The Night Prince Owned the AMAs and Blew Off ‘We Are the World’
It’s not easy to give a legendary performance, score multiple major awards or piss off some of the biggest names in music. Yet Prince did all three in one night: Jan. 28, 1985.
The evening began with the American Music Awards, where Prince was nominated in a whopping 10 categories. The iconic artist was riding high on the success of Purple Rain, which had been released to massive acclaim seven months prior, but was up against stiff competition at the AMAs, none bigger than Michael Jackson.
Despite the huge success of Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller -- which was still on the charts in 1984 and became certified that same year as the best-selling-album of all-time -- Prince would rule the day at the awards. He took home the AMAs for Favorite Pop/Rock Album, Favorite Soul/R&B Album and Favorite Soul/R&B Single (for “When Doves Cry”). Jackson, went home empty-handed.
Adding icing on the cake, Prince delivered what Billboard later referred to as the “most iconic performance” in the AMAs history. Wearing a shimmering blue and green suit, mounted atop his signature ruffled white shirt, the rocker wowed those in attendance and watching at home with an incendiary rendition of “Purple Rain.” The performance dripped with every element that made Prince great -- soaring vocals, blistering guitar solos and the kind of stage swagger that had audiences eating out of his hand.
Amazingly, this wouldn’t even go down as Prince’s most notable action of the night.
Following the AMAs, music’s biggest stars piled into their limousines and headed to A&M Studios in Los Angeles. Such was the plan of legendary producer Quincy Jones who, along with actor and social activist Harry Belafonte, had spearheaded a project to raise money for famine-stricken Africa. Together they’d recruited a vaunted list of artists to record the charity single “We Are the World,” including Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Bob Dylan and the song’s writers, Lionel Richie and Jackson. With more than 40 singers and celebrities lending their voices to the track, it seemed like every member of the music elite was there. Except, of course, for Prince.
That’s not to say that he wasn’t invited; far from it. In fact, Prince had been heavily recruited to be part of “We Are the World” from the project’s conception. Prince never told his side of the story, but his refusal to participate has been attributed to several factors.
First, Prince was known for having strict control over the recording environment for his own projects, something he would not have with the charity release. “He always recorded alone and not with an engineer,” said Ken Kragen, a music manager who helped coordinate the stars for “We Are the World.” “He would go into the studio, do his own engineering and record every instrument and sing and no one else would be there. All of a sudden, he couldn’t be in a room with his peers.”
Another issue was exactly what Prince did, and did not, want to contribute. When Jones tried to convince the iconic musician to change his mind, Prince offered instead to play guitar. This did not go over well with the legendary record producer (In a heated moment, Jones reportedly yelled at Prince’s manager, Rob Cavallo, “I don’t need him to fucking play guitar!”).
But perhaps the biggest reason Prince rejected “We Are the World” was that he simply didn’t like the track. “He felt like the song for ‘We Are the World’ was horrible,” Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin explained in the book Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain. “And he didn’t want to be around ‘all those muthafuckas.'"
The exact reason Prince may have disliked “We Are the World” is unknown, though some have speculated that his reported-but-always-denied rivalry with Jackson played a part. Whatever the reason, Prince angered many music insiders by declining to participate. Instead, he sent a track of his own, “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” to be included on the We Are the World full-length charity album.
Prince’s manager recognized that refusing “We Are the World” could lead to bad publicity. Before the AMAs had even concluded, Cavallo reportedly began spreading the rumor that his client was sick. The manager then explained to Prince the importance of laying low -- attending awards show after-parties while music’s other stars gave their time and voices to charity would not be a good look.
Prince ignored these words of advice and instead headed to a club on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Boulevard. Sometime around 2AM, the star’s bodyguards would get into an altercation with two photographers who had attempted to snap pictures of the rocker. The incident landed two of the bodyguards in jail on misdemeanor battery charges.