From singing backup at Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback TV special to writing Michael Jackson‘s “She’s Out of My Life” to arranging the vocals on Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man, longtime Quincy Jones collaborator Tom Bahler has had an improbably jam-packed music career. But as he sees it, the peak of it all came in January of 1985, when Jones called upon him to arrange the array of superstar vocals on “We Are the World.”
With a new documentary on the song, The Greatest Night in Pop, out now on Netflix, Bahler, now 80 years old, looks back at the making of the song in the latest episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast. Some highlights of the conversation follow; to hear the whole episode, which also includes interviews with Sheila E. and documentary directory Bao Nguyen, go here for the podcast provider of your choice, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just press play above.
Quincy always said that you were his secret weapon on this session.
Oh, I think we were all there for each other. [Manager] Ken Kragen really put all of this together. He called Lionel, then he called Quincy, and Quincy called me. One of my favorite things was a night or two before we actually recorded, we went over to Lionel’s home, and it was Lionel, Ken, Quincy and me. We don’t normally sit down and think about what can go wrong. We usually go into some place and say, yeah, we’re going to kill this thing. But nobody had ever had 46 people in the same room before, and there were so many strong creators in the room, too. Stevie Wonder, if you take a breath he’ll come in with something, and it’ll be good. But it would be chaos. Diana Ross is another one. She’s so sharp and so on it. And if there is some dead air, man, she’s going to fill it in. Cyndi Lauper was another one we were keeping our eyes open for, because Cyndi is one of those artists that doesn’t want to be told what to do — but what a singer and what a wonderful, marvelous artist she is. So we sat down and thought, okay, what can go wrong? And then let’s have an answer for it. You don’t have to go to war if you’re prepared.
Michael Jackson was obviously one of the key creative forces behind the song, and you’d previously worked with him in the late Seventies and Eighties. What do people not realize about him as a musician and a recording artist?
I learned so much from him. He was the most prepared artist I’ve ever worked with. But he was also very shy. Quincy unlocked his cage, because at Motown, there were only two people that were allowed to talk, to contribute their own ideas: Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Michael kept saying, “Hey, can we…” and he hears, “no, no, no, just do what you’re told.”
But the thing about Michael, he was just from another planet, so prepared, so ready. I remember when we were doing The Wiz, he’d memorized everybody’s lines. And Quincy protected him. He wasn’t used to older men protecting him. I loved working with him.
What was the very first thing you heard about “We Are the World”?
Quincy called me and he says, “Hey man, I just got off the phone with Ken. You’ve heard that song. ‘Do they Know It’s Christmas?’ It’s a great song, but nobody’s gonna play it in March. They screwed up. [Bob] Geldof knows that.” And so Ken had Lionel write a song, and Quincy brought in Michael to finish it. And he said, I want you to do the vocals because we’re going to do it with all these people after the American Music Awards. I had worked with at least half of those singers already, and Ken sent me albums for all of them.
It was your job to decide who sang what. What were the first steps in getting the vocal arrangement together?
Quincy said, “Man, I want you to do the arrangement on this, but I have two requests. One is, Lionel was the first one to write this. So he should be the first voice we hear. And then because Michael came in and they finished it together, Michael should sing the first chorus.” And then, this is his humor, he said, “and I think you should bring Diana [Ross] in for the second half of the first course, because some people think they’re the same person.” And I went, okay, fine. And he said, “the rest of it’s yours.”
And the first thing I heard was with Michael’s pure voice on the first chorus, I wanted the second chorus to growl. So, The Boss. I thought after Lionel, I’d like to hear Stevie. With Tina Turner, I wanted her lower range, which was so warm and so rich. So I wrote her down on her line and Quincy’s looking at the chart and he says, “man, I don’t think Tina can hit that.” And I said, “he can, trust me on this one.” That was the only one he questioned.
The most radical transition in the whole song is from Dionne Warwick to Willie Nelson — how did you come up with that?
It was instinct. I heard her and then I heard him. I wanted Willie because, to tell you the truth, Willie sang “She’s Out of My Life” and my favorite recordings are Michael’s and Willie’s because he is so pure.
And you very optimistically selected a part for Prince, even though he hadn’t actually agreed to be there.
We were going to put Prince in there, but I had a feeling Prince had a problem with men. With him, everything was with women. It made him feel good. But he and Michael didn’t dislike each other. Michael was comfortable with him, and he wanted him on “Bad.”
Prince said he didn’t want to sing the line “your butt is mine.”
I think that was one of his excuses, but I think if anything, he was afraid of Michael. This is pure conjecture on my part. Michael was not afraid of him. Michael wasn’t afraid of anybody. He loved everybody.
People are obsessed with how uncomfortable Bob Dylan looks during the entire recording session.
And I totally understood it. Because he works alone and he doesn’t consider himself a singer. Yeah, he can sing, but he does what he does. And all of a sudden we’re saying, “Hey, do this line.” I think one of the funniest things all night was when Stevie sings it to him [in a Bob Dylan imitation]. And Bob goes, “Oh, okay, cool.” So he reminded Bob who he was.