Prince told Richie over the phone that he would do a guitar solo in a separate room.) But while Sheila E. was waiting for her turn to sing a verse, she grew disillusioned by the fact that she kept getting asked about Prince, suspecting that they were keeping her there just to see if he would 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,’” she reflects. “They never intended on having me sing a verse, which was a little bit heartbreaking.”

Cyndi Lauper’s microphone mystery, solved

Lauper almost didn’t even show up; she told Richie backstage at the AMAs that her boyfriend didn’t think “We Are the World” would be a hit. And once recording started, her mic kept picking up a weird background noise that sounded like people chattering. “Well, I don’t think it’s funny, and you should stop laughing when I’m singing,” Lauper recalls saying, only for Quincy Jones to then realize that the cause was actually all the jewelry she had on. “Oh, sorry … oh, I’m loaded,” she said as she rushed to start removing necklaces and bracelets. “There goes the whole outfit,” Jones joked to an amused room.

Huey Lewis overcame a bit of impostor syndrome

Lewis was asked to sing the part that was originally written for Prince, and he recalls being “nervous out of my brain” about filling those shoes. With so many singers he respected around him, too, he was also anxious when he was asked on the spot to be part of a three-part harmony that hadn’t been in the demo. But with a little patience and humor (“I sang it out of tune just to see if anybody would notice”), he made it through.

Lionel Richie had to keep Al Jarreau away from the alcohol

According to Richie, Jarreau kept calling for more wine because he wanted to celebrate before the song was finished. Richie smoothly intercepted bottles and removed them from the room, but he suggests that enough damage was already done. “We had to work very hard to get Al’s part on before Al couldn’t remember what his part was,” he says.

Bob Dylan needed help from a Bob Dylan impression

For most of the recording session, Dylan seemed overwhelmed by the crowd. We see his eyes darting awkwardly from side to side multiple times, and when it was his turn to sing alone, his voice came out weakly. But he finally started grinning after Stevie Wonder impersonated him and sang his part. Ultimately, Dylan was able to deliver his lyrics much more confidently once the packed room was cleared and he could sing with Wonder at the piano and Quincy Jones at the podium.

Diana Ross was the last to leave

Vocal arranger Tom Bahler recalls hearing her crying after the other artists had left, and for a sweet reason: “Quincy said, ‘Diana, are you okay?’ And she’s like, ‘I don’t want this to be over.’”

The 11 Greatest Stories From The Greatest Night in Pop