Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 89-years-old on Monday.
In the 50 years since his death, literally dozens of songs – crossing a wide range of genres – have been dedicated to his memory and inspired by his words and works.
As a theologian, King understood and appreciated music.
As a civil rights leader, he understood the power that music had within the movement. Personally, hymns and spirituals helped carry him through difficult time.
In honor of King’s birthday and life, AJC Sepia has dropped the Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Spotify Playlist for your listening pleasure and reflection.
In 1964, at the opening of the Berlin Jazz Festival, King said of jazz and the blues:
“God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.”
“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph,” King said. “This is triumphant music.”
King often called upon the songs of gospel great Mahalia Jackson for inspiration, particularly her version of “Amazing Grace.”
At the 1963 March on Washington, Jackson sang the spiritual “How I Got Over.”
King later wrote that the song set the tone for his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Historians even suggest that during King’s speech, Jackson loudly urged him to “tell them about the dream,” in reference to previous allusions to dreams.
On the spot, King shifted his speech.
He embraced Nina Simone in 1965 after she sang her “showtune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet,” the defiant “Mississippi Goddam,” on the highway between Selma and Montgomery on a makeshift stage supported by empty coffins.
Simone crossed out “Tennessee,” and sang “Selma made me lose my rest,” to the tight crowd. When she met King after her performance, she told him, “I’m not nonviolent!”
King gently replied, “Not to worry, sister.”
On April 7, 1968, just three days after King was assassinated, Simone walked on stage at the Westbury Music Festival and wailed the lamenting dirge, that her band barely had time to learn, “Why? (The King of Love is Dead).”
“Turn the other cheek he'd plead/
Love thy neighbor was his creed/
Pain humiliation death, he did not dread/
With his Bible at his side/
From his foes he did not hide/
It's hard to think that this great man is dead.”
John Coltrane wrote songs for him. So did Paul McCartney and James Brown. Aretha Franklin sang at his funeral.
In the 1980s, the Irish band U2 stunned the world with “(Pride) In the Name of Love,” and in the 1990s Public Enemy punched the world in the face with “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” whose video parallels King’s assassination with the assassination of the Arizona governor, who refused to acknowledge the King Holiday.
“I'm singin' 'bout a KING/
They don't like it when I decide to mic it/
Wait, I'm waitin' for the date/
For the man, who demands respect/
Cause he was great, C’mon/
I'm on the one mission to get a politician to honor/
Or he's a goner by the time I get to Arizona”
Speaking of the King Holiday, on Jan. 13, 1986, King’s youngest son Dexter Scott King spearheaded a project called “King Holiday,” a hip-hop/R&B song with a line-up of popular artists that was released in anticipation of the first official observance of the holiday.
Written by Philip Jones, Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel and Bill Adler, the song and the video - credited to the The King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew - featured everyone from Whitney Houston to New Edition to Menudo to the Fat Boys. “King Holiday” reached No. 30 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart.
But perhaps no song speaks to King more than Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.”
Wonder was one of the main advocates pushing for a King Holiday when he released “Happy Birthday,” in 1981 as part of the campaign to have King’s birthday become a national holiday.
On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan approved the creation of the holiday and the first official Martin Luther King Jr. Day was held on Jan. 20, 1986.
Although the song by Wonder never charted on the HOT 100, it remains a powerful piece of art, for another reason: His version of “Happy Birthday,” has become the de-facto African American happy birthday song.
“Happy birthday to you/
Happy birthday to you/
Happy birthday to you.”
Staff writer Nedra Rhone contributed to this story.