It's a vinyl yearbook of pop music's graduating class of 1985, and it's sure to start the '80s version of the Name Game: That must be Michael. Or is it Diana? And that's Bruce for sure. No, maybe it's Ray Charles . . .
It's "We Are the World," the hotly anticipated single written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie for a quickly formed supergroup of superstars called USA for Africa. But the real point of the project has nothing to do with fun or fame or fine music: 100 percent of the net profits will be donated to aid the starving people of Africa and the United States.
The record was in stores across the country yesterday, a day ahead of schedule, and should be available at most D.C. record stores today.
"Somehow it got out to ABC Radio and they put it on their satellite last night, so the record company rushed the record out today," said USA (United Support of Artists) organizer Ken Kragen from Los Angeles yesterday. New York radio station WPLJ was the first to break the CBS Records embargo, designed to make the single available to all radio stations at the same time for air play today.
Yesterday CBS filled domestic and international orders for 800,000 copies of the seven-inch single, and with requests for 200,000 copies of John "Jellybean" Benitez's 12-inch extended dance remix of the song, due early next week, the record has already turned gold. Sales will probably be boosted further by the companion video of the event, which premieres next Monday on MTV.
The single's Washington radio debut was claimed by WRQX-FM (Q-107). Music director Mary Taten said the station pulled the song off the satellite transmission at 5 p.m. and had it on the air by 5:10. "We've had more than 400 requests for the song since then," she said, adding that the station is playing the song at least once every two hours. "People seem to love it. They like the idea of the record, all those people donating their time and talent, and they also like the music. You've got every musician you could want, and it's interesting to hear some of the pairings -- to hear Cyndi Lauper on the same record with Ray Charles."
Inspired by the wildly successful British Band Aid single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" -- which has netted more than $10 million to date for Ethiopian famine relief -- Harry Belafonte called Kragen, personal manager for Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers. Kragen quickly assembled the stars, who recorded the track in a marathon midnight-to-morning session immediately after the Jan. 28 American Music Awards telecast.
A partial list of the participants reads like a Who's Who of the top of the pop charts: Jackson and Richie. Producer/conductor Quincy Jones, who put up a sign at the A&M Records studio -- "Check Your Ego at the Door." Tina Turner. Bruce Springsteen. Billy Joel. Cyndi Lauper. The Pointer Sisters. Kenny Rogers. Stevie Wonder. Diana Ross. Huey Lewis and the News. Dan Aykroyd. (Dan Aykroyd?) Forty-six in all.
But the record itself doesn't quite live up to its musical pedigree. Introduced with a quick fanfare of chiming bells, strings and synthesized bass, the simple, sing-along-style melody slowly swells into a swaying, hand-clapping call-and-response massed-chorus windup a la "Hey Jude." Although the tune isn't exactly an all-time classic -- a clear case of a song in need of a video -- over its 6:22 duration the song becomes memorable because of its inspirational message, its repetition and the ingratiating familiarity of many of the voices. The duets throughout can be considered either inspired or curious: Michael Jackson and Diana Ross are typically ethereal and almost indistinguishable, Stevie Wonder sings rings around Bruce Springsteen's gravelly shout, and Bob Dylan is, well, unmistakably Dylan.
There comes a time when we heed a certain call/ When the world must come together as one/ There are people dying/ And it's time to lend a hand to life/ The greatest gift of all . . . We are the world . . .
"I think these lyrics say something about attention and compassion and getting involved," Kragen said. "The lyrics, combined with real action by radio stations, will get people to do something."
People are already doing something. "We went over to Tower Records for a while to see what was happening," Kragen said. "They had ordered 1,000 copies, and as soon as they put them on the shelves people were grabbing them. I saw one woman walk out with 10 copies."
It's a hunk of hot wax in Washington record stores, too. Tower Records ordered 200 copies of the single, which sells for $1.99, and according to buyer Paul Fredrickson, customers were asking for it all day. "There's a guy waiting to buy it right now," he said.
"It feels good, but sort of like it felt after the recording session," Kragen said. "I woke up the next morning feeling like I hadn't really accomplished anything, that all we had really made was a beginning -- a good, exciting beginning. But this is just a stop along the way. The only thing that means anything is when we start saving lives."
In estimating the projected profits from the records yesterday, Kragen was a bit more cautious than he was during the initial January press conferences, when he said the record would net $50 million to $100 million for Africa. "I made a serious mistake in saying that," he said. "I recently saw statistics that said that all the charitable agencies in America -- Red Cross, Oxfam and the others -- will collect $70 million in one year.
"From the Band Aid experience, I could see that we should do two or three times that easily -- they didn't have an album. But I think if we do $50 million it will be phenomenal. When you make an optimistic estimate, people will always say later, 'Oh, they didn't make their goal,' and that's disappointing.
"The biggest question we have to answer now," Kragen said, "is, how are we going to be sure that all the money gets where it's supposed to go?" He broke down the distribution of proceeds like this: 35 percent will go to immediate needs, such as food and medicine; 35 percent for longer-term needs, such as tools and fertilizer; 20 percent to funding long-range educational and farming programs; and the remaining 10 percent to hunger relief programs in the United States, an idea Kragen credited to Stevie Wonder.
Kragen said he expects funds to begin moving into Africa by "May or June at the latest." A trip to Africa is planned soon, with Harry Belafonte and USA for Africa executive director Marty Rogol expected to go.
Meanwhile, many other USA for Africa events are in the works: "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau has devoted the past two weeks of the strip to "reenacting" the superstar session, and yesterday the artist donated the originals for an auction, which Kragen says will most likely be held in New York in April. The auction will also feature other memorabilia from the session, including posters signed by all participating artists.
The forthcoming album, also titled "We Are the World" (CBS), is scheduled for release on April 1. It features unreleased tracks by Springsteen (a live version of "Trapped"), Prince ("For the Tears in Your Eyes"), Tina Turner ("Total Control"), the Pointer Sisters ("Just A Little Closer"), Steve Perry ("If Only for the Moment"), Huey Lewis and the News ("Trouble in Paradise") and a cut called "Tears Are Not Enough" from a Canadian supergroup made up of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bryan Adams, comedian John Candy, Aldo Nova, Mike Reno and others. Linda Ronstadt had promised a number from her Nelson Riddle sessions, but it was dropped from the lineup, Kragen said, because the album is "targeted for a younger audience."
Future benefit spinoffs include a 60-minute "making of" television special to be aired in May, a 30-minute videocassette and a 64-page Putnam trade paperback filled with information on the Ethiopian situation and photos of the recording event. There is also the possibility of a summer concert by some of the USA for Africa artists.
"I was impressed," Kragen said, "by a quote from Band Aid originator Bob Geldof, who said something like, 'The music business has made drugs and wild clothing and hair styles fashionable. Now it's important that we make compassion and generosity fashionable.' "
Donations can be sent to USA for Africa, 1112 N. Sherbourne Drive, Los Angeles, Calif. 90069.