Recording the Dream

Article excerpt

Brian Ward, author of a new book on the links between Rhythm and Blues music and the Civil Rights movement, tells of 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 debacle 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. …