Jimmy Iovine recalls the exact moment he decided to make A Very Special Christmas. It was January 1985, the day of his father Vincent “Jimmy” Iovine’s funeral. A Brooklyn longshoreman “who loved Christmas,” the elder Iovine had fallen sick during the holidays and died shortly after the new year at the age of 63.
“His passing was bigger than I could have imagined,” says the 61-year-old Iovine. And when Bruce Springsteen called to offer his condolences, Iovine, who had engineered both Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town and gone on to produce such landmark albums as Tom Petty‘s Damn the Torpedoes, Patti Smith‘s Easter, Dire Straits‘ Making Movies and Graham Parker and the Rumour‘s The Up Escalator, says he told the artist, “The only thing I know how to do in life, Bruce, is make music. I’m going to make a Christmas album for my dad.”
So began Iovine’s quest to make an all-star holiday record for charity that would honor the memory of his father. “I didn’t want to make any money on it,” he tells Billboard. “I wanted to take money out of the equation.” The album featured the biggest acts of the time: Springsteen, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Run-DMC, Sting, John Mellencamp, Stevie Nicks, the Pointer Sisters and U2. Released in late 1987 with a distinctive red-and-gold Keith Haring cover, A Very Special Christmas has sold an estimated 4.5 million copies (when its RIAA double-platinum certification and Nielsen SoundScan numbers are combined). All of its profits continue to go to the Special Olympics — a sports organization founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver for children and adults with intellectual disabilities — thanks to Iovine’s then-wife Vicki, who was working for the organization, and her longtime friend (and Eunice’s son) Bobby Shriver.
Since then, Iovine has risen to a rarefied position in the music industry. In early 2014, he sold Beats Electronics, the company he founded with Dr. Dre, to Apple in a $3 billion deal and became a senior adviser to the house that Steve Jobs built. Looking back, he says making A Very Special Christmas “was the purest thing I’ve ever done.”
Shriver, 60, an attorney and activist who ran unsuccessfully in 2014 for a Los Angeles County supervisor’s seat, remembers the experience as a more quixotic adventure. “You have no idea the amount of shenanigans that went into persuading people to participate in this,” he says with a laugh.
The first major step was meeting with A&M founder Jerry Moss to secure funding for the album. “I’d just been introduced to Jimmy and he tells me, ‘We’ve got to meet with Jerry.’ I said, ‘I’ll work up a business plan,’ and Jimmy says, ‘We don’t need a business plan.’ At this point, I’m working in venture capital, where we make business plans all day long,” Shriver recalls. “So, I go, ‘OK, you’re the boss.’ Jimmy and I walk into A&M. Jerry talks to me for a half-hour about how much he loved Uncle Bobby [Robert F. Kennedy]. And then Jimmy tells him how we’re going to get all these incredible artists for the record.” At that point, Shriver says, Moss looked at his watch and declared, “Jesus, I’m late for lunch.” After bolting for the door without giving any indication that A&M was on board, “Jimmy goes, ‘We got the money, Bobby.’ I said, ‘You’re totally out of your mind.’ But he was right, and to this day, I don’t know how Jimmy knew.”
Two days later, the money arrived and the hard work began. “At the time, the labels were very competitive and wouldn’t let their artists record on other labels,” Iovine says. “So I said, ‘OK, the only way this album is going to get done is if no one is making a penny in any way.'” That included the label releasing the album. “A&M made zero on it. It was an unprecedented deal,” he explains. “Jerry Moss was so generous.”
“And it wasn’t just the $250,000 A&M gave us to make the record,” Shriver adds. “The label put its whole A team on the playing field to work the record.”
Still, lining up talent proved to be a heavy lift. “We were calling everybody — artists’ record companies, lawyers, girlfriends, the bands’ drummers,” Shriver says. “No one wanted to hear from us.” Producer Quincy Jones was among those approached because of his involvement in the successful 1985 “We Are the World” project, but he declined to get involved. “Quincy told us, ‘This will never work,'” Shriver says. “That made Jimmy only more determined to get it done.” (Iovine produced or co-produced seven of the 15 tracks on the album.)
Shriver recalls driving to an appointment when Iovine asked him a memorable question. “I still see him in his baseball cap,” he says with a laugh. “He was behind the wheel and he turned to me and said, ‘The stuff we’re doing — calling people, sending flowers and books about the Kennedys — what’s it called when good people do it? When bad people do it, it’s called manipulation, but what’s the word in English when good people do it?'” The implication, Shriver adds, “was that we were the good people. And I said, ‘Jimmy, I don’t know.'”
“The first artist to record was Chrissie Hynde,” says Vicki. “She sang my favorite holiday song, ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ Once we got that, we new we at least had a single.”
When it came to wrangle some of the other artists, Shriver and Vicki got downright creative. “Bobby and I were constantly scheming,” says Vicki, who tells Billboard that among the people close to Madonna who were coaxing her to record a song for the album — she chose “Santa Baby” — was Shriver’s cousin John F. Kennedy Jr. “We asked [John] to reach out to her to help seal the deal.” (JFK and Madonna reportedly dated in the 1980s.) And Shriver recalls enlisting Arnold Schwarzenegger, who married his sister Maria in 1986, to help convince Jon Bon Jovi, who was a fan of the action-movie hero, to record a song. (He did.)
Iovine says he was unaware of these machinations because he was focused on making an album he hoped would endure as long as the classic A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector. “Bob Seger sang my father’s favorite song, ‘The Little Drummer Boy,'” he says. Springsteen contributed a live cover of Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore‘s “Merry Christmas Baby.” Iovine flew to Glasgow, Scotland, to record U2 singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” during a concert soundcheck (Darlene Love, who had sung the original on the Spector album, would contribute backing vocals). And he traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to record Whitney Houston‘s vocals for “Do You Hear What I Hear?” “She came into the studio. I went to get a cup of tea, and when I got back, she was finished,” he says. “She sang so powerfully.”
Shortly after A Very Special Christmas hit record stores, Shriver arrived home to find a voicemail from Quincy Jones. “He said, ‘Bobby, I just heard the record. Oh my God. I told you it couldn’t be done. You guys did it.'”
A Very Special Christmas would spawn nine more releases that have raised more than $100 million for the Special Olympics, but save for a few songs on the second LP, Iovine’s involvement ended with the first. “I wanted it to stand on its own,” he says.