Show #257: Remembering Martin Luther King

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This April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis. We remember Dr. King this week with eight songs to honor his legacy.

We begin with a live recording by Nina Simone mourning King’s death. Simone is known for civil rights anthems like “Mississippi Goddam,” but this song called “Why (The King of Love is Dead)” is not as well-known. Simone’s bassist Gene Taylor wrote the song, and she performed it at the Westbury Music Festival in Long Island, New York three days after King’s death. She introduces it by telling the audience that her group had just put it together. My thanks to Yatrika Shah-Rais for turning me on to the track.

Gregory Porter’s new album Nat King Cole and Me includes a beautiful song called “When Love Was King.” I find it rich in spiritual meaning, just like another original composition by Porter, “Take Me to the Alley.” While not specifically about Reverend King, the message of “When Love Was King” applies to his life and work. The lush arrangement is by Vince Mendoza.

Moodswings’s “Spiritual High” is part of an extended three-song suite based on the Vangelis-Jon Anderson composition “State of Independence” from 1981. This one features Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Donny Hathaway’s wonderful “Someday We’ll All Be Free” has always been a favorite of mine, and I felt it was not out of place to include it in this MLK playlist. Hathaway was a gifted pianist with the voice of an angel who left us way too early at the age of 38.

Carlos Niño and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson founded the group Build An Ark, and we hear “This Prayer: For the Whole World” from the album Love Part 1. It’s a Coltrane-esque spiritual jazz album by a collaborative of musicians, presaging later works by Kamasi Washington and Thundercat.

I would be remiss not to include Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” from his ninth album, Uprising. At the time of this release in 1979, Marley was already sick and facing his own mortality with the melanoma that eventually took his life. It is a solo acoustic piece, and has been named by Rolling Stone magazine to be near the top of its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Next we feature John Coltrane’s evergreen “Wise One,” from a later studio album called Crescent, one of my favorites. I used to featured this song on MLK-day tributes back in the day on Morning Becomes Eclectic.

Our final track this week comes from the late Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa, a champion of nueva canción, the “new song” movement in Latin America. “Gracias a la Vida” is an anthem to love, life, and freedom. Sosa was threatened with death after a 1976 concert in La Plata, Argentina, and was subsequently forced into exile to Paris and Spain by the military junta, which ruled the country from 1976-1983. She recorded this powerful song shortly after returning from exile in February, 1982, just as the junta was falling and the country was returning to democratic rule. I love the ecstatic applause from her fans, a crowd no longer afraid of the military police. I’ve called Sosa the diva of the dispossessed, and her timeless recordings have echoed the hopes and dreams of millions.

Here is Nina Simone in an undated performance of “Why (The King of Love is Dead)”:

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 4/6/18

  1. Nina Simone / “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” /The Essential Nina Simone/ RCA/Sony Legacy
  2. Gregory Porter / “When Love Was King” / Nat “King” Cole & Me / Blue Note
  3. Moodswings / “Spiritual High (Part III)” / Moodfood / Arista
  4. Donny Hathaway / “Someday We’ll All Be Free” / A Donny Hathaway Collection / Atlantic Records
  5. Build An Ark / “This Prayer: For The Whole World” / Love Part 1 / Kindred Spirits
  6. Bob Marley / “Redemption Song” / Legend / Tuff Gong
  7. John Coltrane / “Wise One” / Crescent / Impulse
  8. Mercedes Sosa / ” Gracias A La Vida” / Live in Argentinien / Tropical Music
Banner image of the Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama designed by Maya Lin, taken 2010 by Carol M. Highsmith. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.