September 23, 2012

Musicians as Philanthropists Donating Talent, Not Money

For whatever reason, back in the 1980s, musicians tried to become philanthropists of sorts (although some would argue their efforts were philanthropy in a very self-serving way), only instead of donating their money towards charities, they donated their talents instead.

Perhaps one of the earliest manifestations of this celebrity "trend" among popular musicians began in 1984 when a group of British and Irish artists formed a supergroup dubbed as "Band Aid" and recorded a Christmas single which is still played ad nauseum today known as "Do They Know It's Christmas?".  The beneficiaries of that effort were supposed to be famine victims in Ethiopia (Africa), although the method of distribution was via an organization run by the United Nations rather than the corrupt government of that nation.  That initiative, which originally began with Irish singer/songwriter Bob Geldof, really kind of snowballed into a trend that many celebrities felt compelled to be involved in.

This is not to dismiss the benefits of these initiatives, although there was also plenty of criticism for self-righteousness among those behind the efforts.

Indeed, although monetary contributions helped with some of Ethiopia's immediate needs at the time, they did little (if anything) to address the root cause of the problems, including government corruption, embezzling, civil disorder, lack of education, and even genocide, many of which are due, in part, to Western governments' tolerance of such corruption in Ethiopia and elsewhere as long as loan payments are made regularly.  Frankly, I really haven't studied all of the issues surrounding this, but I think an unbiased assessment might be that the critics have some legitimate points that are worthy of consideration.

In any event, Band Aid was followed with an American version of the effort which became known as USA For Africa began by the legendary Harry Belafonte, along with fundraiser Ken Kragen.  The result was a song known as "We Are The World" that was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian.

Much like Band Aid, USA for Africa was a supergroup, and because the organizers were well-connected in the music industry, the result was an unprecedented collaborative effort.

Among the soloists in this song (in order of appearance): Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles.

Beyond those who had solos in the song were also all of the original Jackson Five, including brothers Jackie, Marlon, Randy and Tito as well as sister La Toya.  Beyond the Jacksons, the effort also included a number of other prominent singers who did not have solos, but were featured in the chorus including Harry Belafonte, Lindsey Buckingham (of Fleetwood Mac), Sheila E., Bob Geldof (the man responsible for Band Aid), Waylon Jennings, Bette Midler, John Oates (of Hall and Oates), the three Pointer Sisters and the legendary Motown artist Smokey Robinson.

The record (and they were still produced in vinyl those days!) was released as a single, in both 7" and 12" formats on  March 7, 1985.  With an all-star roster of artists, including the King of Pop himself who, at the time, was indeed the King, fresh off the success of his bestselling album "Thriller", the single became a chart success around the world.

This would not be the first of such musician-turned-philanthropy efforts; it was followed by various concert initiatives and similar efforts including Live Aid, Farm Aid and others.  None quite approached the level of chart-topping success, but it was definitely trendy at that time for artists to donate their talents rather than their money at the time.  Collaborative efforts, including duos or duettes were popular at the time anyway, so this was really a logical extension of that.

The official version of that video is available on YouTube below, or by visiting

Its unclear how much appetite exists for similar efforts today.  For example, following the earthquake in Haiti several years ago, there was a USA for Haiti initiative, but that effort was nowhere near as successful and the single did not receive anywhere near the amount of airplay the original received.  Like anything, however, there are cycles in entertainment, and its possible we could see a similar type of initiative take off sometime in the future.  For the moment, however, this is no longer in fashion among musicians.  Down the road, only time will tell.  This particular effort was memorable for many people who were around during the mid-1980s.

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