The world is forever indebted to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who fought valiantly and peacefully in the name of equality.
Our nation honors the late civil leader each year with a national holiday scheduled around his birthday on January 15th. Considering the importance of his work, much of which continues to ring true today, it’s no surprise that King inspired the music of a wide range of highly touted artists.
Queen, Paul Simon and Elvis Presley are just a few of the many bands that have written or performed songs about King and his work. Never afraid of social causes, U2 released two songs about the iconic activist on the same album. Prince wrote his track reflecting on ongoing efforts to fight racism, while Stevie Wonder used the music to defend the MLK Day holiday.
We’ve rounded up a selection of some of the most notable songs inspired by the late civil rights leader. In their own way, these tracks offer reverence, respect and appreciation for a man who fought for equality.
U2, “Pride (in the name of love)”
“Pride (In the Name of Love)” began life with a soundcheck. U2 was preparing to play a concert in November 1983 in Hawaii when Edge started playing some chord changes. The idea continued to evolve from there, Bono originally writing lyrics criticizing President Ronald Reagan’s military build-up in the 1980s. Unhappy with the results, Bono changed the subject to Martin Luther King Jr. La song was not entirely historically accurate – it says King was shot on “Early in the morning, April 4,” when the assassination happened around 6 p.m. – but “Pride (In the Name of Love ) “has always resonated with listeners. It became U2’s first Top 40 hit in the US, helping the 1984s The unforgettable fire achieve triple platinum sales.
This poetic elegy for King is magnificent in its simplicity. Bono originally wrote the lyrics with the buzz of a vacuum cleaner, and despite the band’s best efforts, U2 were never able to create a full instrumental accompaniment that matched the piece. Instead, they created a solemn drone, allowing the voices to cut through clearly. “MLK” served as a poignant closer to The unforgettable fire.
Queen, “A Vision”
After their triumphant performance at Live Aid, Queen returned to the studio in November 1985. Although the entire group collaborated on the creation of “One Vision,” its origins came from drummer Roger Taylor. “I had a page, kind of a poem, that was sort of half-cut from Martin Luther King’s famous speech,” Taylor recalls many years later in the documentary Queen. Days of our lives. “It was a this and an that.”
Paul Simon, “So beautiful or so”
“Four men on the balcony / Overlooking the parking lot / Pointing at a silhouette in the distance / Dr King has just been shotPaul Simon sings on the title track of his 2011 album. The LP’s general themes focused on mortality and faith, topics covered in “So Beautiful or So What”. Throughout the melody, Simon eloquently states that “Life is what you choose to make it”, Claiming that every human being has the chance to do something great with their little time on Earth. In the song’s final verse, Simon uses King’s life and legacy as an example of a person who started a giant cultural movement.
Stevie Wonder, “Happy Birthday”
Stevie Wonder originally met King when he was a teenage pop star. He later became a strong supporter of creating a national holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader, lending his fame to many events related to the king. He organized a nationwide “King Holiday” concert tour in 1980, then drew over 100,000 people a year later for a King Holiday rally in Washington, DC, hosted by Wonder. A highlight of the event – held at the National Mall, the same location where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech – was Wonder’s interpretation of “Happy Birthday,” the uplifting song he wrote to defend the holidays. “I had a vision of Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday,” Wonder said later. Rolling stone. “I mean, I saw this; I imagined it. I wrote about it, because I imagined it and saw it and believed it. So, I just kept that in mind until it happened. “
James Taylor, “Bringing Some Light”
James Taylor paid homage to King in the form of “Shed a Little Light”. The 1991 track reflected much of the ideology of the late civilian ruler, including messages of racial harmony, spiritual strength, and hope for the future. “To me, King is truly one of the central heroes, right in our time – a truly exceptional and rare person who brought the right things at the right time,” he told NPR in 2005. Taylor credited his parents for instilling in him a sense of social conscience: “They made me realize what was going on. They felt surprisingly strongly attached to the civil rights struggle, and I guess it stuck with me. He always stayed with me. So, it came out in a song.
Dion / Marvin Gaye, “Abraham, Martin and John”
Written just months after King’s assassination in 1968, “Abraham, Martin and John” was written as a tribute to some of America’s most iconic civilian leaders. The song’s title and lyrics refer to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy; the late Attorney General and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy is also mentioned. Dion scored a Top 5 hit in 1968 with the song, which was later covered by Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles, and Whitney Houston, among others. One of the best came from Marvin Gaye, whose 1970 update appeared on the album This is how love is.
Elvis Presley, “If I Can Dream”
Rock’s King was a great admirer of Martin Luther King Jr. and was heartbroken when he was murdered. Elvis Presley reportedly cried while watching MLK’s funeral on television in April 1968. Later that year he recorded a program that would soon become famous for NBC, commonly referred to as his ’68 Comeback Special. Presley was still reeling from the deaths of King and Robert Kennedy, as well as the riots and unrest felt across America as a result. Although organizers initially wanted him to close the special with “I’ll be home for Christmas,” Presley insisted on something more socially conscious. Songwriter Walter Earl Brown created “If I Can Dream,” a powerful number inspired by King’s famous speech. Although Colonel Tom Parker rejected the track, Presley insisted that he perform “If I Can Dream” as the closing number of the stage. The powerful performance provided an exclamation point for the king’s triumphant return, and the studio version became a radio hit.
Kris Kristofferson / Johnny Cash / Bob Dylan, “They Killed Him”
Former army captain turned singer-songwriter, Kris Kristofferson found himself drawn to more activism in the 1980s. Most of the songs on his 1986 LP Reprise had social and political overtones, including the poignant song “They Killed Him”. The song mentioned Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ and the “Kennedy brothers”, citing their efforts to make the world a better place, before they were murdered. Although Kristofferson wrote the track, Johnny Cash was the first to record it, releasing his rendition of “They Killed Him” in 1984. Bob Dylan followed up with his version in July 1986, just months before Kristofferson released. finally its own catch.
Rage against the machine, “Wake up”
MLK is one of many notable leaders mentioned in Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 “Wake Up”. Known for their politically charged lyrics and bombastic rock sound, the band denounced the FBI government investigation into King, with lyrics like “The police, the judges, the federal government / Networks at work, keep people calm / You know they pursued the king / When he spoke of Vietnam / He gave power to the poor / And then came the shot. “ At one point in the song, singer Zach de la Rocha recites an actual FBI memo from J. Edgar Hoover explaining how to suppress the civil rights movement. The last line of the song also paraphrases part of King’s speech after Selma’s walk to Montgomery.
Prince, “We Walk”
Although he is known more for singing about carnal indulgence than about the evils of society, Prince was never afraid to speak out about the causes he believed in. actually come in the years following his assassination. Prince’s air, released in 1995 The gold experience, became the anthem of the Million Man March, which took place in Washington, DC, later that year.
Neil Diamond, “Dry Your Eyes”
In 1976, Neil Diamond brought in the band’s Robbie Robertson to produce his album. Nice noise. Among the most notable tracks on the LP was “Dry Your Eyes”, a song Robertson later explained as being inspired by “how many people felt after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr”. Diamond then performed the song at the band’s famous farewell concert in San Francisco, as Martin Scorsese recounts. The last Waltz. It was the song’s only performance for decades, before Diamond finally added it to their set list in 2017.