Remember Why Waylon Jennings Walked Out of Recording ‘We Are the World’?
Waylon Jennings was well-known for his strong will, as the producers and all-star lineup of "We Are the World" found out first-hand. On Jan. 28, 1985, the country icon got into a dispute over the lyrics to the legendary charity single and ended up walking out of the recording session before it was complete.
Harry Belafonte conceived "We Are the World" as an all-star project to raise money to fight the famine in Ethiopia, which took the lives of roughly 1.2 million people between 1983 and 1985. Quincy Jones signed on to produce the project with Michael Omartian, and Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson co-wrote the song. They enlisted a group of 46 of the biggest stars from across all genres of music to record the charity single under the name USA for Africa, including Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and more. Country music was well-represented, with Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Jennings all on board.
The all-star lineup convened at A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles on Jan. 28, 1985, to record the vocals for the track, and while the marathon session went well, it wasn't without some tense moments. According to the Independent, an argument broke out at around 1AM over a nonsense phrase Jackson had thrown in at the end of the chorus, “sha-lum sha-lingay.” Bob Geldof felt that it resembled an African language and feared it might be taken as mocking, so Wonder suggested a phrase in Swahili, “willi moing-gu.”
That touched off a spirited debate, with Ray Charles finally protesting, "It’s three o’clock in the god--mn mornin’ — I can’t even sing in English no more," according to the Independent. That's when Jennings left the session, reportedly saying, "No good old boy sings in Swahili."
Accounts differ as to whether Jennings returned to the studio after everyone involved agreed on the line, “one world, our children" in the disputed spot in the song. He does not appear in the group photos from that day, nor is he present in the video of all of the singers singing around clustered microphones. But he's credited on the final version of the song as part of the chorus, though he does not sing a solo line.
"We Are the World" went on to become one of the biggest hit singles of all time, selling more than 20 million copies and raising more than $63 million for famine relief.
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