The American Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 until his death in 1968. King is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience. Martin Luther King inspired many songwriters. This is my top ten of best MLK songs:
- Why? (The King of Love Is Dead) – Nina Simone
This song was written by Simone’s bass player Gene Taylor after the news of Martin Luther King’s death had reached them. They performed it at Westbury Music Fair for the first time in New York, three days after King’s murder. During the performance, Simone said: ‘We can’t afford any more losses … they’re killing us one by one.’ Nina Simone’s performance was recorded on her live album Nuff Said!.
- Glory – John Legend & Common
This motivational anthem was recorded by John Legend and Common for the American historical drama film Selma. The movie recounts the three Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches that lead to President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965: ‘I wanted something that tied the spirit of Selma with what was happening in the streets at the time we were writing,’ Legend said, ‘which was people protesting in Missouri and eventually New York about injustice and police brutality.’ ‘Glory’ won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2015.
- If I Can Dream – Elvis Presley (from The 68 Comeback Special)
This song marked the rebirth of Elvis’ career after he had spent most of the 1960s recording mainly soundtracks to the movies he was appearing in. This was the final song he sang on his 1968 NBC comeback special in the USA, which was his first live performance in seven years. The song was written at the last minute by the show’s musical director W. Earl Brown, at the request of the producer Steve Binder. He wrote it as a response to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, which had happened a few months previously.
- Just A Little More Love – David Guetta
This is the first of several Guetta tracks featuring American gospel singer Chris Willis. Other Guetta collaborations with Willis include ‘Love Is Gone’ and ‘Getting’ Over’. In an interview with Clayton Perry, the French DJ explained how he hooked up with the American gospel singer: ‘I’m very lucky to have met him.’
- Off Of Wonderland – Jackson Browne
In this song Browne harks back to the ’60s, when the nation’s hopes were raised by political figures such as the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. Browne explained to American Songwriter magazine: ‘There is the impulse to be a force of good in the world. There are a lot of loving, hardworking people with these impulses who need to pay attention to what’s being done in their name. There was a moment when people let go of some of their optimism and idealism… and a lot of things weren’t really addressed. They’d killed King and Kennedy. What was happening to us?’
- One Day (Vandaag) – Bakermat
Lodewijk Fluttert is a Dutch house producer who records under the name of Bakermat. This song was released in August 2012 as a single under the title of ‘Bakermat’ topping the French single charts. It also reached the Top Five in Belgium and the Netherlands. The song was re-released in 2014 as ‘One Day (Vandaag)’ and this time it reached the Top Five in Germany and Austria. The song samples Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Dr. Martin Luther King was the Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta and he gave his famous speech at the climax of a Washington interracial march to 250,000 followers on August 28, 1963. King’s unique combination of the message of Jesus (love your enemies) and the method of Gandhi (non-violent protest) gave both a strategy and a philosophy to the Civil Rights movement. ‘I want to be the white man’s brother and not his brother in law,’ he once said.
- Pride (In The Name Of Love) – U2
An exhibit dedicated to the civil rights leader was on display at the Chicago Peace Museum in 1983 when the band visited. Bono sings about those throughout history who have died because they preached of the equality of all men and practiced nonviolence as the only way to achieve their goal of having this equality universally recognized.
- Up to the Mountain – Patty Griffin
Patty Griffin wrote this moving and emotional contemporary folk song, which has become very popular and meaningful. ‘Up to the Mountain’ first appeared in public during Griffin’s concert appearances in the spring of 2005, and was first recorded by the soul artist Solomon Burke on his September 2006 album Nashville with Griffin singing backup. The following year, Griffin included the song on her album Children Running Through.
- MLK Song Mavis Staples
This tribute was written by Livin’ on a High Note producer M. Ward. The recording of it was an emotional experience for Mavis Staples: ‘I got so wrapped up in that I almost didn’t finish it. The first time I choked up and started to cry, as I could see Dr. Martin Luther King as I was singing. It just hit me and I almost broke down. But I held it together and I finished, and then I broke down: you have to take your heart into the studio.’ The Staple Singers were very much involved in the Civil Rights movement. Mavis Staples recalled their time with Martin Luther King: ‘He was a great man and I cherish the time we had with him. Pops said, ‘If he can preach it, we can sing it.’ Pops then wrote Freedom Highway and we joined the movement. When we sang, we thought we could change the world. When we marched with Dr. King and sung ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,’ we felt so very positive.’
- Happy Birthday Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder recorded this to lobby for Dr. Martin Luther King’s January 15 birthday to be an American National Holiday. During the years King led the movement he won victory after victory without resorting to violence. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35, making him the youngest Nobel Prize recipient. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray when leaving his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee on the Lorraine Motel balcony. The third Monday in January is now Martin Luther King day in USA – a public holiday.