On April 4, 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, who was shot while standing on a balcony outside his second-ﬂoor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, stunned the world. The man who had led the civil-rights movement for more than a decade had a huge influence on musicians. Songs have been written about him ever since that shocking day, with the best Martin Luther King songs being penned by musicians as diverse as Neil Diamond, Public Enemy, U2, and Nina Simone.
King’s celebrated “I have a dream” speech has been sampled by dozens of singers, including Bobby Womack (“American Dream”), Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five (“The King”) and Michael Jackson (“HIStory”). Elvis Presley was moved to tears when he heard the song “If I Can Dream,” written by W Earl Brown, in the immediate aftermath of the killing.
King himself was a fan of jazz and gospel. The wonderful singer Mahalia Jackson sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at his funeral, because it was the last song he requested before his death.
In particular, King was a big fan of bebop. “Jazz speaks for life,” King wrote in his opening address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. His friend Reverend Sampson Alexander recalls them debating the merits of trumpeters Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. “King preferred Miles Davis on that instrument. But he thought the absolute greatest was Bird, that is, Charlie Parker,” recalled Alexander. In his speech at The Lincoln Memorial, in August 1963, King used the refrain “now is the time,” referencing the title of Parker’s classic 1945 tune, “Now’s The Time.”
To mark Martin Luther King Jr Day, we picked 10 of the best songs celebrating the civil-rights icon.
Let us know in the comments section if we have missed any of your favorites.
Nina Simone: Why (The King Of Love Is Dead) (1968)
“We want to do a tune written for today, for this hour, for Dr. Martin Luther King. This tune is written about him and for him,” said Nina Simone as she introduced one of the best Martin Luther King songs in history, “Why (The King Of Love Is Dead),” to the audience at The Westbury Music Fair in Long Island, New York, just three days after King was murdered. The song, honouring the courage and compassion of “this great man,” was written by Simone’s bassist Gene Taylor. Even quicker to emerge was the tribute from Otis Spann. On the day after King’s assassination, the blues pianist, a member of Muddy Waters’ band, performed two newly composed blues for the fallen civil-rights leader: “Blues For Martin Luther King” and “Hotel Lorraine.”
Marvin Gaye: Abraham, Martin And John (1968)
“It seems the good, they die young” is just one of the memorable lines of Dick Holler’s song about assassinations in America, prompted by the deaths of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. This moving song was first recorded by Dion and subsequently covered by dozens of artists, including Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, and even Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy. Arguably the finest version is Marvin Gaye’s 1970 single, which was a Top 10 hit in the UK. A year later, jazz star Oliver Nelson dedicated a whole album, Black, Brown And Beautiful, to King.
Neil Diamond: Dry Your Eyes (1976)
Neil Diamond and Robbie Robertson of The Band wrote “Dry Your Eyes” for the album Beautiful Noise. Robertson said the song was inspired by “how many people felt after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” In 2017, Diamond began performing it again on his world tour – a song he had not performed live since showcasing it for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz. Diamond said, “It’s been relegated to the attic. I think it’s due to come out after 40 years.”
Stevie Wonder: Happy Birthday (1981)
Stevie Wonder met King when he was a teenage singing sensation. Wonder remembers crying at the news of the assassination, which he heard on a car radio as he was being driven home from Michigan School For The Blind. In 1980, Wonder joined with the members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the US Congress to speak out for the need to honor the day King was born. He went on a nationwide tour – along with Gil Scott-Heron – performing “Happy Birthday,” a song that was instrumental in helping to establish the national holiday commemorating King’s birth, for which reason it will forever remain one of the best Martin Luther King songs. Above soaring keyboard synthesizers, Wonder sings, “There ought to be a time/That we can set aside/To show just how much we love you.”
U2: Pride (In The Name Of Love) (1984)
Bono was inspired to write “Pride (In The Name of Love)” after reading Stephen B Oates’ biography of King, Let The Trumpet Sound. Not only one of the best Martin Luther King songs, U2’s hit is one of the iconic rock songs of the 80s, on which Chrissie Hynde of Pretenders sings backing vocals. The lyrics contain one factual error. Bono wrote, “Early morning, April four/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky,” though the assassination actually took place at 6.01pm.
Queen: One Vision (1985)
First released as a single in November 1985, and then included on the bestselling album A Kind Of Magic, “One Vision” is a high-energy rock song that Roger Taylor later admitted was “sort of half nicked off Martin Luther King’s famous speech.” Freddie Mercury later added some less serious lyrics about shrimps, prawns, and chicken.
Public Enemy: By The Time I Get To Arizona (1991)
Public Enemy are one of hip-hop’s defining acts, and their polemic song “By the Time I Get to Arizona” – and its even more controversial video – was designed to criticize former Arizona governor Evan Mecham, one of only two governors in the US to refuse to recognize King’s birthday as a national holiday. Asked in 2011 why he chose that title, Chuck D said, “I’m a big Isaac Hayes fan and his version of ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix,’ the Jim Webb, Glen Campbell song. The title came first. I always like to work from titles.”
James Taylor: Shed A Little Light (1991)
James Taylor’s gentle and stirring tribute to King was inspired by his desire to honor a 20th-century titan. Taylor said: “To me, King is really one of the central heroes, you know, just in our time, a real exceptional, rare person who contributed the right things at the right time. You know, I think my parents, they led me into an awareness of what was going on. You know, they felt amazingly strongly about the civil rights struggle, and I guess it stayed with me. It always stayed with me. So it came out in a song.”
Patty Griffin: Up To The Mountain (MLK Song) (2007)
One of the finest country music tributes to King is Patty Griffin’s “Up To The Mountain,” from the album Children Running Through. Griffin takes the title from King’s 1968 “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, delivered the day before he was killed. It is a moving and soulful 21st-century tribute from the singer-songwriter, who was only four when King was assassinated.
Paul Simon: So Beautiful Or So What (2011)
Paul Simon is one of the master songwriters of the modern age, and in “So Beautiful Or So What” he tackles the subject of despair and the “sirens’ long melody” after the killing of King. The song was hailed as one of the best Martin Luther King songs by Elvis Costello, who said that Simon’s song “rejects the allure of fashionable darkness” and instead “celebrates the endurance of the spirit and the persistence of love.”
Looking for more? Discover how Stevie Wonder helped create Martin Luther King day by penning one of the best Martin Luther King songs.