Ken Kragen, a Force Behind ‘We Are the World,’ Dies at 85

The entertainer and humanitarian Harry Belafonte was so inspired by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” the record released by an all-star lineup of British and Irish musicians in late 1984 to raise money for famine relief in Africa, that he wanted to do something similar with American musicians. But Mr. Belafonte, in his late 50s at the time, knew he had to recruit current stars to pull off the idea.

“I needed a younger generation of artists,” he wrote in his memoir, “My Song” (2011), “the ones at the top of the charts right now: Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers and Cyndi Lauper. When I looked at the management of most of these artists, I kept seeing the same name: Ken Kragen.”

Mr. Kragen, after some persuading, latched onto Mr. Belafonte’s vision and became a pivotal behind-the-scenes force in creating “We Are the World,” the collaborative song recorded by a dizzying array of stars (including Mr. Belafonte) and released in March 1985. The song became a worldwide hit and, along with an album of the same name, raised millions of dollars for hunger relief in Africa and elsewhere.

Among the participants in the recording of “We Are the World” were, clockwise from left, Mr. Richie, Daryl Hall, Mr. Jones, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.Credit…Associated Press

“When Belafonte called me, the first call I made was to Kenny Rogers,” who was one of his clients, Mr. Kragen recalled in a 1994 interview with Larry King on CNN. “Then I called Lionel Richie. Then I called Quincy Jones. Lionel called Stevie Wonder. Within 24 hours, we had six or seven of the biggest names in the industry.”

Soon “six or seven” had snowballed into dozens, with Paul Simon, Bette Midler, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross among them. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Richie wrote the song; Mr. Jones conducted the recording session in January 1985, a gathering that became the stuff of music legend.

Mr. Kragen, who went on to organize or help organize other formidable fund-raising projects, including Hands Across America in 1986, died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 85.

His daughter, Emma Kragen, confirmed the death. No cause was specified.

As Mr. Kragen often told the story later, his goal at first on the “We Are the World” project was to recruit two new stars a day. But soon recruiting wasn’t his problem.

“Lionel Richie had this line — he says, ‘You are who you hug,’” he told Mr. King, “and the thing is that everybody wanted to hug somebody who was hipper or somebody who was more successful. So the day that I got Bruce Springsteen, the floodgates opened, because he was the hottest artist in America.”

At that point, Mr. Kragen went from dialing the phone to answering it — a lot.

“I started to get calls from everybody,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1985, just after the recording session. “I tried hard to cut it off at 28 — to this day I don’t know how it got to be 46. Still, we turned down almost 50 artists.”

Mr. Kragen was the founding president of USA for Africa, the foundation set up to administer the aid money raised by “We Are the World,” which continues today. According to its website, it has raised more than $100 million to alleviate poverty.

Kenneth Allan Kragen was born on Nov. 24, 1936, in Berkeley, Calif. His father, Adrian, was a lawyer who later taught law at the University of California, Berkeley, and his mother, Billie, was a violinist.

While studying engineering at Berkeley, Mr. Kragen began frequenting local nightclubs and soon became friendly with the Kingston Trio, a fledgling group that often played at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. He began booking the group at colleges, and when he graduated in 1958 he was asked to manage them; instead he went to Harvard’s graduate school of business. Before starting there, he took a trip to Europe with his parents; when he came home, a new group was getting a lot of buzz nationally: the Kingston Trio.

“I just wanted to die,” Mr. Kragen told The New York Times in 1986. “I thought I’d blown the chance of a lifetime.”

But once he earned his graduate degree in 1960, he found new opportunities as a talent manager and promoter. He managed the folk group the Limeliters and then, in 1964, picked up the Smothers Brothers. He and his business partner at the time, Kenneth Fritz, were executive producers of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” which during its three-season run, from 1967 to 1969, was one of the most talked-about shows on television because of its battles with censors.

In 1975 he went to work for Jerry Weintraub, a talent manager with a formidable roster that included John Denver, Led Zeppelin and the Moody Blues. (Mr. Weintraub would soon become a noted film and television producer.) In 1979 Mr. Kragen started his own company. His clients included the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John and Trisha Yearwood.

Mr. Kragen helped organize the fund-raising event Hands Across America and participated in it at Battery Park in Lower Manhattan in May 1986, along with Jean Sherwood and her daughter, Amy.Credit…David Bookstaver/Associated Press

Mr. Kragen produced television movies featuring Mr. Rogers, as well as TV specials for the singer Linda Eder and others. His fund-raising efforts included Hands Across America, whose goal was to create a chain of people holding hands that stretched from coast to coast. The event took place in May 1986. The coast-to-coast chain didn’t quite materialize — there were gaps in various places — and though the event raised millions of dollars for hunger and homelessness, it fell short of its $50 million goal. But some five million people participated, including President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Kragen married the actress Cathy Worthington in 1978. In addition to her and his daughter, he is survived by a sister, Robin Merritt.

In 2019 Buzzfeed asked Mr. Kragen if he could envision a reprise of Hands Across America. He couldn’t. People, he said, would be too busy documenting their participation with selfies to actually hold hands.

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