Live Aid—Backstage at the Biggest Concert Ever!

Updated on December 4, 2018
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Brian Gray obtained his degree in Language from Lee University and has been a published author and professional writer since 1985.

The Movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Memories

I went to see the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which wonderfully portrayed the rise of the legendary artist Freddy Mercury and his rock band, Queen, from obscurity to their much-deserved world fame. The movie gave me a totally new look inside the creative mind of this musical genius, and even though the producers took some artistic license with several facts, the movie was enthralling. From the opening scenes, I was taken back to the era when “Rock-n-Roll” ruled. Set in the late seventies and the early eighties, this movie did not forget to include some of the more important symbols of that generation... bell-bottom pants, outlandishly over-sized shirt collars, shoes with huge heels that we dubbed “Elton John Specials,” and the omnipresent psychedelic colors in everything we wore then. These were most definitely not the clothes that conservative people wore. They were symbols of a rebellion. Much to the consternation of our parents, we had completely rejected many of the social constraints of the fifties, the mores that held our parents in place like straight jackets. Those were extremely liberating times, short-lived as they were, like an ebbing tide that rolled in around the mid-sixties with Timothy Leary telling everybody to use LSD, to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” and rolled back out to sea around the late seventies as we gently started to become our parents. By the time the eighties began, people were trying to put that “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll” genie back in the bottle. I lived through those unparalleled times, remember them well, and I still smile and have a laugh whenever I think back to them.

An aerial shot of Live Aid.
An aerial shot of Live Aid.

Live Aid Philadelphia

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” a very pensive and slightly sentimental trip through the eyes of Freddy Mercury and Queen, brought back so many memories of those turbulent, vibrant and explosive times. But the seventies were gently replaced by the milder eighties, the more restrained nineties and, eventually, the boring millennial change in 2000. Like an homage to that “last rose of summer,” the movie eventually took us to the Live Aid concert of 1985 and Queen’s lauded appearance at that concert. Live Aid would become the largest rock concert in history, and was held simultaneously at the Wembley Stadium in London and at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985. Suddenly, there was a scene in the movie in which people were lining up to get into the concert at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Like running into an old friend that I had not seen in years, the familiar sight of that stadium immediately and abruptly took me back to that day. Live Aid, as it was called, was organized as a famine relief effort for starving Ethiopians by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure. Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham and Electric Factory co-founder Larry Magid helped pull off the Philadelphia portion of things. Booked with every famous rock band and singer alive, the event was the talk of the world, with 72,000 people packing Wembley Stadium in London, and 100,000 packing the JFK in Philadelphia on that hot summer day. More than a billion people in over 110 nations watched via television. It was a music fantasy beyond the imagination of any rock and roll fan, and I was there...backstage! What memories!

Getting to Live Aid

For me, the Live Aid experience really got started about a week earlier. It was July 4th, and the Beach Boys were playing for the celebration which was held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. My friend, Rion Choate, who was involved in the production of this massive event, invited me backstage to an after-show soiree with the Beach Boys. Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Carl Wilson and Brian Wilson were there, of course, but there were many more luminaries present, as well, because they had performed in various numbers supporting the Beach Boys. The Four Tops were there. New Edition filled in on vocals for “Help Me Rhonda,” The Oak Ridge Boys backed up “Barbara Ann,” Christopher Cross lent backup vocals on “Good Vibrations,” Mr. T and Keith Knudsen, of the Doobie Brothers, filled in on drums along with John Stamos. Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin fame, backed the Beach Boys on “Lucille.” And, Joan Jett, who had done her set earlier on, also joined in on the final chorus. Thus, after the show, the room backstage was filled with a veritable A-List of rock stars and movie stars. At one point, I was talking with actor Michael Nouri, who was still riding high from his success in the 1983 hit movie “Flashdance,” and Rion insisted on having the two of us pose for a photo together. After all these years, I can still look at that photo and feel the fun and excitement of that evening. Hearing a booming voice behind us, Michael and I turned, and there stood Mr. T, decked out with his ubiquitous and ostentatious gold chains, talking about his next project. With Mr. T, it was always about Mr. T. He exuded an abundance of self-confidence that worked for promoting the character he played in films, and Michael grinned, gave me a look that we both understood, and said, “Mr. T,” while shaking his head in comic enjoyment.

Michael Nouri and I in Washington, D.C., July 4, 1985.  My all-access pass on my pants, and a ginger ale in my hands.
Michael Nouri and I in Washington, D.C., July 4, 1985. My all-access pass on my pants, and a ginger ale in my hands.

An Invitation from Jimmy Page

Eventually, I strolled over to spend a few moments with the Beach Boys. Later, as I was wandering around the room, I noticed Jimmy Page and his girlfriend, and we got to talking. Jimmy was the first person who mentioned Live Aid to me, almost in passing, as he said that he was playing a “gig” in Philadelphia next week, and I should come up and join him. Some “gig!” He gave me the details, I promised Jimmy that I would be there, expecting some small nightclub in Philly, and that is literally how Live Aid began for me. I had no idea at that time just how monumental this event was going to be, and I wonder if even those who were producing did, either.

The Big Day - July 13, 1985

July 13, 1985, started out as a beautiful, warm summer day with clear skies, but as the day progressed, the temperature kept going up until it hit 95 degrees. Later that day, I would hear a lot of performers complain about the excessive heat, especially ones who wore leather on stage. I drove to the stadium in Philadelphia and parked my car with no concrete plan of action in mind. Live Aid banners fluttered everywhere, heightening the festive air, but the throngs of people massing just in the parking lot alone began to give me pause. What had seemed to me in Washington as something so simple now became a major undertaking, because the immensity of the crowds that stretched out in front of me made it abundantly clear that Jimmy Page and I had not really thought out this part of “the gig.” I had assumed I would follow the usual protocol, simply seek out the venue, call backstage and tell them to inform Jimmy, and all would be well. But, that is not at all how things went. There was hell to pay just trying to navigate the intense mobs of fans and find anything resembling backstage, and every doorway that I went to had people manning them with major attitudes. “No pass, no entrance,” was the mantra they all parroted condescendingly. After an interminable amount of time wasted on this, I decided to go to the Four Seasons, the hotel where most of the performers would be staying, and try to find Jimmy. One fiasco after another was to follow. As I reached the hotel lobby, I was coincidentally just in time to see Jimmy heading for an elevator, but I got there just as the door was closing. Seeing me at the last minute, Jimmy reached for the button to open the doors, but it was too late, and all he could manage was a panicked and embarrassed look at me as he struggled with the elevator controls. The doors closed on this fiasco, and the elevator took Jimmy to parts unknown. I went back to the lobby to consider what I should do. Robert Plant went strolling by, and I asked him if he could tell Jimmy that I was in the lobby, but I could tell that Robert was on a mission of his own, one that did not entail remembering what I had just asked. While I was watching Robert walk away, pondering my level of trust in his promise, Bette Midler distracted me with a question about my having seen another performer she was looking for, and at the moment, enjoying Bette’s company made me temporarily lose track of pestering Robert Plant to get that message to Jimmy Page. When Bette Midler left, Robert Plant was nowhere to be seen, and I stood there in the lobby trying to think of how to reconnect with Jimmy, who, himself, had bigger fish to fry. I spotted Ozzy Osbourne, and we chatted for a bit. I asked him if he had run into Jimmy yet. He looked amazed and said, “Is Jimmy here?” With that answer/question, I knew that Ozzy was not going to be my favorite bunny on this Easter egg hunt. Jimmy later stated that he was in panic mode the entire day. I guess the fact that Led Zeppelin had not performed together in quite some time, and Phil Collins was flying over on the Concorde right after his set at Live Aid in the Wembley, Jimmy was more than worried about how their unrehearsed songs were going to sound. That’s the entertainment industry for you. I am sure Jimmy figured that I would find a way all by myself...and I did.

My all-access pass.
My all-access pass.

Backstage at Live Aid

One of the guys with Santana graciously saw to it that I had a backstage, all-access pass, and one of the producers gave me a “Live Aid Donor” patch, as well as an “Artist Guest” pass for my friend. I went outside and prepared to take one of the artist shuttles back to the stadium, when suddenly, Simon Le Bon and Duran Duran showed up needing a shuttle to the show. We had one van ready to roll, and I knew that they had to go on stage soon, so I deferred to them and took the next one. Arriving back at the stadium, it was a whole new world. With my all-access pass clipped to my shirt, and my “Live Aid Donor” patch stuck on there for extra wattage, the formerly churlish door guards now welcomed me like royalty. I was ceremoniously swept away from the zealous fans massing outside the stage doors and ushered into the protected and well-guarded inner sanctum where all the luminaries of the music world were socializing as they waited their time on stage. Tina Turner was walking toward me, having just finished her set with Mick Jagger, and she was apparently trying to keep her head down so as to get to her dressing room undeterred. One thing Bill Graham was good at was getting each act on and off that stage like clockwork. No matter who you were, you were told when you were going on, and you were ready to get off the stage at the end of your set, because he had the next act already sitting in view on the stage waiting for their turn. Tina was now standing right beside me, and I realized that I had never noticed her height until now. I had always thought she was taller. Must be all that power she puts out for her performances. I’m six-foot tall, and for the first time in my life, I was looking down at Tina Turner, a lady for whom I have the highest respect. She may be five-foot four, but she is seven feet tall in my book.

My Live Aid Donor patch.
My Live Aid Donor patch.

The Stars Came Out

I turned, and within a foot of me was Tom Petty wearing his trademark sunglasses. Paul Shaffer, band leader from the David Letterman Show, surprised me. “Hey,” I joked, “I know you. “Yes, you do,” Paul shot back with a grin. Everywhere I looked, there were so many familiar faces, movie stars and rock stars, and you could tell the ones with the egos, because they had their “protection squads” hovering to make sure that everybody else knew that they were special. It was funny to me, because people like Jack Nicholson, Cher and Bob Dylan (who had driven down from New York in his pickup truck with Ron Wood) were having none of the ego trips, all of them being totally accessible and enjoying themselves to the max. I think the stars who brought their entourages ended up depriving themselves of a good time, because they spent all day trying to show everybody how superior they were, and they only managed to waste time fooling themselves while everybody else dropped all of their ego games and had a phenomenal time with each other. There would never be a gathering like this in one place ever again, and foolish was the person missing out on getting to enjoy the others who were here.

Patti LaBelle and her unique hairdo.
Patti LaBelle and her unique hairdo.

Patti LaBelle

I noticed Patti LaBelle, whose vocal talents are heavenly, and she was giving an interview, so I snapped a few photos of her, especially because Patti used to do the wildest things with her hair. That night was no exception, and she had a hair style that must have taken an artist hours to produce. Patti is a beautiful person, inside and out, very accessible, very humble, and she has a voice that is a gift from God. Later that evening, after the show, we were all preparing for the shuttles that would take us back to the Four Seasons. I was conversing with Cher and Paul Stanley from Kiss, and Cher and I walked over to Patti’s dressing room. Cher spoke with Patti for a bit, and I knew that there would be a party that evening, so I jokingly said to Patti, “Cher said that, if you don’t come, she’s going to break your legs.” Cher whipped around quickly to tell Patti that she had never said any such thing, and I laughed. “Why did you say that?” Cher asked.“ It was a joke,” I explained. “Patti is a sweetheart,” said Cher. “I would never say anything like that to her.” Oops. Yes, there would be some parties that night after the show, some more wild than others. At one point, while at one of the after show parties, I was standing there talking with Bob Dylan, Ron Wood and Keith Richards, and MTV Veejay Alan Hunter suggested we should go to one of the other parties. So, off we went, only to be met at that door by the fire marshal who informed us that they were already over capacity, and he was not letting anyone else in. Alan protested and said that he was with MTV, who was all over this event, and the fire marshal shot back that he didn’t care if he was with the President, we weren’t getting in. I heard later that the party turned out to be a little more wild than I was willing to participate in, so I am glad that Alan and I got turned away. We went back to the “good” party, which turned out to be the better party, where I ran into one of my favorite actors, Jeff Bridges, who had just filmed the hit movie “Starman.” But I digress. Back to the show.

Mick Jagger and my disappointing photo that I took just before the finale.
Mick Jagger and my disappointing photo that I took just before the finale.

The Finale

Around 10:30 p.m., word went around backstage that everybody should go on stage, because they were getting ready for the finale number, “We Are the World.” I did not feel that it would be right for me to go out on to the center of the stage, which was, at this time, fully congested with stars, camera crews, musicians and God knows who else. It was mayhem. Mick Jagger was singing and energetically running around the stage, joining in whatever the song was at that moment, and I thought it would be nice to take a photo of him as he was heading over to me, but as I was waiting to get a good angle, Mick stuck his face right in my lens. So, I held off, thought I would get a better shot in a moment. But, he moved so quick, and that special shot was gone before I knew it. I took a few shots of Mick, but none of them that I would call winners.

Everybody was singing "We Are the World" at this moment.
Everybody was singing "We Are the World" at this moment.
During the finale - that's Bob Dylan on the guitar at left, Paul Shaffer on the keyboard at center, and Harry Belafonte and Lionel Ritchie are at the top right.
During the finale - that's Bob Dylan on the guitar at left, Paul Shaffer on the keyboard at center, and Harry Belafonte and Lionel Ritchie are at the top right.
During the finale, that's Bob Dylan center, and Nile Rodgers to the left of Bob.  I believe Eric Clapton and Ron Wood are also with Bob.
During the finale, that's Bob Dylan center, and Nile Rodgers to the left of Bob. I believe Eric Clapton and Ron Wood are also with Bob.

The End of a Very Long Day

The stage filled with all of the performers who had stayed to do this. I pulled back part of the curtain, and it was only then that I got a sight of just what 100,000 people looks like. Massive! I don’t know which blew my mind the most, the sight of all those people out there in that stadium, or the sight of all those rock stars on that stage at the same time right in front of me. The stage that day had been graced by Lionel Richie, Harry Belafonte, Sheena Easton, Peter, Paul & Mary, Cher, Dionne Warwick, Rick Spingfield, Carlos Santana, The Thompson Twins, Mick Jagger, Joan Baez, Jack Nicholson, Darryl Hall, John Oates, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Kenny Loggins, Patti LaBelle, Krissie Hynde, Madonna, Ozzy Osbourne, Tomy Iommi, Rick Springfield, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Simon Le Bon and Duran Duran, John Paul Jones, Valerie Simpson, Nicholas Ashford, Teddy Pendergrass, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Phil Collins, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Paul Martinez, Kevin Cronin, Chevy Chase, Joe Piscopo, George Thorogood, Bo Diddley, Tom Petty, Eric Bazilian, Tina Turner, Ron Wood and Keith Richards...just to name a few, and most of them were standing here now to form the biggest popular singing group ever. That stage was utter confusion as some jockeyed for a front row spot on the stage, while others just enjoyed laying back and performing in the back row... like Bob Dylan, Ron Wood and Eric Clapton on guitar. And now, after so many hours of fantastic energy and talent, the fantasy dream was coming to an end as they all stood there singing that beautiful song. There was a sign backstage that I had seen repeatedly during the day which read: “The Guiness Book of World Records states more people watched the 1984 Olympiad than any event in the history of television - until today - thanks to you, the artists.” What a fitting tribute to a countless number of people who came together for one day, laid aside demands for any compensation, and gave freely of themselves and their talents to feed hungry people thousands of miles away. It was Live Aid, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I will always be thankful that I was so privileged to be there and to witness history from my vantage point.

Brian Gray

December 4, 2018

My view of the massive crowd from the stage.
My view of the massive crowd from the stage.

Questions & Answers

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      • Hanavee profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Gray 

        4 days ago from Pennsylvania

        Damian,

        That is fantastic. You have to be proud of your son. I hope you have seen the movie. Well worth watching.

        Brian

      • profile image

        Damian Fedorko 

        4 days ago

        Great article. My son is a "Queen" fan/guitar player. For High School Talent Night, he formed a group to play "Bohemian Rhapsody" and they took 2nd place.

      • Hanavee profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Gray 

        4 days ago from Pennsylvania

        John Hansen,

        I consider myself lucky to have stumbled into that one, but I am glad I went. One memorable day, for sure. I hope you see the movie.

        Brian

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        5 days ago from Queensland Australia

        Wow, Brian, that was an experience never to forget. You have met and conversed with so many famous people. I look forward to watching the Bohemian Rhapsody movie too.

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