When you read this one, I want you to play Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” really loud.
As we celebrate the Martin Luther King Day holiday this year, I’m reminded of the 15-year struggle and the persistence of many to make this country’s recognition of the civil rights martyr’s birthday a reality.
From King’s assassination in April 1968 to the day it was signed into law as a national holiday in November 1983 by President Ronald Reagan, many had lobbied and campaigned in vain to make January 15 a federal holiday.
That list of fighters included various politicians (bills were introduced as early as 1968, but first went to a vote – unsuccessfully – in 1979) and the King Center, started by Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow.
The list also included pop and soul music superstar and social activist Stevie Wonder, who had already made a name for himself throughout the 1970s with music that touched on spiritual and political themes. Classics like “Living for the City” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” spoke of oppression and corruption, while the lesser known, but still powerful “Black Man” (from his Songs in the Key of Life album) was an uplifting reminder that Africans and other minorities had contributed as much to world history as the white man. “Cash in Your Face” from 1980’s Hotter Than July spoke of housing discrimination.
So it naturally followed that when it came time for a celebrity to lend his name and stature to the cause of creating an MLK holiday, Stevie Wonder stepped to the plate.
Wonder was just coming off his most disappointing album performance of the 1970s when his 1979 album, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, failed to generate more than one hit single (“Send One Your Love”). Of course, it had the unenviable task of following his crowning moment, Songs in the Key of Life, the 1976 album whose legendary status has been cemented nearly 40 years later with a highly successful three-leg world tour dedicated to it.
In 1980, while recording the Secret Life of Plants follow-up, Hotter Than July, Wonder wrote and recorded a song dedicated specifically to the King holiday cause, simply titled “Happy Birthday.” The song offered a completely different take on the happy-birthday singing tradition, sounding nothing like the Happy Birthday song we all grew up singing. Instead, it was a rousing, soulful dance number with a chorus that’s as easy to sing as the traditional number (“HAP-py birthday to ya!). Although, unlike the more traditional Happy Birthday Song, it’s considered completely unacceptable to sing Wonder’s tune off-key. But I digress slightly.
The Stevie Wonder song starts off lyrically by questioning how anyone could take offense at honoring a man whose credo was peace and love for his fellow-man. It finishes with a modulated chorus and a coda in which at least two or three groups of background singers sing layered arrangements of “Happy Birthday” on top of one another’s vocals before the song fades. As they do this, Stevie is heard saying “we’ll make the dream become a reality. I know we will, because our hearts tell us so.”
The impact of “Happy Birthday” was immediate. Not only was it featured on a hit album that returned Stevie to the top of the charts, but it turned up the heat on a movement that was gathering more steam with each passing year.
After Congress failed to pass a bill calling for the holiday in 1979, Coretta Scott King’s King Center turned to the corporate community for help. Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” was a key part of that help, with its widespread popularity as an album cut generating more and more support for the cause. Ultimately, a petition signed by six million people sent a message to Congress and the President that they were not easily backing down from this purposeful mission.
In November 1983, three years after the initial release of “Happy Birthday,” President Reagan signed the holiday into law, with its first national observance occurring in January 1986.
Although “Happy Birthday” made the Billboard Soul Singles chart, it never made the Hot 100 – likely because its official single release occurred long after the song had been popular as an album cut. It did do well in the U.K., however, where it became the biggest of the four top-ten singles released from Hotter Than July (after “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” and “Lately”) by peaking at #2.
Despite its mixed chart performance here and abroad, Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” has become a tradition in the American black community, often replacing the traditional Happy Birthday Song at annual gatherings celebrating people’s special day. It also helped make his Hotter Than July album a classic, and it now ranks as one of the best-known songs in Wonder’s enormously popular song catalog.
It’s also the song that was likely the last social push needed to make the MLK holiday a reality. And with that, it may very well hold the distinction as the only song in pop music history to be so instrumental in forging that kind of social change.
But then, what else would you expect from a man like Stevie Wonder…a man whose music and social consciousness has inspired millions for over half a century.
Thank you, Stevie.
And thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.