Brian Ward, author of a new book on the links between Rhythm and Blues music and the Civil Rights movement, tells of Martin Luther King’s little-known experiences as a recording artist.
While studies of Martin Luther King have burgeoned during the thirty years since the Civil Rights leader’s death, certain aspects of his career remain virtually unexplored by Movement historians. One such gap in the literature concerns King’s relationship with the recording industry, and in particular with two resourceful and intensely ambitious black record label owners, Dootsie Williams and Berry Gordy.
Almost from the beginning of his public career, several Rhythm and Blues record labels had seen in King an opportunity to make money and to project a racially progressive image to their customers. In 1960, for example, Atlantic, which was the most successful of all the Rhythm and Blues labels in the 1950s – and which continued to flourish in the 1960s with singers like Aretha Franklin – sought permission to record about forty minutes of King speaking. Although King was apparently ‘quite interested’ in the suggestion, nothing ever came of it, and it fell to Dootsie Williams, owner of the Los Angeles-based Dooto Records – home of the Penguins and their million-selling hit ‘Earth Angel’ – to release King’s first solo album.
Unfortunately, however, this pioneering 1962 release was actually an unauthorised bootleg, recorded at the Zion Hill Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Wyatt Tee Walker, executive secretary of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) recalled the circumstances:
As is our custom, I asked a gentleman who was preparing to set up a recorder, for what purpose the tape would be used. He replied it was ‘for the church’. Three months later... the record came out. Neither Dr King nor anyone connected with SCLC knew anything about the record until it was being distributed.
After five months of trying to persuade Dootsie Williams to withdraw the disk, the SCLC secured a court injunction to prevent further sales.
The sound quality of the Martin Luther King at Zion Hill album was wretched. King was also upset that it captured a rather lacklustre performance. But as Wyatt Walker pointed out, there was a still more troubling aspect to the affair – the Movement was being cynically exploited for personal gain by an ambitious black entrepreneur. ‘Dishonesty on the part of Dooto Records and Mr Williams has characterised the entire history of the recording’, Walker complained, noting that ‘many people purchase the record believing the proceeds benefit our movement’. The final indignity came when Dooto presented King with a financial statement detailing the income from sales of the record against the costs of production and advertising. It indicated a deficit of $98.30. Nevertheless, King could not fail to notice that the gross income from this shoddily produced, poorly marketed bootleg, had topped $4,750. He began to contemplate the possibilities of securing a proper recording deal to raise funds and spread the Word.
During the 1960s, Berry Gordy’s Motown became the biggest black-owned business in America, selling records by the Supremes, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and many others to a massive bi-racial audience. As the Dooto débâcle faded, Motown contacted King about the possibility of recording some of his literary works, sermons and speeches. After negotiations, King agreed to let the label record and release his speech at Detroit’s Cobo Hall following a rally in the city on June 23rd, 1963. King insisted that all royalties from the recording should go to the SCLC – a selfless decision which clearly left its mark on Gordy. Thirty years later, when Gordy wrote his autobiography and tried to explain the depths of his personal admiration for King, he could think of no better testament to the Civil Rights leader’s greatness, than that he had rejected Gordy’s suggestion to keep half the royalties for himself.
By late August 1963, Motown had still not released its recording of King’s Detroit address. Then, suddenly, in the wake of the enormous publicity surrounding the August 28th, March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, that speech appeared on an album cleverly entitled The Great March To Freedom. Gordy had also ingeniously christened a portion of King’s previously untitled Detroit speech, ‘I Have A Dream’. According to King, it was only after Gordy had seen ‘the widespread public reception accorded said words when used in the text of my address to the March on Washington’, that the Motown mogul retrospectively bestowed this title on the Detroit oration.
King was clearly piqued at the way in which Gordy had exploited his success at the March on Washington to promote Motown’s Cobo Hall album. It made matters worse that the Detroit recording threatened to undermine sales of the official March on Washington album as produced by WRVR, the radio station of the Riverside Church in New York, which had pledged all the royalties to the Movement. But what ultimately provoked King to sue Motown alongside two other labels – Mr Maestro and 20th Century Fox – was their intention to use his Washington ‘I Have A Dream’ speech on an unauthorised trio of albums. This clearly posed a much more serious threat to any income the Movement might hope to receive from the official WRVR album.
On October 3rd, 1963, King was granted a temporary injunction preventing anyone from selling recordings of the Washington ‘I Have A Dream’ speech until further hearings on the matter could be held in November. Shortly after this preliminary decision, however, King unexpectedly dropped his suit against Motown, while continuing to pursue those against the other two companies. King’s lawyers claimed that this was because Motown had apparently only ever intended to use excerpts from the Washington speech. Yet by the end of the year the company was promoting its Great March to Washington album, featuring ‘I Have A Dream’ in its entirety. It may never be clear precisely what prompted King to relent in his suit against Motown. He and his advisors may simply have sensed that it was impolitic to assail a black-owned company of increasing financial power and prestige in this way. Certainly, thereafter, the label became a more conspicuous and generous supporter of King and the Movement.
As for the remaining suits, the legal status of King’s speech was pretty murky. Given the widespread media coverage of the March on Washington, many believed that it had become public property, and that reproduction could not be stopped or controlled. Nevertheless, a New York federal court finally ruled that King’s Washington utterances were still technically ‘unpublished’, and protected by laws of intellectual property. The court made permanent the earlier temporary injunction prohibiting the reproduction of the speech without King’s consent. With the legal position clarified, King promptly negotiated a proper deal with 20th Century Fox, whereby various Movement groups shared a $5,000 advance and a 5 per cent royalty on sales of the Freedom March To Washington, August 28, 1963 album.
Other authorised recordings featuring ‘I Have A Dream’ followed periodically during King’s lifetime. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, in the wake of his death, it was the enterprising Motown which was first in the shops with a posthumous collection of speeches (Free At Last). Junius Griffin, who had joined the label from the SCLC in 1967, explained that Gordy was ‘not concerned with how the proceeds should be handled... but with SCLC getting as much money out of the thing’ as possible. Yet, typically, even here Gordy’s largesse was tempered by his business considerations. His generous offer was conditional on Motown being granted exclusive permission to release King’s speeches – a privilege which Gordy believed would enhance the label’s reputation as a politically engaged, socially responsible, black enterprise, and with it, of course, its sales.
Thus, at a paradoxical time of intense racial struggle, and somewhat expanded black economic opportunity, Gordy continued to try to reconcile his concern for the progress of the Movement with his narrower concern for his own economic interests. This was a precarious juggling act attempted with varying degrees of success by most black capitalists, and many black celebrities during the 1960s.