.Back to the news: Johnny Colla on recording “We Are the World”

Almost 40 years ago, dozens of ’80s icons gathered overnight in a Los Angeles studio to record “We Are the World,” the hit single that has raised more than $80 million to provide humanitarian relief in Africa.

The fundraising vinyl record was the brainchild of Harry Belafonte, who wanted to help fight famine in Ethiopia. The song was recorded on Jan. 28, 1985 because the American Music Awards were held earlier that evening, affording producer Quincy Jones the perfect opportunity to assemble superstars from rock, country, soul and pop in the same studio.

Netflix recently released The Greatest Night in Pop, a fascinating documentary on how the 21 A-list artists, including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder and Marin’s own Huey Lewis, gave life to the song with their solos.

The doc also has plenty of footage of the 23 singers who completed the celebrity chorus, hitting those high and low notes of “We are the world. We are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving.”

Among the choir members on the four-level riser, I spied my favorite hometown musician—saxophonist, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Johnny Colla of Huey Lewis and the News. The handsome young Colla stood below Belafonte and shoulder to shoulder with Ruth Pointer of The Pointer Sisters, belting out those now familiar lyrics. The rest of his bandmates were there, too.

It’s not surprising that Huey Lewis and the News, one of the most successful bands to materialize from Marin, was front and center during the recording of “We Are the World.” The group had been a staple on contemporary radio stations since the early ’80s, topping the charts the previous year with “I Want a New Drug,” “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” “If This Is It” and “Walking on a Thin Line.”

While Lewis has left Marin for Montana, Colla, a gifted storyteller, still lives in San Anselmo. I called Colla to ask about his memories of what’s come to be known as The Greatest Night in Pop.

The band, nominated for two American Music Awards, would be traveling from Marin to Los Angeles for the upcoming televised awards show, according to Colla. Just days before their trip, Lewis received a demo cassette tape of “We Are the World” and an invitation for the band to participate in the recording session to take place after the awards. Lewis and his newsmen immediately agreed they were in.

First stop, the American Music Awards at the Shrine Music Theatre, where Huey Lewis and the News were honored as the favorite pop/rock video artists. After the show, they went to A&M Studios in Hollywood for “We Are the World.”

“I was thrilled to be a part of the whole thing, and walking into that studio was like something out of a strange movie set,” Colla said. “I’m fully aware that the News, The Pointer Sisters and the Jacksons—other than Michael—were the vocal wallpaper to fill out the riser.”

Johnny Colla holds the gold. “We Are the World” achieved Gold status within the first week of its release in 1985, selling more than 500,000 copies. Later that year, it became the first multi-Platinum song, with sales in the millions. Photo courtesy of Christie-Claire Colla.

The modest Colla said there was a moment that night when he became so excited that a four-letter word involuntarily left his lips—loudly enough to be caught by one of the cameras documenting the production. While he was getting his makeup done, Ray Charles walked by. As a 10- or 11-year-old boy, when Colla thought no one was watching, he’d play “I Can’t Stop Loving You” on his parents’ one-speaker record player and stand on the piano bench to sing along with Charles.

“Now, I am in the room with Brother Ray,” Colla recounted. “He isn’t just my hero; this guy’s a national treasure.”

Other recollections from the recording session also stand out. An Ethiopian woman spoke to the singers about the gravity of the famine in her country, tugging his heartstrings. Another wasn’t quite as touching—Colla’s quick encounter with Waylon Jennings.

“I got to hang out with Waylon for seven seconds,” Colla said. “I introduce myself and tell him that I’ve been a big fan forever. Waylon doesn’t even say hello. He just says, ‘Hey, you know where a guy can get a beer around here?’”  

According to The Greatest Night in Pop, it wasn’t just Colla who Jennings slighted. The country singer later walked out of the session never to return when Stevie Wonder brought up adding Swahili lyrics to “We Are the World.” Colla remembers something else said about that situation.

“The conversation lost steam, partly because Swahili isn’t the Ethiopian language,” Colla said. “Stevie came back to it, still trying. I hear one of the Jacksons say affectionately, ‘Aw, shit. Here goes Stevie again.’”

While Colla enjoyed singing the harmony, his cherished hours occurred after the chorus had finished their part and been dismissed. He quietly slipped into the control room with the engineers and news reporters to watch the singers perform their solos.

“I put on a look of importance, like I had business being there,” Colla said. “You know, Quincy and Lionel had started the night with that line, ‘Check your ego at the door.’ Of course, there were a few folks who didn’t. But when I was in the control room, I was taken by how no one tried to be anything but who they were and what they sounded like. I was struck by the professionalism of everybody and how they took direction.”

Colla felt nervous when they gave Huey Lewis his line to sing—a line out of his range because it was intended for Prince, who didn’t show up. But he needn’t have worried.

“Huey nailed it,” Colla said proudly. “My hero pulled it off.”

The conversation about “We Are the World” eventually wound down. With emotion in his voice, Colla talked about the abrupt end to Lewis’ singing career in 2018, caused by hearing loss from Meniere’s disease. Calling Lewis his “fearless leader,” Colla said the band members remain close.

Although the group no longer visits the studio to record new music, Huey Lewis and the News is experiencing a resurgence. Their blockbuster song, “The Power of Love,” is currently featured in the Broadway show, Back to the Future: The Musical. Next month, a repertoire of the band’s songs will be showcased in a new Broadway show, The Heart of Rock and Roll, also the title of the wildly popular song co-written by Lewis and Colla about 40 years ago.

These days, Colla is working on material in his own studio. He just put the finishing touches on Voices Only!!!, the final album in his critically acclaimed trilogy—all three inspired by his love of a cappella. The new release will be out next month.

Voices Only!!!, Johnny Colla’s new album, will be released in April. Photo courtesy of Christie-Claire Colla.

Until then, fans can sing, clap and stomp their feet to the first two albums, I Hear Voices! and I Hear Other Voices!! Filled with cover songs from the ’50s and ’60s,” the rip-roaring collection showcases Colla’s smooth vocals and a chorus of other familiar voices, including Santana’s Tony Lindsay and Gabi Wilson, now known as H.E.R.

While the Voices trilogy is complete, Colla promises there’s more to come. Solo projects and new albums from Huey Lewis and the News.

“I’ve become the gatekeeper to Huey Lewis and the News’ extensive analog library, including live performances from around the world,” Colla said. “We hope to have three to four live releases in the next few years.”

Colla also has at least two records written that he’ll soon be producing. And he’d like to get back on stage.

“I wanna put a local band together so I can open shows for big shots,” Colla said.

That’s music to our ears.

Colla’s albums are available at johnnycolla.com.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

2 COMMENTS

  1. What an awesome and inspiring story. Johnny Colla is truly down to earth and super real. Stay real Johnny!!!

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  2. Johnny Colla!! Hey Buddy, let me know when I can audition “on cowbell “
    for “THE NEW BAND!” It will be tough competing with the impressive legacy of
    “The News”!! Love Ya, Bro… (the Twins)
    …in Mesa, AZ.

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