Martin Luther King Day songs by Stevie Wonder, Queen + U2, others: Gimme Five

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As we pause in remembrance on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here’s a look back at some of our favorite songs devoted to the slain Civil Rights leader.

King, born on January 15, 1929, was the movement’s most important figure — having led both the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and, at a seminal moment in the fight for racial justice, delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963 as part of the massive March on Washington. He’d become, in 1964, the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Honored for his work to end discrimination through nonviolent means, King’s work came to a shocking end when he was murdered by a lone gunman on April 4, 1968.

Over the years, that journey has been explored by everyone from Stevie Wonder to Queen, from James Taylor to Public Enemy, from Bruce Springsteen to U2. Along the way, there has been much to challenge us, to remind us and to encourage us on this national holiday. Here are some of our favorite Martin Luther King Day Songs …

No. 5–

Written in part as a response to the assassination of King in 1968, this track was initially recorded as a kind of orchestral folk number by Dion — and that was the hit. Meanwhile, Gaye’s take was featured on the 1970 release That’s the Way Love Is, but never saw release in the U.S. as a single. Still, Dion’s version (something that could rightly be called easy listening, what with the oboe, violin, harps and classical guitar) hasn’t aged as well. Gaye’s subsequent interpretation makes our list of Martin Luther King Day Songs because it unearth a deeper, more contemplative pain over the losses of King, Abraham Lincoln and both John and Robert F. Kennedy. There’s just a heartbreaking poignancy as Gaye tracks into his voice’s highest range, something that captures that moment in time like few others. This song also pointed the way to the bolder, more socially conscious compositions found just over the horizon on the now-legendary album What’s Going On, in 1971.

No. 4–

Freddie Mercury, who’d seen his share of it, simply owns this song’s most devastating indictment of discrimination, when he growls: “Look what they’ve done to my dream!” “One Vision,” an outsized triumph during what became Queen’s career-highlight performance at 1985’s Live Aid concert, was later released as a single in November 1985, and included as part of the band’s 1986 album A Kind of Magic. The song, which evolved from an original idea by Roger Taylor, was the first Queen single written jointly by the band — and became, for a time, the group’s opening tune for its concerts. That’s a tribute to its boisterous vocal, its scalding solo by Brian May — and, most particularly, its big ideas about overcoming adversity. But while “One Vision” went to No. 7 in the band’s native England, and was a Top 40 hit in much of Europe, it somehow only reached No. 61 in the U.S.

No. 3–

A centerpiece for Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions project, “We Shall Overcome” found new life decades after it served as the soundtrack for the U.S. Civil Rights struggle. Written by Zilphia Horton, a musician and activist, the church hymn was invoked often by King — and became part of sweeping singalongs associated with the movement all over the country. Joan Baez, perhaps most memorably, sang “We Shall Overcome” for the crowd gathered on the mall during the legendary Civil Rights march of August 29, 1963. This entry in our list of Martin Luther King Day Songs still embodies all of the quiet determination, lasting faith and steadfast solidarity needed to weather the worst of times back then — and today, too: Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, released his own version to protest Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2010.

No. 2–

No one is going to confuse this hooky, keyboard-driven pop song with Wonder’s far more influential efforts in the 1970s. Not based on its musical merits, anyway. After all, “Happy Birthday” failed to chart in the U.S. But the track — issued in 1981 as part of the campaign to have Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday — might have been one of Wonder’s most important compositions, anyway. As politicians nationwide scoffed, the singer-songwriter took this message (and this song) on tour to promote the idea, memorably holding a Rally for Peace Press Conference in ’81. In so doing, Wonder and “Happy Birthday” played a key role in turning the tide of public opinion toward a new recognition of the slain Civil Rights leader. President Ronald Reagan approved the creation of the U.S. holiday in 1983; Wonder headlined the first official MLK Day in 1986.

No. 1–

OK, Bono screwed up the timeline on our top item in this list of Martin Luther King Day Songs. After all, King was brutally killed not “early morning, April 4” but at 6:01 p.m. Still, no rock song has so completely recalled the soaring ambitions, and the simple eloquence, of King’s message — not to mention the crackling horror as a shot rang out in the Memphis sky. Influenced, it’s been said, in part by Stephen B. Oates’s book Let The Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr., Bono was moved to explore the central dichotomies of the Civil Rights movement, and in so doing brought the kind of outsider’s perspective that helped us all see things in a new way. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Edge’s riff was one of the most memorable of that era — helping push “Pride” into the Top 40 in the U.S., a first then for U2, and to No. 3 in Britain. The song was subsequently earned a spot at No. 378 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was selected by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. Oh, and Bono now regularly changes the lyrics to “early evening” in concert performances.

“By The Time I Get To Arizona,” Public Enemy (1991): A eviscerating reply to Arizona officials like future presidential candidate John McCain who initially rejected the proposed federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King … “They Killed Him,” by Kris Kristofferson (1985): The cowboy hat-wearing Rhodes scholar spares no quarter for a country that murdered this agent for peace — “just another holy man who dared to be a friend.” … “Like a King,” Ben Harper (1994): A highlight of his debut recording, Harper connects the happenstance of one King to that of another, singing “Martin’s dream has become Rodney’s worst nightmare.” … “Blues for Martin Luther King,” Otis Spann (1968): Playing a gig with his boss Muddy Waters on the night King was gunned down, Spann was moved to create a timeless lament. … “Shed a Little Light,” James Taylor (1993): A gospel-inflected pop number that recalls everything important about King’s message — “that there are ties between us … that we are bound together.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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