by Robert Wilkinson
Today I'll share a piece of autobiographical trivia about me and The Dancing Wonder. No, I never met him. But, between something I did and something MJ did to further that effort, together we helped to create the concerts called "Live Aid." If you want to know more about this strange but true story, read on.
I know that wikipedia gives the creation of that event to Bob Geldof. I'm sure Bob has been content to leave well enough alone regarding credit for the event, even though he knows he didn't create the idea for that unique multi-concert event. He did make it happen in Great Britain after he was aware of the idea as set into motion up to that point.
From wiki: "The concert was conceived as a follow-up to another Geldof/Ure project, the successful charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?", performed by a collection of British and Irish music acts billed as 'Band Aid' and released the previous winter."
To his eternal credit, after seeing the BBC broadcasts of starving Africans in November 1984 he did mobilize the Brit musical community to record "Do They Know It's Christmas" in late November, released in December, which became the top selling song in the UK of all time. This in turn prodded MJ, Lionel Richie, and Quincy to create "We Are The World." But these songs are not the concert event, which was a separate creation.
The backstory: I had been working in the early 80s with the US Committee for UNICEF to raise money and spread the word about African famine and childhood and infant death mass disasters. All throughout the mid to late 70s and into the early 80s I had been a concert promoter, and also worked with other promoters on many events that attracted over 100,000 people and some major media attention.
By 1984, Africa had become a dying ground between drought and pandemic infant diarrheal diseases, to the degree that Time Magazine did a cover story that Summer on the problem. That got me to thinking, and in those days I was much bolder in what I would attempt on a flash of inspiration.
I realized that the usual concert format was inadequate to turn the world on to what was happening. I didn't want just another show where the people came, money was raised on a local level, and then everyone went home while the problem continued. So came the inspiration.
I got to thinking, what if we did multiple stadium concerts in different time zones, and arranged for a global broadcast? Since I was working directly with one of the top UNICEF people in the US in Houston, we could get the Astrodome easily. I figured we'd also want to do LA, since that was where the musical talent was. A third or even fourth venue could be had in Europe or Asia. We could enlist the media to do a rolling simulcast of the major events, and encourage local venues to stage their own concerts as well.
Phone in donations as well as the gate receipts would ensure major dollars for the effort. Along with the fund raising, I intended to try to coordinate an international effort in colleges and universities in the weeks before and after the event as consciousness raising events, so that the academic world and thousands of students might be mobilized by what they learned to further the African relief work beyond the event itself.
I pitched the idea to the UNICEF director who was my friend and colleague, and he became very excited. I did a draft in August, and in early September 1984 we put together a substantial package for the proposal in the Houston UNICEF office. Included were elements from the Time article, UNICEF information about what was going on in Africa, the logistics of the proposed events, and tentative performers to be contacted for the major concerts. This was many weeks before the BBC did the broadcast that mobilized Bob Geldof.
I then showed it to a friend and client of mine who was a major player in Hollywood at the time. He and I had worked together on the scripts of two of the biggest movies of the 80s ("Top Gun," "Beetlejuice"), and I trusted his judgment about what to leave in the proposal, what to take out, and so forth. He became very enthusiastic at the potential, and offered to put the proposal in the hands of his agent who was with one of the biggest firms in the world and just happened to know Michael Jackson's agent, also with the same firm. As MJ was still riding the crest of "Thriller," we knew if he came on board the deal was done. We didn't have to wait long for a response!
I was told that MJ became very excited at the possibility of helping further a historical event that would do so much good for Africa, and that he would support the effort. With him on board, I then pitched the event to UNICEF in New York in September 1984. Without boring you about the details of the insanity of their response, they decided to take a pass.
When I passed along their decision to MJ, another major player in the worlds of television and music was dispatched from LA to NY to find out what their problem was. This was late September or early October. After several days of negotiations, they still passed on the idea. The producer/manager flew back to LA, and from there the preliminaries of the event began to take shape independent of UNICEF. (That's why the event was credited to the "Live Aid Foundation," with no mention of any relief org.) I've left out a few specifics about the process to spare the reputations of those who took a pass.
Several weeks later, in November, the BBC showed the Africa tapes, Bob Geldof mobilized to create "Do They Know It's Christmas," and the rest is history. But the concerts as originally conceived were NOT created in Great Britain after the BBC broadcast.
They were conceived on a round table in an office in Houston many months before that broadcast. MJ got the packet about two months before that broadcast, set his contacts into motion, and the promotional nuts and bolts of the concerts began to take shape in October 1984. "We Are the World" was his initial public response, and after that the concert lineups began to form, including Bob Geldof's participation in lining up the British talent.
So all good blessings upon Michael Jackson's Soul. May he rest easy and find the peace he never could in this world. Though many of his decisions later in his life were more than questionable, he helped precipitate a quarter-billion dollar relief effort for starving Africa. His death got me to remembering my strange experience back in 1984-85, and I figured it was time to tell the true story behind "Live Aid." (For skeptics who read this, most of it can still be verified, though two key players are now dead.) You just can't make this stuff up.....
And that's the way it was all those years ago. Just a fragment of an autobiographical snapshot of a long-closed chapter in the very strange life of yours truly.
© Copyright 2009 Robert Wilkinson