Writing the Song

Writing the Song

 A day after Belafonte’s phone call, Ken Kragen heads out to Lionel Richie’s house. Lionel immediately commits to writing the song, explaining that he and his wife Brenda had been searching for something positive to do about the famine. Lionel and Kragen are off to a meeting with Dick Clark about the American Music Awards, which Lionel is hosting in a month’s time. In the limo Clark has sent for them, they can’t stop talking about the project. Kragen says he’ll call Quincy Jones to ask him to produce; Lionel picks up the car phone, looking for a cowriter, and dials Stevie Wonder.

Stevie Wonder is many things, but one thing he is not is easy to reach. Lionel tries all through the day and night but can’t track him down. The next day, Brenda Richie is Christmas shopping, and into the store walks Stevie Wonder. They say hello and he asks her to help him pick something out. “No way,” she says, “not until you call my husband.” Lionel is at a doctor’s appointment and Brenda gives him the number. When Lionel lays it out for him, he says, “Let’s do it.”

At the same time, Michael Jackson happens to call his friend Quincy Jones, who’d produced Michael’s last two albums, both of them rumored to be modestly successful. Quincy—who by now has agreed to be involved—convinces Michael to pitch in on the song. He knows Michael is a fast writer and that his involvement will help push the project along. Now Kragen is cooking. He’s got the three guys Belafonte wanted—Lionel, Stevie, and Michael; he’s got Q, the world’s most successful and well-respected record producer; he’s got three of his own clients to add (Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, and Lindsey Buckingham). But he’s also got problems: he needs a time and place to record, a not-for-profit corporation to channel the funds, a bankroll to pay for expenses (Kenny Rogers and Lionel would pledge $200,000), and a Rainbow Coalition of superstars to sing. He will go after Tina Turner. He will go after Bruce Springsteen. Go after Prince and Willie Nelson, after Eddie Murphy and Paul Simon.

A problem, though, from the get go: Stevie is in New York, in Philadelphia, everywhere but Los Angeles when the song must be written. Lionel and Michael must do it themselves. (As that profound American philosopher Meat Loaf once said, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”) They have never collaborated before—on any project—and do not even run in the same circle of friends; they don’t know each other too well. “The idea of me and you,” says Lionel to Michael, “even being in the same city at the same time is pretty ridiculous.” Furthermore, Lionel is a hardcore night person (he’s at his best writing songs in his car cruising abandoned freeways at 4:00 a.m.), while Michael makes hay while the sun shines. So they start to do what any self-respecting musicians would do. They don’t write the song. They hang out.

First there’s a dinner at Lionel’s. Then three dinners at Michael’s. They swap stories, they tell jokes, they sing. “Have fun” is how Michael puts it. They spend a lot of time retracing each other’s steps since 1971—when a young Lionel Richie took his unknown band, The Commodores, out on the road for their first big tour, in support of a little thirteen-year-old and his brothers, The Jackson Five. They do a lot of catching up, give-and-take. Lionel refuses to associate with Michael’s pet boa constrictor, Muscles, but he does defer occasionally to his birds out back; Michael, in turn, defers to Lionel’s night-owl hours, regularly staying up past his bedtime. A good time, but no business with pianos or paper or tape recorders.

Ten days into January, Quincy telephones Lionel and deadpans, “Well, Lionel, do ya think we can get it sometime ‘tween now and Christmas?” Quincy talks to Lionel and Michael about what the song needs to be, and everyone agrees; something a sea of voices can sing, something grand and not too fast—an anthem. “Let It Be” is discussed, “Bridge over Troubled Waters” is discussed. The destination is clear; it’s the vehicle that’s lacking. A few days later, Quincy telephones again. In his reassuringly calm, charming manner, he asks, “Uh, Lionel, where’s the hook?” The hook, as well as the rest of the song the entire music industry is coming to sing in less than two weeks, is still nowhere to be found. Not a note of it.

Meanwhile, Kragen has a date, January 28, when a gaggle of stars would be in town anyway for the American Music Awards. The recording is planned to begin two hours after the Awards end. He has a studio (A & M) capacious enough to hold both a large choir and a large gathering of supporters of the effort who were not to sing on the recording. The party will be thrown for the artists’ guests, many of whom were themselves instrumental in the effort to rally artists in support of African famine relief. Each artist was allowed to invite five people who could participate in the event from the adjoining Charlie Chaplin Soundstage, since no one except the working artists will be permitted in the recording studio proper. A video and audio feed from the studio to the party will serve as an umbilical cord. Kragen also has his new not-for-profit corporation, The African Relief and Development Foundation, and a name for the project, “USA for Africa” (United Support of Artists for Africa), suggested by Wendy Garfield-Ferris of his office.

As the pressure builds, Lionel and Michael spend a day away from each other. When Lionel returns to Michael’s house, this time he brings two melodic ideas on a tape. Michael says “I got it. Thanks Lionel.” No need for Lionel to leave the tape, Michael has it locked. With those two lines as a spur, Michael steals into the studio that night—not his studio at home, which is being repaired, but another one. He says, “I love working quickly. I went ahead without even Lionel knowing. I couldn’t wait. I went in and came out the same night with the song completed—drums, piano, strings, and words to the chorus. I presented the demo to Quincy and Lionel, and they were in shock—they didn’t expect to see something this quick. They loved it.” It is January 15. Lionel tells Michael, “If you work like that, you could do a whole album in a week.” He’s surprised by Michael’s speed and also flattered that Michael ran so far with his ideas.

When the twosome get back together later in the week to start putting the lyrics together, it’s a joke. Quite literally. For some reason, everything becomes funny, goofy, ridiculous. It’s not too easy to write an anthem about world hunger and helping in this sort of a mood. Perhaps it’s a release from the unspoken heaviness of writing words that they now know will be sung by Ray Charles and Bob Dylan and Springsteen, who have all committed by now. Early in the evening, Michael says to Lionel, “Of course you know we’re not going to get anything written tonight.” And they don’t.

The next time they meet they know the initial recording of the song is scheduled for tomorrow evening, January 22. They get down to business. “No playing around,” says Lionel, “straight to it.” The lyrics are summoned in two-and-a-half hours. Done.