An all-star 'We Are the World' remake for Haiti relief
Twenty-five years after the all-star recording of "We Are the World" became a signature moment in celebrity altruism and pop-music history, a new collective of stars came together Monday at the same Hollywood recording studio to record a new version for Haiti earthquake relief.
Just as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan descended on the A&M Studios on La Brea to sing for famine relief in Africa, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Kanye West and Keith Urban turned up at the same soundstage (now called Henson Recording Studios) to join an all-star chorus that was 100 voices strong.
The 1985 effort, called USA for Africa, raised $63 million and became a template for famous-face fundraising. The new single will premiere Feb. 12 on NBC during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics with the hope that the download single can help funnel aid into the ravaged island nation.
The anniversary project had been quietly planned for months and was scheduled for the day after the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards to maximize celebrity availability. The plan veered sharply, though, after the Jan. 12 temblor in Haiti: Instead of more relief for Africa, the organizers switched gears and turned their cause to the Caribbean.
The scene on Monday, like the original session, was a fascinating mix of star confluence.
Where else would 83-year-old Tony Bennett sing in unison with 15-year-old Justin Bieber? Emphasizing the cross-generational representation, the choir featured two Beach Boys (Brian Wilson and Al Jardine) and three Jonas Brothers (Nick, Joe and Kevin).
Some newly minted stars, such as Zac Brown, whose band won the best new artist Grammy on Sunday, seemed a bit wide-eyed to be milling in the sweltering recording room with the likes of Carlos Santana, who recorded a searing guitar solo for the single early in the six-hour session.
"It's like standing in the classic records section at the Turtles music store looking at all the covers," Brown said. "It's ridiculous and it's wonderful and for a good cause."
Other performers included Pink, Jeff Bridges, Vince Vaughn, Usher, Akon, T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Toni Braxton, Snoop Dogg and Josh Groban.
Throughout the afternoon and early evening, a collection of music-industry elite mingled in a brick-lined courtyard watching the work at the microphone inside. It wasn't all glamour -- Gladys Knight, unaware that she was on camera, was filmed applying makeup during one break. While everyone else took a break for dinner, Streisand stayed behind to work on her solo, struggling to find the right tone and phrasing.
It became a bit monotonous hearing the diva run through the same 21-word section more than two dozen times. But she didn't seem to mind: "I didn't come all this way just to do one," she said after one take.
The original recording session on Jan. 28, 1985, featured 46 pop and rock stars, including Diana Ross, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and Willie Nelson. The song "We Are the World" was written by Jackson and Lionel Richie, and the single was produced by Quincy Jones, who also helped put together Monday's anniversary session.
After Streisand's solo time, the whole choir reconvened. Under the direction of Paul Haggis, the filmmaker best known for "Crash," the most star-packed cast on the planet made a music video while facing a swooping camera. At front and center was Wyclef Jean, a former member of the Fugees and a defining presence in the public life of his native Haiti, especially in recent weeks.
"We're doing this for the cameras," Haggis told his charges.
In the rear, Vaughn and Harry Connick Jr., both known as charismatic wiseguys, seemed to be enjoying a chuckle. In the center of the group, Streisand stood arm in arm with Black Eyed Peas singer will.i.am, and just an arm's reach from Dion, the closest thing in sight to an inheritor of her genre throne.
There was a ripple of curiosity in a media tent set up in an adjacent compound when two people dressed in lime-colored masks and body socks joined the singalong. Clearly, the extras were green-screen place holders, digital "blank spots" for people who would be added later by a visual effects team. Would it be the late Michael Jackson? An absent Bono or Janet Jackson?
Apparently not. The word at the event was that the green people were keeping a spot for Santana, who had to leave before the evening video shoot, and 67-year-old Wilson, who was having trouble standing throughout the marathon session.
Groban, stepping out from the studio for a break, said he was a bit bewildered by the crazy-quilt crowd, genre-wise.
"I'm standing there between Tony Bennett and Bizzy," he said, referring to the jazz icon and the member of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. "That's not ever really going to happen again."
Groban said the small talk between takes was especially riveting. "Everyone is talking about what they're working on next. It's fascinating," he said, just as Dion and her husband-manager, Rene Angelil, walked by with a wave.
Some stars weren't eager to talk to reporters. West, the hip-hop firebrand, smiled and said, "It's a good cause," and left it at that.
Jean, on the other hand, spoke to all who would listen. He talked emotionally about his own journey, as a young Haitian immigrant working at Burger King and falling in love with the music of Richie. "I'm like a kid in a candy shop," he said of the gallery of music heroes.
Jean had one overriding response to the night: "I just want to thank everyone. Haiti thanks you. The world thanks you."
-- Geoff Boucher
Photos: First - In 1985, a who's who of pop recorded the Michael Jackson-Lionel Richie song 'We Are The World' to benefit the hungry in drought-plagued Africa. Credit: Associated Press. Second - In 2010, celebrities gather at the "We Are The World 25 Years for Haiti" recording session held at Jim Henson Studios in Hollywood, California. Credit: Kevin Mazur / WireImage.