Artists ranging from Nina Simone and John Coltrane to Public Enemy and U2 pay tribute to the civil rights leader in songs spanning nearly 50 years.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s eloquent speeches, a peaceful movement for racial harmony and galvanizing murders inspired scores of singers and songwriters. Here are 16 songs imprinted by the memory of King and his ideals.
Alabama, John Coltrane Quartet (1963)
The iconic jazz saxophonist composed this after the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where King and other movement leaders often gathered. The explosion killed four girls and built support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Coltrane's instrumental piece, on Live at Birdland, conveys the racial hatred and violence of the times and is thought to have been based on the cadence of King's eulogy for the bombing victims.
Why (The King of Love Is Dead), Nina Simone (1968)
Simone performed the song for the first time at the Westbury Music Fair in Long Island, N.Y., three days after King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. She and her band learned the song, written by her bass player Gene Taylor, the day of the performance. Augmented by Simone's sermonizing, the tune stretched for 15 minutes. It first appeared on live set Nuff Said! MORE: Songs tied to the March on Washington
Say It Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud,James Brown (1968)
The day after King's murder, violence gripped big cities across the nation as looters and rioters expressed outrage and grief on the streets. The lone exception was Boston, where a James Brown concert, which the city initially wanted to cancel, went on as scheduled and was televised. The show, dedicated to King, is considered among Brown's most powerful, and kept citizens home. Soon after, the Godfather of Soul wrote this self-empowerment anthem, which appeared on 1968's A Soulful Christmas.
People Got to Be Free, The Rascals (1968)
Written in response to King's murder, the song initially was held back by the label in fear that a political message would hurt the band's career. While it was a bigger hit than Good Lovin' and Groovin', it was also the last time the group reached the top 10. After Free's release, The Rascals' would only perform on bills that included an African-American act.
Abraham, Martin and John, Dion (1968)
The wistful folk-rock song about slain political heroes Abraham Lincoln, King and brothers John and Robert Kennedy peaked at No. 4 eight months after King's death and six months after Robert Kennedy was killed. A line in the chorus that pertained to all four: "He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young."
Blues for Martin Luther King, Otis Spann (1968)
The Chicago pianist recounts details of King's murder in a blues lament: "You know there came a mean man pop a bullet through Dr. King's head/Oh when his wife and kids came down, all they could do is moan/Now the world's in a revolt."
Happy Birthday, Stevie Wonder (1980)
Wonder wrote this to support the campaign to have King's birthday declared a national holiday. He sings, "I just never understood how a man who died for good could not have a day that would be set aside for his recognition." President Reagansigned a bill creating the holiday in 1983, and Wonder was the headliner at a concert marking the first MLK Day in 1986. Happy Birthday appears on 1980's Hotter Than July.
Pride (In the Name of Love), U2 (1984)
The single from 1984's The Unforgettable Fire may be wrong about the time (the lyric refers to King's assassination occurring in "early morning," when it was actually evening), but that hardly detracts from the fervor and muscle of this huge anthem.Fire closes with the lullaby MLK, another King tribute.
By the Time I Get to Arizona, Public Enemy (1991)
Chuck D wrote this rap rant in reply to Arizona Gov. Evan Mechan's 1987 refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Day as an official state holiday. It was also directed atJohn McCain. The song is on 1991's Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black.
Like a King, Ben Harper (1994)
Harper's folk tune, from 1994 debut Welcome to the Cruel World, looks at King's message compared to the harsh reality of another King: Rodney. The construction worker's videotaped beating by Los Angeles police sparked national outrage that escalated into riots when four officers were acquitted of assault and excessive force. Harper's take on the LAPD, "To them we are fair game, our lives don't mean a thing."
Up to the Mountain, Patty Griffin (2007)
The singer borrows her title from King's 1968 "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, delivered one day before he was killed. Sonically and lyrically, the string-laden folk tune draws its spiritual essence from King's words. From Griffin's 2007 album,Children Running Through.
Motel in Memphis, Old Crow Medicine Show (2008)
The Nashville-based Americana string band revisits the scene of the crime in a poignant roots-deep folk tune: "Run and tell somebody there's blood on the riverside … If you were there you'd swear it was more than a man who died. Did you see Coretta? She was sobbing on a corner in a black veil."
Letter to the King, Game featuring Nas (2008)
Game and producer Hi-Tek crafted the beats for this track, which samples Jaggerz'sMemoirs of the Traveler and features Nas extolling King's peaceful tactics. Game throws a jab at Jesse Jackson and raps about how King's loss moves him: "Sometimes I wanna give up or at least take a break. That's when I close my eyes and see Coretta Scott's face."
Sharing a Gibson With Martin Luther King Jr., Lambchop (2008)
The nuanced, quirky tune from the alt-country band's OH (Ohio) album cryptically summons King while also addressing urban decay and other subjects.
The Ballad of Martin Luther King, Daddy (2009)
The quintet formed by Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack expresses admiration and outrage in a juke-joint jam that recounts the Montgomery bus boycott, racism and King's death. A sample: "On a hotel porch in Memphis, mankind lost his best friend. …It's time to take a look at the mirror on the wall. Did you help pull the trigger or were you there at all?"
So Beautiful or So What, Paul Simon (2011)
The stunning title track of Simon's most recent studio album covers a lot of ground, including King's demise: "Four men on the balcony overlooking the parking lot, pointing at a figure in the distance, Dr. King has just been shot."
Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY