AIDS in Africa is not a cause known to be of much concern to the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy, Ja Rule or Li'l Kim. And yet, just a few long weeks ago, when the burning question of the music business was how few clothes Britney Spears would wear at the MTV Video Music Awards, those artists and a dozen others quietly drifted away from the pre- and post-show festivities to a nearby recording studio. There, they recorded a new version of Marvin Gaye's 1971 classic "What's Going On."
The idea was to release the song around World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) and have everyone in America singing it in the weeks before Christmas. Instead, the single is being rushed out now, with the proceeds going equally to buy medicine for Africans and to help the victims of terrorism in America.
That Bono was the orchestrater of this project will come as no surprise to admirers of the unabashedly idealistic lead singer of U2. Last year, Bono spearheaded the successful Jubilee campaign to forgive the debt of poor African nations, scoring a publicity coup when the pope asked to try on his signature sunglasses. And he did some impressive lobbying when he became the new best friend of Jesse Helms.
For all his good works, Bono was not the originator of this effort. That was Leigh Blake, a hyperenergetic activist who lives in Los Angeles with her young son. Blake grew up in council flats in southeast London, left school at 14 to follow the Who, and, soon enough, decided to devote her life to helping artists. "I'm very good at communicating," she says. "And I'm hard to intimidate -- after you've hung out with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, you're not afraid of anyone."
In the late '80s, with AIDS dramatically depleting her Rolodex, she and a friend decided that pop musicians should do a benefit CD of the songs of Cole Porter. Fortunately, she had worked with the Talking Heads, so her first call was to David Byrne. "That's what you need -- one committed artist who will make calls," she says. The result was "Red Hot + Blue," the first entertainment-based AIDS benefit and the start of a series of successful albums.
That project burned her out. She got married and had a son. Eighteen months later, her husband left her. "There's nothing better to get rid of your own pain than to help people who are in worse pain," she decided. And so, drawing on her old friends from "Red Hot + Blue," she called Bono and proposed that he spearhead a Marvin Gaye remake. "Once I took your call," he told her later, "I knew my life would be over." So was hers: Blake organized the recording sessions from a small shed in her garden and took out a second mortgage on her house to pay the phone bills.
Why Bono? "Because you never get the feeling that he's helping others because it's in his interest. He cares. He knows the subject backwards. And he works -- U2 would be touring in Europe, he'd do the backstage thing after, and at 1 a.m., he'd get on the phone and call musicians in America. That is the real deal." In the studio, it seemed to Blake, everyone became the real deal. "'N Sync -- who thought they'd know anything? But Justin really got it. So did Britney, so did Alicia Keys. People did their parts and cried. And then they'd come into the control room and we'd cheer them."
Late on the third afternoon of recording, Bono came down to hear the first full mix. Dressed in black, with slicked hair, shades and the smallest earring in the room, he sliced silently through the crowd and took a seat at the obligatory Aeron chair. The producer, Jermaine Dupri, set his Motorola mobile communicator aside.
The song began, rich, multilayered, the familiarity punctuated by the shouts of rappers. In the back of the room, Blake, wearing pinstriped Vivienne Westwood pants decorated with zippers and straps, danced. The recording had a high point you couldn't miss, with Nelly nearly screaming:
Who's crying 'cross seas
Every minute a child dies by this disease
In record numbers, indeed
Got mamas crying out, please "My baby, hold on
My child ain't done nothin' wrong"
Still I want to holler
Ask them why they don't bother
Oh no, oh no, make me turn to my father
Ask him why they all got trapped souls.
At that, Marvin Gaye's widow, Janis, who had misted up at every playback, burst into tears. Applause at the end. High-fives and hugs. "Beautiful, thanks, see you later," Michael Stipe joked.
Bono's attention was still on the song. "Backstage at the awards," he said, to no one in particular, "Nelly gave me a look, like 'I did something special.' But this ..." He gathered himself and began to suggest a different approach to the mix. Then, as if for the first time, he noticed all the civilians in the control room.
Leigh Blake got it right away. "All right, let's clear out," she barked. "Bono needs to do his thing." In seconds, the room was nearly empty, and Bono was working on a song about war not being the answer in a way that now seems sadly prescient.