In 1962, Motown was growing by leaps and bounds with each new release. Founder Berry Gordy, Jr. launched his namesake Gordy imprint in October with The Contours’ Do You Love Me as G-901, following it months later, in June 1963, with Martha and The Vandellas’ Come and Get These Memories (G-902). The imprint’s third release was more atypical – pianist and longtime Tony Bennett accompanist Ralph Sharon’s Modern Innovations on Country and Western Themes. But the label’s next release began a quiet affiliation with one of the twentieth century’s most consequential figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Motown released The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks – chronicling Dr. King’s speech of June 23, 1963 in the label’s hometown of Detroit – shortly after the Ralph Sharon album and just before the Vandellas’ Heat Wave. The Great March to Freedom was quickly followed up by a second album of Dr. King’s inspirational words. The Great March on Washington documented the events of August 28, 1963 during which the great man delivered what’s believed to be one of his first “I have a dream” speeches in front of 250,000 people at Washington, DC’s Lincoln Memorial. In fact, his exact words were “I still have a dream,” directly referring to his wishes as last expressed in Detroit. Motown/UMe has just reissued this historic album on vinyl.
The Great March on Washington opened with speeches by union leaders A. Phillip Randolph and Walter Reuther, and civil rights activist Roy Wilkins as well as with a performance of “We Shall Overcome” by Motown recording artist Liz Lands. Her career at Motown was short-lived with just a handful of singles issued in 1963-1964. But Lands was the perfect messenger for the song’s powerful message with her gospel roots and reported five-octave range. Social conscience was key to her music; her tribute to slain President John F. Kennedy, “May What He Lived For Live,” was distributed to attendees of the Democratic National Convention in December 1963 at the behest of then-young politician and future U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman.
The second side of the original LP began with the words of activist Whitney M. Young and concluded with Dr. King’s remarkable 18+-minute speech. While record distributors were far more interested in the latest Vandellas record or the new albums by The Temptations (Meet the Temptations followed The Great March on Washington in the Gordy catalogue), Gordy and Motown continued to support Dr. King and his impassioned words. After Dr. King’s tragic assassination on April 4, 1968, the “I Have a Dream” speech from the LP was edited down to single length and released on 45 backed with Liz Lands’ “We Shall Overcome.” Two months after his death, Gordy issued Free at Last, a memorial LP with his sermons from February 4, 1968 and April 3, 1968 as well as a brief reprise of “I Have a Dream” from Washington. Of course, the King legacy affected countless Motown artists including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and The Supremes, and Shorty Long. When Wonder’s tribute to his hero, “Happy Birthday,” was issued as a 12-inch single in 1980, it was joined by a side of excerpts from King’s speeches as recorded by Motown.
The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. still resonate today as we struggle to embody his vision of a more perfect, equitable, and peaceful America. The Great March on Washington captures that vision in stark monaural sound. The new Motown/UMe reissue is the album’s first vinyl appearance since 1984; to date, it’s never been released on CD in its original form. (Nor have Dr. King’s other Motown LPs.) The new LP is emblazoned with the classic Motown “map” label rather than the original Gordy design. But that’s not all the news coming out of Hitsville.
Motown has announced that the Black Forum label, dormant since 1973 save for 2018 vinyl reissues of Imamu Amiri Baraka’s It’s Nation Time and the eponymous Elaine Brown, is relaunching. The first title will be an LP reissue of Dr. King’s posthumous Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam scheduled for release on February 26 (no links yet available). Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam, culled from his April 16, 1967 sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, earned a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording. The Detroit Free Press promises that a further five titles are in the works from Black Forum, including recordings featuring Stokely Carmichael, Langston Hughes, Margaret Danner, and Ossie Davis. The label will work with Detroit’s Motown Museum for a series of events relating to the Black Forum relaunch.
In the meantime, The Great March on Washington is available now at the links below.
- Speech by A. Phillip Randolph
- Speech by Walter Reuther
- Speech by Roy Wilkins
- We Shall Overcome – Liz Lands
- Speech by Whitney M. Young
- Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.