If a pop music star put seven albums on The Billboard 200 chart, had a Hot 100 single, won a Grammy, made the cover of Rolling Stone, and inspired several well-known tribute songs, you'd say he had a big-time career. It may surprise you to learn that Dr. Martin Luther King achieved all these milestones of pop success.
Dr. King landed his first chart album in October 1963, two months after he led the historic March on Washington. He landed his seventh in June 1968, two months after he was assassinated in Memphis. Only one public official, President John F. Kennedy, has made the chart with more than seven albums. JFK amassed 10 charted albums, all after his assassination in 1963.
Dr. King's first charted album, The Great March To Freedom, was recorded at a speech he gave in Detroit in June 1963. The album was released on Gordy Records, the namesake label of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.
Dr. King received his first Grammy nomination in early 1964 for We Shall Overcome (The March On Washington...August 28, 1963). The album was nominated for Best Documentary, Spoken Word or Drama Recording (Other Than Comedy). The album featured, in addition to King and other civil rights and religious leaders, tracks by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Odetta and Marian Anderson.
King made his biggest chart impact in the weeks after he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. A spoken-word single, "I Have A Dream," became a Hot 100 hit in May 1968. (The B side was a recording of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome.")
An album titled I Have A Dream, which was recorded at the March on Washington, made the upper half of the album chart in May 1968. The following year, it brought King a second Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word Recording.
Dr. King finally received a Grammy (posthumously) for his album Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam. The album was voted Best Spoken Word Recording of 1970.
Dion, a pop star of the '50s and '60s, saluted Dr. King, as well as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, in his poignant recording of "Abraham, Martin And John." The song (which was written by Dick Holler) spent the last seven weeks of 1968 in the top 10. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and comedian Moms Mabley also had top 40 hits with the song in 1969.
In 1971, DJ Tom Clay coupled Dion's recording and Jackie DeShannon's 1965 hit "What The World Needs Now Is Love." Clay's chilling medley, which also featured news sound-bites and excerpts of speeches by King and the Kennedys, made the top 10.
Stevie Wonder included "Happy Birthday" on his album Hotter Than July, which spent its first 12 weeks in the top five in 1980-1981. Wonder wrote the song to energize the campaign to get Dr. King's birthday declared a national holiday. Three years later, President Reagan signed a bill which did just that. The holiday was first observed in January 1986. Wonder headlined a concert to celebrate the first King holiday. He also performed the song at the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, which is King's birthplace.
U2 included two tributes to Dr. King on its 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. In December of that year, "Pride (In the Name Of Love)" became the band's first top 40 single. Chrissie Hynde performed background vocals on the song. U2 performed the song at the "We Are One" concert on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in January 2009 to celebrate the impending inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Clivilles & Cole, the principals of C&C Music Factory, cracked the Hot 100 with a cover of "Pride (In The Name Of Love)." Shawn Colvin, the Roots, John Legend and Dierks Bentley have also recorded it.
U2 closed The Unforgettable Fire with another King tribute, "MLK." The band included the song in its half-time show at the Super Bowl in 2002. Joan Baez covered the song in 1988.
The star-studded "King Holiday" was released in January 1986, when Dr. King's birthday was first recognized as a federal holiday. Kurtis Blow co-wrote and co-produced the single, which was credited to King Dream Chorus & Holiday Crew.
The "Dream Chorus" consisted of Whitney Houston, New Edition, Stephanie Mills, Teena Marie, Stacy Lattisaw, El DeBarge, Menudo, James "J.T." Taylor (of Kool & the Gang) and Lisa Lisa with Full Force. The "Holiday Crew" consisted of Blow, Run-D.M.C., Whodini, Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Fat Boys.
The song made the top 30 on the R&B chart, but it failed to cross over to the Hot 100. King's youngest son, Dexter Scott King, was credited as executive producer.
King made the cover of Rolling Stone in April 1988, on the 20th anniversary of his assassination. The issue featured an interview with his son, Martin Luther King III. The cover portrait was used to illustrate the magazine's poll, "Portrait Of A Generation."
James Taylor included a tribute, "Shed A Little Light," on his 1991 album, New Moon Shine.
One of the most covered King tributes is Patty Griffin's "Up To The Mountain (MLK Song)." The title refers to King's famous "I've been to the mountaintop" speech, which he delivered the day before his assassination.
In 2005, R&B veteran Solomon Burke became the first artist to record the song. Griffin contributed background vocals. Two years later, she recorded it for her album Children Running Through, which made the top 40. The song has been a Hot 100 hit twice, both times for American Idol stars. Kelly Clarkson teamed with guitar legend Jeff Beck to perform the song on the first Idol Gives Back special in April 2007. Crystal Bowersox performed it on the Idol finals in May 2010.
Susan Boyle included the song on her blockbuster debut I Dreamed A Dream, which was the second best-selling album of 2009 in the U.S.
Two legendary singers, Mahalia Jackson and Eartha Kitt, recorded entire albums devoted to King. (Neither cracked The Billboard 200.) They are Mahalia Jackson Sings The Best-Loved Hymns Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kitt's My Way, A Musical Tribute To Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on which the cabaret star was backed by a 100-voice gospel choir.
Dr. King has also been saluted in film and television. Key examples include the 1970 documentary King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery To Memphis, which featured narration by Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary (Feature).
In TV, prime examples include the 1978 TV miniseries King, which starred Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson; and the 1989 animated children's special Our Friend Martin, which featured the voices of Edward Asner, Angela Bassett and LeVar Burton. Both programs received key Emmy nominations.
Such wide-ranging TV series as The Jeffersons, The Boondocks and New York Undercover have also aired episodes that focused on King.