LOS ANGELES (Billboard) – Usher was deposited at the guarded front gate in a black Cadillac SUV. The inside courtyard teemed with people watching a large flat-screen monitor documenting the assembled celebrity chorus; inside the studio a disembodied voice declared, "We're not finished; we still have to do the harmony."
Noted perfectionist Barbra Streisand stood in a separate studio running through numerous takes of the verse that begins, "There's a choice we're making." Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie led a Greek chorus of rappers through its paces.
These are just a few of the sights glimpsed during the 25th-anniversary recording of "We Are the World" February 1 at the Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood -- or what executive producer Jones laughingly describes as "running through hell with gasoline underwear."
A diverse lineup of more than 75 stars -- ranging from Streisand to Lil Wayne -- gathered between 4 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. on behalf of Haitian earthquake relief efforts.
Both the song and 3-D video for "We Are the World -- 25 for Haiti" will world-premiere February 12 during NBC's coverage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics' opening ceremony. Proceeds from the song and its accompanying video -- directed by award-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis -- will go directly to Haitian relief efforts through the We Are the World Foundation, a newly created nonprofit organization comprising board members Jones, Richie, Haggis, Wyclef Jean, AEG Live president/CEO Randy Phillips and Ambassador Louis Moreno of the Inter-American Development Bank. Visa is underwriting the project.
Featuring an updated track by recent Grammy Award-winning producer RedOne and all new singers, the modernized "World" has some big shoes to fill. Recorded in the same studio, the 1985 version written by Richie and Michael Jackson boasted heavyweights like Ray Charles, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Diana Ross. The song reached No. 1 on the pop and R&B charts and raised more than $30 million for the hunger relief organization USA for Africa.
Some have been quick to note the absence of pop stars like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Beyonce on the new recording, pointing out that despite the presence of Streisand, Celine Dion, Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers and teen newcomer Justin Bieber, "25 for Haiti" has a lower star quotient than the original. Organizer Phillips says that some artists "were not available or turned down the opportunity because they thought the original was iconic and shouldn't be done again. Even on the first one, there were a lot of stars who declined."
Jean, executive-producing along with Jones and Richie, says, "There's always artists you wish were here. But there's Pink, Will.i.am . . . we're grateful because so many artists showed up. The room is definitely packed with stars."
Richie notes that comparing and contrasting the two versions is beside the point, and that it's about a new generation and not doing the same thing again. "You want to jump in, but you realize you need to pass the torch," he says.
This is evident in the addition of a major hip-hop contingent for whom Richie wrote a part and Will.i.am created the underlying rap. Joining Drake, Snoop Dogg and Kid Cudi on the song, rap newcomer Iyaz says, "With hip-hop speaking to a lot of the younger generation, it's important to contribute our voices."
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