Remember When Waylon Jennings Walked Out of the “We Are the World” Recording Session in 1985?

“We Are the World” was a charity single recorded in 1985 to raise money to feed the people of Ethiopia during the country’s famine. Written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, the supergroup USA for Africa recorded the song over the course of two studio sessions. The group included a who’s who of musicians at the time. Richie, Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and several other pop artists showed up to lend their voices to the song. Additionally, country stars including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kenny Rodgers appeared on the song. Jennings, however, famously walked out of the studio before they finished the session.

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Jennings is credited on the song despite leaving the studio. However, he doesn’t appear in any of the group shots or the song’s music video.

[RELATED: Remember When: The Whole Pop World Comes Together to Record “We Are the World” for Famine Relief]

As the story goes, Stevie Wonder wanted the group to sing in Swahili. Jennings famously said, “Well, ain’t no good ol’ boy ever sung in Swahili. I think I’m outta here,” and left. Without context, his parting statement could cast a negative light on the headstrong outlaw country originator. However, there is more to the story than the “Ain’t No God in Mexico” singer refusing to sing in a language he didn’t understand.

The Context Behind Waylon Jennings’ “We Are the World” Departure

Several things led Jennings to walk out of the studio that night. At the same time, he wasn’t the only one to disagree with adding lines in Swahili to the song. Let’s start at the top.

First and foremost, Stevie Wonder invited two Ethiopian women to the studio to watch the group record the song. An argument broke out after Jennings left and they pointed out that Ethiopians don’t speak Swahili. At the same time, many artists worried that singing in the language would come off as them mocking the people they were hoping to help with the proceeds from the single.

[RELATED: Waylon Jennings Never Liked Having His Name Mentioned in This 1977 Hit]

More than that, it was late. In the booklet included with We Are the World: The Story Behind the Song, author David Breskin points out that Jackson arrived at the studio at 8 p.m. to be there before everyone else. Many of the artists came after attending the American Music Awards. In short, it was late.

Another famous quote highlights just how long they had been in the studio. “It’s three o’clock in the damn morning. I can’t even sing in English no more,” Ray Charles said when Wonder suggested adding Swahili to the song.

[RELATED: The Drug Bust That Made Waylon Jennings Write “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand”]

Not the First Time Waylon Walked Out

Jennings wasn’t one to take anything lying down. If he didn’t like what was happening, he would cut his losses and walk out. For instance, he walked out of a CMA Awards show when they cut his performance time at the last minute. Then, there was the time he was scheduled to be on The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder. The show’s producer promised him he’d be the only guest and would have thirty minutes on the show. However, after another guest ate up most of the show’s airtime, he walked out, leaving Snyder to figure out what to do with nearly twenty minutes of airtime.

[RELATED: When Waylon Jennings Questioned the Future of Country Music in the ’70s With “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”]

Jennings had such a reputation for walking out that a bathroom break earned him $25,000. While negotiating a recording contract with RCA in the ‘70s, he wanted an extra $25k and the label suits refused. So, he quietly got up and walked out of the room, leaving his manager to deal with the executives. In his absence, they agreed to his demands and drew up a new contract. However, the country icon just needed to use the restroom and had every intention of continuing negotiations with an empty bladder.

With all of these things combined it’s easy to see why Waylon Jennings walked out of the “We Are the World” recording session.

Featured Image by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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