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Flashback: Stevie Wonder Sings ‘Happy Birthday’ at 1986 Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute

Wonder spent years advocating for a national holiday in honor of his late hero. In 1986, when Congress finally got on board, he convened an all-star concert to celebrate

By network broadcasting standards, the night of January 20th, 1986, had more than its share of rarely-seen-on-TV highlights. Bob Dylan and his band glided through a gently pulsing, almost R&B take on “I Shall Be Released,” and Dylan joined Peter, Paul and Mary for “Blowin’ in the Wind” — remarkably, the first time all four had ever sung that song together onstage. Whitney Houston, energized and vocally stirring, bounded onstage to join Ashford and Simpson for “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Even with all that star power, the night belonged to Stevie Wonder. At the end of the two-hour telecast, which was titled “An All-Star Celebration Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.,” all those performers — along with Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, Quincy Jones, Eddie Murphy, Gregory Hines, and others — gathered onstage with Wonder to sing “Happy Birthday,” his jubilant tribute to King. Before it began, Wonder told the audience at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to grab some of the green glowsticks under the seats; once they lit them up, he added, somewhat whimsically, “You look marvelous.” But it was also a serious night, a triumphant climax for Wonder’s nearly decade-long quest to ensure that his hero’s birthday was honored as a national holiday.

Wonder’s connection to King was deep and profound. He’d broken down in tears upon hearing of King’s assassination in 1968 and attended the funeral. He wrote a preliminary version of “Happy Birthday” in 1977, and the song finally made it onto record on 1980’s Hotter Than July, which augmented its chipper synth beats with slyly finger-pointing lyrics: “You know it doesn’t make much sense/There ought to be a law against anyone who takes offense/At a day in your celebration,” Wonder sang.

Although “Happy Birthday” didn’t go top 10 when it was released as a single, the song became an emotional highlight at Wonder’s concerts over the following years. In January 1981, he participated in a rally at the D.C. Mall to bring attention to King’s birthday. “I’m not here as Stevie Wonder the artist,” he told the tens of thousands who gathered under cloudy, dreary winter skies. “But I’m Stevland Morris, a man, a citizen of this country and a human being.” Joined by poet and musician Gil Scot-Heron, he launched into “Happy Birthday.”

Wonder was realistic about his goals: “If it doesn’t happen this year, we must do it next year and again and again and again until it happens,” he said at a press event before that rally. Indeed, the idea of making King’s January 15th birthday a national holiday was proving to be a Sisyphean task. Michigan Representative John Conyers, a friend of King’s, had first introduced the idea in Congress mere days after King’s death, but support in Washington remained tepid years later, even after Jimmy Carter got behind the holiday proposal shortly before he left office as president.

By 1981, 12 states, including New York, Ohio, Florida and Kentucky, had made King’s birthday a local holiday, but GOP opposition to the national augmentation was fierce. Republican senators John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley all voted against it, and notorious North Carolina senator Jesse Helms went so far as to filibuster a 1983 vote on the bill on the grounds that King embodied “hostility to and hatred for America.” Others, like President Reagan, argued that the government would lost $185 million in wages thanks to such a holiday. “If you’re really measuring how much a holiday costs,” Conyers retorted, “then you don’t understand what King was all about.”

Wonder, who testified before Congress about the need for the holiday in 1983, kept up the pressure. At a New York show that fall, he chastised those who opposed the plan and told the crowd, “We’re going to party on the 15th of January. Everyone’s gonna party.” Finally, that November, the bill passed the House and Senate, and Reagan signed it into law, with the first official observance of Martin Luther King Jr. day set for January 1986.

The “All-Star Celebration” was pegged to that momentous day, the first national holiday commemorating an African-American. Wonder and his companies, Wonder Productions and the Wonder Foundation, took charge of the special, which turned out to be a mammoth task. That evening, three simultaneous King concerts took place in Washington, New York and Atlanta, the last one ending at 8 p.m. With the TV special scheduled to air at 9 that same night, producer Marty Pasetta and his combined, multi-city crew of 500 had to quickly edit the highlights, an astonishing feat in the pre-digital era. But the undertaking and stress were clearly worth it for Wonder. “I had a vision of the Martin Luther King birthday as a national holiday,” he told RS months later. “I mean, I saw that. I imagined it. I wrote about it because I imagined it and I saw it and I believed it. So I just kept that in my mind till it happened.”

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