Why Prince was not part of ‘We Are the World’

Posted at 12:17 PM, Apr 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-22 12:33:15-04

RICHMOND, Va. — For children of the 1980s, there was perhaps no bigger musical moment than the recording of “We Are the World.” The 1985 song, which featured most of the biggest American recording artists of the time, helped to raise awareness and millions of dollars to combat starvation in Africa.

Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Lionel Ritchie, and Bob Dylan were among the voices who helped propel the song to the top of the charts.

But there were some notable absences from the collection of superstar singers.

Prince, who passed away this week, was one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful musicians of the 1980s (and beyond). But Prince did not participate in the recording.

Music producer Ken Kragen, who helped get singers to commit to “We Are the World,” said Prince, whose song “I Would Die 4 U” was moving up the charts, was one of his top targets.

Prince’s Purple Rain won the American Music Award for Favorite Pop Album the same night We Are the World was recorded. Purple Rain also won the award for Favorite Black Album and “When Doves Cry” won the award for Favorite Black Single.

Ultimately, Kragen said Prince was too shy to perform in front of all the other superstars.

“One of the reasons Prince didn’t turn up, and Prince later recorded a song for the We Are The World album, is because he always recorded alone and not with an engineer,” Kragen told the Mirror UK in 2015. “He would go into the studio, do his own engineering and record every instrument and sing and no one else would be there. All of a sudden, he couldn’t be in a room with his peers. He knew it was a mistake. It was unfortunate that he didn’t show.”

Another version of the story was told in a 2014 article on Medium Cuepoint:

Prince had, of course, been approached to participate, but he passed and proposed a different kind of contribution to the project.

“I was with Prince one day at his home studio, just the two of us,” says Susan Rogers, who engineered Purple Rain and Prince’s next few albums, “and he got a call from Quincy Jones asking him to come be part of ‘We Are the World.’ I only hear Prince’s side of the conversation—I was in the control room waiting—but he declined it. It was a long conversation, and Prince said, ‘Can I play guitar on it?’ And they said no, and he ultimately said, ‘Okay, well, can I send Sheila?’ And he sent Sheila. Then he said, ‘If there’s going to be an album, can I do a song for the album?’ And evidently they said yes.”

At the awards show, it was a whirlwind of logistics and scheduling; everyone was buzzing about what was planned for later in the evening.

“They kept us so cloistered that a lot of information never would get to us,” says [Revolution keyboard player Lisa] Coleman, “so I don’t remember even knowing about ‘We Are the World’ until that day, when everybody was talking about it backstage. Like, ‘We’ll see you tonight, right?’ And I was like, ‘What are they talking about?’”

“Prince was pissed,” says Wendy Melvoin. “He was like, ‘I don’t want to see any of you there, you’re not allowed to go there.’”

Until the last minute, Prince’s managers were still trying to persuade him to show up for the session.

“At the American Music Awards, he keeps telling me the only thing he’ll do is play guitar,” says Bob Cavallo, one of Prince’s managers at the time and a producer of the Purple Rain movie. “So I call Quincy, and he says, ‘I don’t need him to f****** play guitar!’ and he got angry.

I said, ‘All right, I don’t know, he’s not feeling well’—I start this whole campaign that he’s getting the flu.

At height of fame in the ’80s

Prince’s sound was as unique and transfixing as he was. He created what became known as the Minneapolis sound, which was a funky blend of pop, synth and new wave.

The singer’s fame never waned through the decades, but he was considered synonymous with the 1980s. His fame reached a fever pitch with the 1984 film “Purple Rain,” about an aspiring musician, his troubled home life and a budding romance.

He was a prolific musician. Between 1985 and 1992, he released eight albums, one per year, including the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s “Batman.” He starred in two more movies during that era: “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Graffiti Bridge.” He also put out a concert film. “Sign ‘o’ the Times” hit theaters in 1987.

He infamously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in the 1990s during a dispute with his record label, Warner Bros. He started to become known then as the “Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”

In 2000, when the singer’s publishing contract with the company expired, he reclaimed the name Prince.

Prince won seven Grammy Awards and earned 30 nominations.

Beyond genres, generations

Prince’s music transcended genres and generations. He defined the sound of the ’80s with songs such as “Kiss” and “Purple Rain,” and defied the music industry in a fight for creative freedom.

Fans rushed to record stores to pick up albums and other Prince memorabilia. Some said the icon’s death “is what it sounds like when doves cry,” a reference to his monster hit from 1984.

Word of his death sparked a response from the White House.

“As one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time, Prince did it all. Funk. R&B. Rock and roll. He was a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant bandleader and an electrifying performer,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. ” ‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said — and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.”

CNN Wire contributed to this report