Stars gather to cover 'We Are the World' for Haiti
By Chris Richards
LOS ANGELES -- The sun had just set here Monday when a constellation of pop stars emptied into the sprawling courtyard of Henson Recording Studios on La Brea Avenue.
They were enjoying an extended break after spending hours crammed in Studio A, singing a 25th anniversary remake of "We Are the World" to benefit earthquake relief in Haiti. Among the 80-plus artists getting some fresh air: Tony Bennett, Miley Cyrus, Gladys Knight, Brian Wilson, Jennifer Hudson, Celine Dion, the Jonas Brothers and Kanye West, who wore a shimmering jacket as if trying to channel "We Are the World" co-creator Michael Jackson.
Barbra Streisand was inside, still at work: "There's a choice . . . There's a choiiice . . ." She was recording (and re-recording) a 21-word solo turn -- her fussiness being broadcast live to a giant screen in the courtyard for all to see.
As she fidgeted on screen ("It's true we make a better day . . . I don't know what to do here."), the R&B singer T-Pain couldn't help but smile. "I don't think she knows everyone can see her," he said.
After watching Streisand spend 30 minutes massaging her 10-second solo snippet, Lil Wayne stared at the screen with an incredulous look on his tattoo-covered face. The surrealism of the scene was not lost on the New Orleans rap superstar. "I'm still like, 'What the hell am I doing here?' " he said. "Just to be around all these people, just to know that they'd consider me, that [expletive] is blowing my mind."
It was closing in on 7 p.m. and Wayne still didn't know what line he'd be singing -- just another unknown in what was an extremely chaotic day. Hoping to corral pop's A-list after Sunday's Grammy awards, original "We Are the World" producer Quincy Jones and songwriter Lionel Richie announced plans to re-record the song less than two weeks earlier. Things were moving fast.
The crowd in the courtyard eventually dispersed -- singers back to the studio, journalists to a press room where they could watch a video feed of the session's remaining hours.
As the singers arrived earlier, a game of name-that-pop-star broke out. Bonus points were awarded for spotting unknown newbies (Melanie Fiona, Kid Cudi) and veterans who had been away from the spotlight (Heart, Earth Wind & Fire). And yes, that was actor Vince Vaughn toward the back, presumably reprising Dan Aykroyd's role from 1985.
Aside from Richie and Jones, who worked behind the scenes this time around, no artists from the original "We Are the World" recording session were included in Monday's event -- a conscious decision made by Richie to showcase a new generation of talent. This updated version of the beloved charity ballad first composed to benefit famine relief in Africa will be officially called "We are the World -- 25 for Haiti" and will premiere during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver on Feb. 12. All of the proceeds from sales will go to earthquake relief efforts.
On screen, the massive chorus delivered their final takes in short bursts, with lots of chatter in between. But by 8 p.m., the group seemed to have gelled completely, and broke into an impromptu version of "Lean on Me."
Soon, artists began trickling into the pressroom. "Nobody knew what [line] they were going to perform," said Dion, who found out she'd be responsible for Cyndi Lauper's iconic well-well-well-wellll ascension shortly after she arrived Monday afternoon. "It wasn't really the easiest part of the song."
Lil Wayne materialized after recording his solo contribution. "They was like, 'You're doing Bob Dylan's part,'" he said. "It kind of hit me that . . . this is something way more important than I could have ever imagined." But he left the pressroom with a parting shot: "Before I go, I just want to say I think it's amazing what's been done for Haiti, but I also think it's amazing what hasn't been done for New Orleans."
And more stars: Justin Bieber, Wyclef Jean, Randy Jackson, Akon, Natalie Cole, Josh Groban, Brandy, Mya -- each of them giddy off the fumes of collaboration.
And what about "Lean on Me?" It all happened because Fiona was wearing a pair stiletto-heeled boots and decided to take a break on the shoulders of R&B singer Musiq Soulchild. "This isn't 'Lean on Me!' " he exclaimed. Once those words hit Dion's eardrums, she started stomping and wailing. Soon everyone had joined in the spontaneous singalong.
It was an unscripted moment in a hyper-scripted day. Director Paul Haggis was on site filming the entire session in 3-D. Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas was teaching rappers a new verse he had penned specifically to address Haiti. And the instrumental backing track had also been updated with swooshing synthesizers and flickering hi-hats.
Randy Phillips, Richie's manager and chief executive of music presentation company AEG Live, explained to the assembled reporters why a number of prominent A-listers didn't show up for the remake.
"There are a lot of stars who didn't do the first one because they thought it was going to be whack," he said. "Until you see what it is and you feel what was in that room, you'll never know. The stars that turned us down will regret not doing it."
Among the big names not in attendance: Taylor Swift, who immediately left Sunday's Grammys for a tour of Australia; Beyonce and Jay-Z, who had presumably gone back to New York; and Lady Gaga, who was rumored to have gotten cold feet at the last minute.
With the midnight hour closing in, Richie and Jones took a quick break from their work to explain the similarities and differences between the two recording sessions. As was the case in 1985, egos were checked at the door, they said.
Too bad cellphones weren't. Richie said the day's session took longer than expected due to artists dashing off text messages and taking cellphone snapshots of one another.
After two-weeks of breakneck preparations and hours in the studio, the duo looked happy and exhausted.
"This is like running through hell with gasoline underpants," Jones said.
Then he and Richie headed back to the studio to keep working.
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