“The Greatest Night in Pop”: The Art of the Impossible

David Deal
5 min readFeb 18, 2024

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How would you like to tell Stevie Wonder that his idea for improving a song is hurting it? How would you like to coax a reluctant Bob Dylan into singing a solo? Effective talent orchestrators, whether producing a song or managing an event embrace those challenges. Good talent orchestrators push the right buttons to bring out the best work from fickle, insecure, and talented creative minds whose humanity is necessary to produce something memorable. Those are among the takeaways from a new Netflix documentary, The Greatest Night in Pop, which tells the story of how the royalty of pop music gathered in Los Angeles on January 28,1985, to record a song that made history. As someone who has organized in-person events over the years and corralled creative talent to pull off a memorable moment, I was moved and inspired.

“We Are the World”

Most of us know about the song “We Are the World,” which raised millions of dollars for African famine relief in 1985. Forty-seven superstars ranging from Tina Turner to Bruce Springsteen, under the orchestration of producer Quincy Jones, had one night to pull off the epic song.

The Greatest Night in Pop shows how it all came together improbably, and the documentary plays out like a drama.

Act I: Harry Belafonte hatches the idea for after hearing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” recorded by a one-off British supergroup organized by Bob Geldof.

Act II: For the song to have impact, the world’s most visible and popular musicians will need to agree to perform together. Belafonte and well-connected American music executive Ken Kragen start enlisting help from U.S. musicians, starting with Lionel Richie, then at the height of his popularity, while Quincy Jones agrees to produce it. Crucially, Kragen taps into the stable of artists he is personally managing.

Act III: But where and when will the song be recorded? These days, digital technology would simplify the process. But back then, a single studio needed to be found for all the stars to gather. It turns out that the American Music Awards, to be broadcast from Los Angeles on January 28, 1985, presents an opportunity because many of the biggest stars in the entertainment industry will be in attendance. Kragen and his team secretly book A&M Studios near the site of the AMAs. This is done in complete secrecy.

Act IV: Who will write the song and produce it? Finding a producer is easy: Quincy Jones, one of the most celebrated producers of all time, is enlisted. Meanwhile, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson hunker down to write something that will accommodate a chorus of 47 singers from different genres. Oh, and they have only seven weeks to write it.

ACT V: With the song written and performers locked in, how will it be arranged? The song will feature a number of solos over the chorus. Who will sing the solos? Jones and arranger Tom Bahler figure out the details while Jones braces himself for what will come next when the stars gather at A&M Studios and they find out who gets a solo and who is not chosen. No wonder the sign “Leave your ego at the door” was posted at the entrance to A&M Studios that night.

All Night Long

Fortunately, the power of the human spirit is a major theme that unifies each act. Lionel Richie, at the height of his popularity (and the primary interviewee for the documentary) pulls off the impossible: co-writing the song with Michael Jackson under a tight deadline (and sharing Michael’s company with Bubbles the Chimp), helping to organize the recording session, preparing to host the AMAs, hosting the show, performing on the show, going onstage to accept six awards, and putting out a fire backstage when Cyndi Lauper tries to back out of the recording.

Read the above paragraph again. Lionel Richie did all of that. Oh, and after all that, he headed over to the studio to cajole and assuage the egos of his fellow performers into the wee hours until the song was completed — while learning his own solo.

As the documentary shows, recording “We Are the World” was fraught with peril. The performers, packed tightly in a cramped studio, needed to learn the song in front of a camera crew was recording the process for the release of the crucial companion MTV video. They had only hours to get it right before they all scattered. Many things went wrong. Technical glitches happened. The clinking of Cyndi Lauper’s jewelry caused sound distortion. Al Jarreau overindulged in alcohol. Bob Dylan froze up and didn’t want to do his solo. The recording nearly got derailed when Stevie Wonder suggested a lyric change that caused dissension among the singers and compelled an annoyed Waylon Jennings to abandon the session.

The Quincy Jones Effect

But Jones was the glue who kept everything together. He was also the catalyst who inspired everyone to get better. He reassured them when they needed reassurance. He pushed them. He put his foot down then necessary. He improvised: on the spot, he turned Kim Carnes’s solo into a three-party harmony with Huey Lewis and Lauper. Jones never asked, “I’m not sure about this. What do you think?” Not with 47 opinions in the room and an impossible deadline to meet.

And Richie played the role of diplomat and provider comic relief, circulating among the performers to smile, joke, and keep everyone at ease. His efforts were not always successful. Throughout the night, he tried to convince Prince to join the session, but Prince was reluctant. Prince, enjoying a post-AMAs night out, offered to contribute a guitar solo, but it was up to Richie to tell him the idea just was not workable. (The Prince subplot led Shiela E. to become conviced that the only reason she had been invited to the session was to be bait for Prince to appear.)

Having managed some high-pressure events, I can assure you that everyone needs someone like a Lionel Richie, and it’s not realistic to ask the producer to play this role. For that dynamic to work, the producer and ambassador need to completely trust each other. The Greatest Night in Pop asserts that the trust was earned through all the hard work leading up to the night.

Coaxing Bob

The centerpiece of The Greatest Night in Pop is Jones coaxing Dylan to do his solo. Dylan is uncomfortable singing in a room crowded with stars. In a masterstroke, Jones clears the room and works one-on-one with the iconic musician. He places his arm on Dylan’s shoulder and coaches him with gentle words. Dylan turns to Stevie Wonder and asks for help. Jones, wisely, backs off and lets the two artists rehearse together. He gives them the space they need. Dylan cracks a smile. He’s ready. “Must be in a dream, huh?” he says. And then he nails his solo. Jones hugs him warmly. Here is some unedited footage:

This is a story about what it takes to collaborate. Creative people are messy. They get jealous. They can cause friction. But their humanity is the soul of creation. Friction can produce a diamond with the right orchestrator in charge. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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