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Why Michael Jackson and Prince hated each other: the feud over We Are The World

Michael Jackson, right, called Prince 'one of rudest people I have ever met'
Michael Jackson, right, called Prince 'one of rudest people I have ever met'

The midnight hour was close at hand, and Lionel Richie was turning purple with frustration. It was January 1985 28 and at A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood, the great and the good of American popular music were gathered in a state-of-the-art recording suite. In an adjoining room, Richie was speaking down the line to a reluctant pop genius. “I said, “Prince, we’re all down [here] waiting on you”,” Richie would recall. “I mean, I sat on the phone with him for the longest time.”

Richie desperately wanted Prince to participate in We Are The World, the charity single which aimed to build on the success of Bob Geldof’s Band Aid and raise money for victims of famine in Ethiopia. Just a few hours earlier, the two had rubbed shoulders at the American Music Awards at nearby Shrine Auditorium. As Richie would point out in their subsequent conversation, there was nothing stopping Prince from hopping in a taxi to A&M. It was late – but not too late.

Prince couldn’t bring himself to do it. That was partly because of his natural shyness: the infamously withdrawn and perfectionist star was reluctant to squeeze into a booth with a-listers such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

A bigger problem, though, was We Are The World itself – an avalanche of naff co-written by Richie and Prince’s nemesis, Michael Jackson. The best Prince would do was offer to lay down a solo – provided he could do so on his own. “I don’t need him to f______ play guitar!” retorted We Are The World producer and Jackson collaborator Quincy Jones.

In the Eighties, the Jacko-Prince feud somehow flew under the radar. However, it is front and centre of a new Netflix documentary about the making of We Are The World. The Greatest Night in Pop doesn’t shy away from Prince and his non-involvement in the sessions. Singer Sheila E reveals to Netflix that she was invited because the producers hoped she would encourage Prince, with whom she had recorded extensively, to tag along.

“It was getting late, and I was looking forward to singing one of the verses,” she tells the filmmakers. “But they kept asking, ‘Well, do you think you can get Prince here?’ And I’m like, wow. This is weird. and I just started feeling like I’m being used because they want Prince to show up and the longer they keep me, maybe Prince will show up.”

Prince didn’t like We Are The World, describing it as “horrible”. He had an even bigger dislike of Jackson – a hatred so embittered Prince couldn’t bring himself to express his sympathies after Jackson’s shock death in June 2009, aged just 50.

Their mutual hostility was tied to the burning ambition that drove these two visionaries. They were born two months apart – Prince in June 1958, Jackson that August. Jackson was initially more successful, becoming a pop sensation as preteen frontman of The Jackson Five. However, the power dynamic between the duo shifted in 1984 with the release of Prince’s Purple Rain, a movie and album that won the singer both an Oscar and a Grammy. Jackson, who had ambitions to break into cinema, was left seething.

Michael Jackson and Huey Lewis recording We Are the World
Michael Jackson and Huey Lewis recording We Are the World - Netflix

“The word in Hollywood was that the film, a drama with music, was so riveting, it would make Prince a major movie star,” wrote J. Randy Taraborrelli in Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story. “Michael was deeply disappointed that he had not been able to make a strong impression in films. Being so competitive, he had to see Purple Rain before it was distributed to the public.”

Jackson and Prince had already shared the stage – the only time they would perform together. Their unlikely coming together was at the behest of James Brown. The Godfather of Soul was performing at Beverly Theatre in Hollywood in 1983 when he spotted the two singers in the audience and called them up.

Jackson sang Mr Dynamite with Brown and treated the crowd to his signature dance moves. Then, it was Prince’s turn. “You gotta do something,” said Brown. Prince played guitar, whipped off some of his clothes and then swung on a lamppost stage prop that turned out to be made of Papier-mâché. He flew into the crowd – a public humiliation that seems to have stayed with him. It certainly stayed with Jackson. “He made a fool of himself,” he said. “He was a joke…people were running and screaming. I was so embarrassed.”

Neither of the stars spoke about their animosity in public. But Quincy Jones had few illusions as to the extent of their mutual dislike. This came to a head shortly after We Are The World when, for reasons best known to himself, Jackson decided the title track to his forthcoming Bad album should be a duet with Prince.

Initially, Prince was open to collaboration. However, he hated Jackson’s version and recorded his own demo. He also had a problem with the lyrics.

“The first line of that song is “Your butt is mine,”” said Prince. “Now I said, ‘Who’s gonna sing that to whom? ’Cause you sure ain’t singing it to me. And I sure ain’t singing it to you, so right there we got a problem.’”

Adding to the insult, Prince insisted on calling Jackson “Camille” to his face. “We invited [Prince] over to Michael’s house at Hayvenhurst (a sprawling mansion in Encino, California),” said Quincy Jones “He came in and he had an overcoat on, and he had a big white box labeled “Camille.” He called Michael “Camille.””

Jones continued: “The box had all kinds of stuff – some cufflinks with Tootsie Rolls on them. Michael was scared to death. He thought there was some voodoo in there. I wanted to take it because I knew Michael was gonna throw it away”.

The producer also claimed Prince tried to run Jackson over with his limousine. “He knew,” said Jones of the incident in an interview with GQ. “Michael knows s___. He was there. He said that was his intention.”

“They’re so competitive with each other that neither would give anything up,” an observer to one of the meetings for the Bad sessions told Spin magazine. “They kind of sat there, checking each other out, but said very little. It was a fascinating stalemate between two very powerful dudes.”

The cover of Michael Jackson's Bad album, which Prince thought should be called 'Pathetic'
The cover of Michael Jackson's Bad album, which Prince thought should be called 'Pathetic'

Jackson still wanted to use Prince for his benefit. Together with his manager, Frank Dileo, he devised a plan to plant stories of a rivalry between the two singers. Of course, this “fake news” was all too real: Prince was unimpressed when word of Jacko’s antics reached him. He bowed out of Bad – his part in the Martin Scorsese-directed video taken by a young Wesley Snipes. (Prince later told friends that Jackson’s album was only called Bad “because there wasn’t enough room on the sleeve for Pathetic”.)

Bad blood between the two sometimes reached ludicrous heights. One bizarre incident involved Jackson visiting Prince’s studio, where he was recording the soundtrack to his 1986 movie, Under the Cherry Moon. Prince was an obsessive ping-pong player and challenged Jackson to a game.

“Michael drops his paddle and holds his hands up in front of his face so the ball won’t hit him,” remembered sound engineer David Z. “Michael walks out with his bodyguard, and Prince starts strutting around like a rooster. ‘Did you see that? He [Jackson] played like Helen Keller.’”

Privately, Jackson was withering about Prince. In recordings for his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk, he spoke of his rival with open hatred (the tapes were not made public until 2016).

“I don’t like to be compared to Prince at all,” he said. “I have proven myself since I was real little. It’s not fair. He feels like I’m his opponent. I hope he changes because boy, he’s gonna get hurt. He’s the type that might commit suicide or something.” Jackson added that Prince was “so rude, one of rudest people I have ever met… [and] very competitive. He has been very mean and nasty to my family”.

Prince in 1984
Prince in 1984 - Redferns

In his later years, Jackson’s dislike grew more intense. According to promoter Randy Philips, when planning his ill-fated comeback in 2009 dates in London, Jackson would talk about Prince and their rivalry.

“Michael said, “… God channels this through me at night. I can’t sleep because I’m so super-charged.” Kenny [Ortega, the show’s director] said, “But Michael, we have to finish. Can’t God take a vacation?” Without missing a beat, Michael said, ‘You don’t understand – if I’m not there to receive these ideas, God might give them to Prince.’”

The feelings were seemingly mutual. Following Jackson’s death, Prince was asked for his thoughts about the passing of a legend. He damned with the faintest of praise (though he did perform Jackson’s Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough on his next tour as tribute).

“I don’t want to talk about it. I’m too close to it,” he told Rolling Stone, “[Jackson] is just one of many who have gone through that door – Amy Winehouse and folks. We’re all connected, right? We’re all brothers and sisters, and the minute we lock that in, we wouldn’t let anybody in our family fall.” Seven years after Jackson’s death, Prince would likewise die suddenly, following an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl.

In life and death, they were destined to remain apart. Yet, had things played out differently and Prince joined Jackson on We Are The World, they might have had that shared legacy.

We Are The World is, of course, immensely cheesy. But none of the superstars involved was damaged by the association– not Springsteen, Dylan, Stevie Wonder or Huey Lewis, who filled in on the verse written for Prince by Richie. Prince was never troubled by self-doubt or regret – but you wonder if, late at night and all alone, it crossed his mind that We Are The World was the one that got away.