It was perhaps the greatest hit of the '60s -- not 'She Loves You' or 'Blowin' in the Wind' but the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: "I Have a Dream." In observation of the slain civil rights leader's national holiday, here's a suggested playlist fit for a King.
'A Dream' (2006)
Common feat. Will.i.am
The conscious rapper's contribution to the 'Freedom Writers' soundtrack samples MLK's most famous oration. Check the video, which plays out like an A/V history lesson in an empty classroom.
It just so happens that this long-running reggae group is from Birmingham – not Alabama, where King was infamously imprisoned, but Birmingham, England. The multiracial act's first single was a lament for Dr. King; the flip side, 'Food for Thought,' was about famine in Africa.
Inspired by King's moving "Mountaintop" speech, Griffin's enduring folk spiritual has been covered by Susan Boyle, soul survivor Solomon Burke and, on an episode of 'Idol Gives Back,' by Kelly Clarkson, with Jeff Beck on guitar.
"Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky." OK, maybe it was early morning in Ireland at the time King was shot, but who's quibbling? At least Bono's heart (if not his wristwatch) was in the right place when he wrote this anthemic tribute.
Not the genius's best work but maybe his most important: When politicians like Reagan and McCain opposed a national holiday honoring Dr. King, Stevie wrote a song that basically asked, "Are you serious?" He headlined the first official MLK Day, in 1986.
This obscure folk masterpiece, adapted from a 1963 poem by Dudley Randall, imagines one of the young girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September of '63. It'll drop you to your knees. Look no further for the kind of injustice that drove Dr. King.
'Soul Power' (1988)
Maceo and the Macks
The instrumental version of this James Brown-created groove, credited to longtime sideman Maceo Parker, features a healthy sampling of Dr. King's "Mountaintop" speech and some out-of-sight saxophone wailing by the session leader.
'Dr. King' (2000)
On his second album, which also includes a song called 'Black Panther,' this Minneapolis-based songwriter featured a lovely ode to the good Doctor, who died seven years before Jennings was born.
The Chicago blues pianist reportedly wrote this affecting dirge upon hearing the news of Dr. King's assassination, playing a scheduled gig that night with Muddy Waters. The blues were soon for Spann himself, who died two years later at age 40.
'We Shall Overcome' (2006)
Invoked often by Dr. King, the phrase 'We Shall Overcome' was on the tips of the tongues of every civil rights crusader in the 1960s, with folk advocates including Pete Seeger and Joan Baez leading massive singalongs. The Boss resurrected the song for his 2006 Seeger tribute, which helped put the old-timer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for Obama's inauguration.