In late 1984, calypso legend and renowned humanitarian Harry Belafonte spearheaded an effort to bring emergency relief to famine-ravaged Africa. As The New York Times reported, he called well-connected L.A. entertainment manager and promoter Kenneth Kragen, who convinced Belafonte that a charity single, featuring America’s best-known music stars, could raise millions. Within days, Kragen had assembled an A-list dream team of artists that included Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, and Bruce Springsteen. 

More artists came onboard, resulting in « We Are the World, » the star-studded 1985 single benefitting the nonprofit USA for Africa Foundation. One of the fastest-selling pop singles in music history, « We Are the World » ultimately sold more than 20 million copies, raising a staggering $75 million while going on to win three Grammy Awards, including awards for both record and song of the year. In addition to the aforementioned artists, among the 40-plus who lent their voices to recording session — which took place on January 28, 1985 — were Cyndi Lauper, Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, the Pointer Sisters, Paul Simon, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, and many more.

The song remains one of the music industry’s most successful charitable endeavors ever. Sadly, during the decades that have passed since the release of the single, several of the stars who participated are no longer with us. To find out more, read on for a look at every singer from « We Are the World » who has passed away.

Kenny Rogers

Landing Kenny Rogers for « We Are the World » was a major coup, given the massive degree of success that Rogers had experienced during the late 1970s and early ’80s. Among the most successful country stars ever to cross over into the pop charts, Rogers boasted a head-spinning string of hits during that period, including « The Gambler, » « She Believes In Me, » « Lady, » the Sheena Easton collab « We’ve Got Tonight, » and the Dolly Parton duet « Islands in the Stream, » to highlight just a few.

While Rogers never recaptured that level of success, he nonetheless remained a popular live performer until his death in 2020 at the age of 81. As his obituary in The New York Times pointed out, he was the first country artist to perform at the kind of arenas typically reserved for major rock and pop acts, and sold in excess of 100 million records. 

Not only did Rogers contribute vocals to the single (famously sharing a microphone with fellow legends Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder), he also made a lesser-known but equally important contribution to « We Are the World. » As KCRW recalled, Rogers offered his own Lion Share Recording Studios in Beverly Hills, where Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones worked in secret with a crack team of session musicians to create the backing track, late into the wee hours of the morning. The stars assembled the following day at A&M Studios, where all the vocal parts were recorded.

James Ingram

Given his long association with producer Quincy Jones, one of the architects of « We Are the World, » it wasn’t surprising that honey-voiced R&B singer James Ingram would be tapped to contribute a verse. Among his many hits were: « PYT (Pretty Young Thing), » a collaboration with Michael Jackson that appeared on the latter’s iconic « Thriller » album; « Yah Mo B There, » a 1984 duet with Doobie Brothers frontman Michael McDonald; and « Somewhere Out There, » his chart-topping duet with Linda Ronstadt from the soundtrack to the animated feature « An American Tail. »

Ingram’s smooth baritone arrives fairly early in the song, wedged directly between verses sung by Kenny Rogers and Tina Turner. His delivery of that single verse has since become so iconic that there’s actually a YouTube video that compiles a number of amateur singers attempting their own impressions of Ingram’s line. Ingram also made quite an impression visually. As Rolling Stone’s minute-by-minute breakdown of the « We Are the World » video quipped, « James Ingram has shown up for the session in a shiny silver tracksuit, as if he came directly from a workout on the space shuttle. »

Ingram died at age 66 in January 2019, with outlets reporting at the time that he’d been suffering from brain cancer. Jones shared a statement with Billboard to celebrate Ingram’s talent. « With that soulful, whisky-sounding voice, James Ingram was simply magical … Every beautiful note that James sang pierced your essence and comfortably made itself at home, » Jones said.

Tina Turner

Tina Turner was in a unique position when she walked into A&M Studios to record her part for « We Are the World. » After leaving Ike Turner a decade earlier, halting both their notoriously troubled marriage and successful musical partnership, she was considered a washed-up has-been until the arrival of her 1984 « Private Dancer » album, marking the comeback of all comebacks that propelled her to a higher degree of fame than she’d ever experienced before. According to the Independent’s account of the recording session, when Turner completed her verse, and some brief harmonizing with Billy Joel, she triumphantly yelled, « Fish burger! »

For Turner, appearing among the stars on « We Are the World » was the cherry on top of what is arguably the most celebrated era in her career; less than a month after that recording session, she won three Grammy Awards, with « What’s Love Got To Do With It » winning for record of the year and best female pop vocal performance, and « Better Be Good to Me » taking the honors for best female rock vocal performance.

Turner’s career success continued for another quarter-century until she hit the road for her 50th anniversary tour in 2009, which was also her last. After that, she retired, living out her final years alongside husband Erwin Bach in the palatial home they shared in Switzerland. Turner died in May 2023 at the age of 83, with The Guardian’s obituary reporting that her death came after a lengthy illness.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson, self-proclaimed King of Pop, died in 2009 at the age of 50; his death was ultimately ruled to be a homicide, the result of his doctor prescribing propofol — a powerful anesthetic used for sedation during surgery — as a sleep aid. 

Jackson’s contribution to « We Are the World » was a major one, co-writing the song with Lionel Richie, and working in the studio to create the bedrock track to which the vocals were later added. This included Jackson multitracking his own background vocals. 

For Richie, co-writing the song with Jackson was a memorable experience — although perhaps not for the reasons most people might assume. « I’m at Michael’s house trying to write ‘We Are the World’ and his dog is barking and his Mynah bird is yelling ‘Shut up’ [at the dog], » Richie recounted during an onstage MusiCares event, as reported by Billboard. In the midst of all that, Richie then noticed Jackson’s stacks of vinyl albums tumbling over, which was revealed to be caused by a massive white python that emerged from behind the albums, slithering its way toward Richie. « I will admit I was screaming like a white woman, » Richie confessed. In a previous interview with Billboard, Richie recalled his response to Jackson after the « Bad » singer told him the snake just wanted to play. « I said, ‘You’re out of your freaking mind,' » Richie said. « It took me about two hours to calm my a** back down. »

Al Jarreau

Blessed with a voice so smooth as to invoke jealousy in silk, Al Jarreau was known for jazz-inflected R&B hits such as « We’re In This Love Together, » « Mornin’, » and the theme from the hit TV series « Moonlighting. » Jarreau died in 2017, aged 76, concluding a music career that spanned six decades. 

As video outtakes from the « We Are the World » recording session demonstrate, Jarreau did not exactly nail his part in one take. In fact, Jarreau — sharing a microphone with the unlikely duo of Dionne Warwick and Willie Nelson, while Bruce Springsteen waits in the wings to deliver the first line of the chorus in a gravelly scream — repeatedly messed up, stepping on Nelson’s vocals and missing his cue. 

That wasn’t the only embarrassment that Jarreau would endure. As the Independent recalled, he became completely starstruck when Bob Dylan arrived. Jarreau, a major fan of the « Blowin’ in the Wind » singer, accosted Dylan to share his appreciation for his work. According to Life magazine’s David Breskin, who was in the studio at the time, Dylan had just completed his verse in the song, but wasn’t particularly happy with what he’d done. It was at that moment that Jarreau cornered Dylan and told him, « Bobby, in my own stupid way I just want to tell you I love you. » Dylan responded by avoiding eye contact and simply walking away. As Dylan exited, Jarreau burst into tears. « My idol! » he declared between sobs.

Ray Charles

There’s no denying that Ray Charles — who died in 2004 at age 73 — held elder-statesman status in the « We Are the World » recording session, having laid the groundwork for rock and soul music with such piano-driven classics such as « What’d I Say » and « Hit the Road, Jack. » That certainly proved to be the case for Billy Joel. As Life magazine’s David Breskin recounted, Joel was awestruck when Charles entered the studio. « That’s like the Statue of Liberty walking in, » said Joel, who was physically shaking when he was introduced to Charles by producer Quincy Jones.

In footage taken during the session, Charles is seen nailing his part in one soulful take, reading the lyrics by running his fingertips across a sheet of paper on which they’d been translated into Braille as he danced and stomped his foot. Charles then took a seat at a grand piano to contribute a keyboard flourish to the song. « When Ray came in and opened his mouth, we just kinda all fell over in the corner and said, ‘Wow, did you hear that? That’s Ray Charles.’ It was just brilliant, » Lionel Richie told Esquire.

According to Rolling Stone’s recollection, one of the more surreal moments in the session came when Charles asked for directions to the restroom. The first person to pipe up was Stevie Wonder. « I’ll show you where it is, Ray. Follow me! » Wonder told Charles, taking his hand as one blind man led another.

Waylon Jennings

Waylon Jennings put the « outlaw » in the outlaw country genre, known for such hits as « Luckenbach, Texas, » « Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys, » and the classic theme from TV show « The Dukes of Hazzard. » Jennings’ hard-drinking, fast-living lifestyle caught up with him in 2002, when he died in his sleep due to complications from diabetes at the far-too-young age of 64.

For readers racking their brains trying to remember Jennings’ contribution to « We Are the World » and coming up blank, there’s a reason for that. Jennings didn’t appear on the track or in the video, and doesn’t appear in the iconic group photo — although he was there at the session, and is credited  in the final video.

According to the Independent, at issue were some gibberish lyrics that Michael Jackson had written to appear at the end of the chorus, « sha-lum sha-lingay. » Bob Geldof — who is featured in the « We Are the World » chorus and would go on to launch Live Aid — reportedly took issue with the words, fretting that they could be misconstrued as mockery of an African language. Seeking an alternative, Stevie Wonder called up a Nigerian pal, who suggested a Swahili phrase, « willi moing-gu. » By that point, Jennings had apparently had enough. « No good old boy sings in Swahili, » he declared before storming out of the studio, presumably to the nearest bar.

June Pointer

During the mid-1980s, when « We Are the World » was recorded, The Pointer Sisters were coasting on the success of a string of hits that included « I’m So Excited, » « Jump, » « Slow Hand, » « Automatic, » « Neutron Dance » and others. The group originally consisted of Anita, June, Ruth, and Bonnie Pointer, before the act scaled down to a trio when Bonnie left in 1977 to pursue a solo career.

The three-woman version of The Pointer Sisters were invited to participate in the « We Are the World » recording session. Despite their bevy of hits, none of the three were asked to take a vocal solo, but appeared in the chorus. In the years following « We Are the World, » June Pointer, the youngest of the four sisters, struggled with substance abuse. After exiting rehab in 1998, she told People, « It’s been a long road for all of us, » and that she was happy to be able to return to singing with her sisters. « That, » she added, « is my favorite high. » Sadly, she subsequently relapsed and was asked to leave the group in 2003. The following year, when she was 50, she was arrested and charged with cocaine possession. She was eventually sentenced to 18 months in rehab; it was during this time that she was diagnosed with cancer, which had come to metastasize in her liver, pancreas, and lungs.

June Pointer died in 2006. She was just 52 when she finally succumbed to cancer.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Anita Pointer

Anita Pointer was also on hand for the « We Are the World Session, » joining her siblings June and Ruth in the chorus. As the 1980s made way for the ’90s, The Pointer Sisters would never recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle success they’d experienced during the early 1980s. However, the group continued to perform, with Issa Pointer — daughter of Ruth — brought in to replace June when her issues with drugs led her to be kicked out of the group.

Anita Pointer, the eldest of the four sisters, died in January 2023 at the age of 74. Like June, her death was due to cancer. She was preceded by sister Bonnie, who died in 2020 of cardiac arrest.

« While we are deeply saddened by the loss of Anita, we are comforted in knowing she is now with her daughter Jada and her sisters June and Bonnie and at peace, » her family said in a statement, as reported by CBC News. « She was the one that kept all of us close and together for so long. Her love of our family will live on in each of us. »

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Harry Belafonte

The late Harry Belafonte, whose desire to raise money for famine relief efforts in Africa led to « We Are the World, » joined in as a member of the chorus. Belafonte came to be known as the « king of Calypso » for introducing Caribbean music into the American pop lexicon, racking up such hits as « Matilda, Matilda, » « Jump In the Line, » and « Mama Look a Boo Boo. » He died in April 2023 at the age of 96.

Belafonte was at the center of one of the most heartwarming anecdotes to emerge from the recording of « We Are the World. » As the chorus completed its final recording, most of the participants launched into an impromptu a cappella rendition of Belafonte’s classic « Banana Boat, » chanting its iconic chorus of « Day-o, Day-o, Daylight come and me wanna go home. »

As video of the moment indicated, not everyone sang along. Bruce Springsteen can be seen grinning widely, apparently not quite sure what’s going on. Bob Dylan, standing immediately behind Smokey Robinson and Ray Charles, seemed a bit confused, but likewise couldn’t help but break out into a smile. Al Jarreau wound up taking control of the singalong, animatedly leading the singers through the verses and choruses of Belafonte’s classic song, as a grinning Belafonte sang along until the song ended and the assemblage of superstars honored him with a round of applause.


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