What Happened to the Singers From ‘We Are the World’?
“We Are the World” was the typical American reaction to a world crisis like the famine in Ethiopia. After Band Aid released the somber “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, USA for Africa released the self-congratulatory, ego-driven “We Are the World.”
It’s been almost 40 years since U.S. musicians (and Dan Aykroyd) gathered to sing Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s limp ballad. It was supposed to be the gathering of America’s best. But was it? It’s amazing how many have fallen off the planet and how many of them were just plain lucky to have been included. Unfortunately, many of the “We Are the World” singers have died as well.
Who is still relevant today? Who was the least of the best?
- Lionel Richie — included because he co-wrote the song with Michael Jackson and because of his sappy ballads like “Hello.” He was at the top of his career at the time; after “We Are the World,” he only had four more Top 10 hits, and he’s better known now as that old judge on “American Idol.”
- Stevie Wonder — a true superstar, but he was reaching the sunset of his career, especially after 1984’s harmless smash “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” He would have only three more Top 10 singles. (Hmmm . . . am I sensing a “We Are the World” curse?)
- Paul Simon — Included as sort of a “Lifetime Achievement Award”; his last Top 10 hit was in 1980. He re-emerged a year later with Graceland, a monster album, and has had several Top 5 albums since then, but no hit singles.
- Kenny Rogers — He continued making waves in the country charts for the next few years, and his 2005 single “I Can’t Unlove You” reached No. 17, but as a pop star, he had only one Top 40 hit after 1984’s “What About Me?”, a trio with Kim Carnes and James Ingram. He died in 2020.
- James Ingram — Ingram was a questionable choice, given that he had recorded only one Top 10 hit before 1985. But unlike most on this list, his best was yet to come, with a No. 2 hit in 1986 with Linda Ronstadt (“Somewhere Out There”) and another No. 1 single in 1990 (“I Don’t Have the Heart”). He died in 2019.
- Tina Turner — Classy. Superstar. She had five Top 20 hits after 1985, and while she’s been silent for the past 25 years, she deserves a break at 81. She is a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and died in 2023.
- Billy Joel — Another legend that continued making hit songs into the 90s, he had five Top 10 hits after “We Are the World” but jumped the shark after the often-ridiculed “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
- Michael Jackson — Well, what can you say about him that hasn’t been said already? How about taking up three and a half verses while giving Bruce Springsteen only one? His star faded after 1987’s Bad, with each album getting progressively worse. Child molestation allegations and plastic surgery tainted his image. He died in 2009.
- Diana Ross — By 1985, her best years were behind her, and she joined the group partly because of her legacy, partly because of Michael Jackson. But that legacy is strong: 24 studio albums and 116 singles as a solo artist. She is the original diva.
- Dionne Warwick — Another Lifetime Achievement Awardee. She is one of the most successful female artists of all time, with 56 singles hitting the Hot 100 and 12 hitting the Top 10. She would hit big that same year with “That’s What Friends Are For.”
- Willie Nelson — Country legend, yes. Pop star? Uh-uh. He had just scored a Top 5 hit with Julio Iglesias (an unlikely pairing) with “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” a terrible, terrible song. But on this record, his harmonies are way off-key, and this song needed all the help it could get.
- Al Jarreau — This one’s a head scratcher. Jarreau had zero Top 10 hits before and after the record, and could manage only four Top 10 R&B singles during his career. A phenomenal singer, but a B-list star. He died in 2017.
- Bruce Springsteen — Springsteen was just coming off his chart-busting album Born in the U.S.A. and its handful of Top 10 hits. While he never reached that popularity again, he did have four more Top 10 hits and a handful of critically acclaimed albums.
- Kenny Loggins — His 15 minutes were ticking. After 1986′ Top Gun, it was all over, at least on the pop charts. (Remember Pooh Corner?)
- Steve Perry — Another sad story. Album-oriented rock was on its way out, to be replaced by hair metal. Although Journey continued to make records throughout the 80s, by the end of the 90s Perry would find himself replaced by his bandmates, who would search the globe for not one, but two lead singers who sounded just like him.
- Daryl Hall — If Hall & Oates were a stock at this time, I would have sold immediately.
- Huey Lewis — Another monster sports-titled album would follow Sports (Fore!), then nothing. He will forever be trapped in the 80s.
- Cyndi Lauper — Lauper’s success lasted until the end of the 1980s, with three Top 10 hits and the No. 1 hit “True Colors,” but it’s like the door slammed on her career once 1990 hit. But that didn’t stop her from trying, as she released eight albums over the next 25 years. She just couldn’t reproduce the craze caused by She’s So Unusual.
- Kim Carnes — Huh? This inclusion made no sense at the time, and it seems even more bizarre today. After “We Are the World,” she didn’t have a single in the Hot 100. For her career, she had two Top 10 hits as a solo artist. That’s it. Less than Melissa Manchester, DeBarge or John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band, all of whom weren’t included in USA for Africa.
- Bob Dylan — Yeah, he’s a legend, but what has he really done since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks? 2001’s Love and Theft is considered a classic, and critics salivate over everything he releases, but he’s almost become a caricature of himself at this point.
- Ray Charles — Lifetime Achievement Awardee, but well-deserved. He was a good choice to finish the song. Charles died in 2004 at the age of 73.
Who was conspicuously missing? Prince (who contributed a song to the album), Madonna, Tom Petty, Pat Benatar and John Cougar Mellencamp (who did Farm Aid) went on to have Hall of Fame careers.
Note: Performers deemed not important enough for a solo but were relegated to the chorus were:
- Dan Aykroyd (who must have stumbled into the wrong studio)
- Harry Belafonte (who came up with the idea of USA for Africa. He died in 2023)
- Lindsey Buckingham (I’d rather have Stevie Nicks)
- Sheila E. (Prince’s delegate)
- Jackie, LaToya, Marlon, Randy and Tito Jackson (where are Janet and Jermaine? Rebbie?)
- Waylon Jennings (died in 2002)
- John Oates (once again in Hall’s shadow)
- The Pointer Sisters (three of the four sisters have died)
- Smokey Robinson, who for some reason got beat out for a solo by the likes of Kim Carnes