Happy Birthday

Album: Hotter Than July (1980)
Charted: 2

Songfacts®:

  • Wonder recorded this to lobby for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s January 15 birthday to be an American national holiday. King was a black American Civil Rights leader whose unique combination of the message of Jesus (love your enemies) and the method of Gandhi (nonviolent protest) gave both a strategy and a philosophy to the black civil rights movement. During the years he led the movement he won victory after victory without resorting to violence. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35, making him the youngest Nobel Prize recipient. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King was leaving his room to attend a soul-food dinner at the home of the Reverend Samuel (Billy) Kyles when he was shot by the white James Earl Ray on the motel's balcony. The third Monday in January is now Martin Luther King day in USA - a public holiday.
  • Stevie Wonder had a huge role in getting Martin Luther King day recognized as a national holiday in America. He helped organize a rally in Washington on January 15, 1981 (King's birthday), that was a key event in the movement. With the crowd chanting, "Martin Luther King Day, we took a holiday," black leaders and celebrities appeared, and when Wonder spoke, he said: "As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all of us. I'd like to ask all of you just for one moment, if you will, to be silent and just to think and hear in your mind the voice of our Dr. Martin Luther King."

    A highlight of the rally was Wonder's performance of this song, and over the next few years, Wonder continued his work to raise awareness of the movement and apply political pressure to get the holiday recognized. Another rally followed the next year, and on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill. The holiday was first observed in 1986, but it took many more years before every state made it a full holiday complete with a paid day off for state workers. South Carolina was the last to do so, joining the other 49 states in 2000.
  • Other hit songs about Martin Luther King include "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" by U2, "Abraham, Martin and John" by Marvin Gaye and "King" by UB40.
  • In 1986, Wonder told Rolling Stone: "I had a vision of the Martin Luther King birthday as a national holiday. 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."
  • Stevie Wonder sang this to Rosa Parks on her 89th birthday when he attended the premiere of her made-for-TV movie Ride to Freedom: The Rosa Parks Story.
  • Leading up to the rally, Wonder went on a four-month tour of the US to promote the Hotter Than July album and garner support for the proposed holiday. Bob Marley was supposed to headline the shows with Wonder but had to bow out when his cancer worsened. Gil Scott-Heron, known for the 1970 funk anthem "The The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," stepped in as Marley's temporary replacement, only to stay for the duration of the tour. According to Wonder's producer Malcolm Cecil, it was Scott-Heron who suggested closing out the shows with "Happy Birthday" and exhorting the audience to write their congressman about Martin Luther King Day.
  • In 2016, Wonder sang this to Hillary Clinton when he and the Democratic presidential candidate were interviewed on The Breakfast Club.
  • In a 1983 CNN interview, Wonder explained the purpose of MLK Day would be to honor "a man who died for the principles of this country" and to consider our role in carrying on King's legacy. "It would be a day for us to reflect upon our responsibilities as human beings. As recognizing all of those who have lived and died for the principles of peace and unity and equality for all people," he explained. "We as people recognize him not based on his color or sex but basically because of what he did for moving minds to a greater and more senseful consciousness."

Comments: 1

  • John from Arkansas City, KsI don't know if Marvin Gaye covered Abraham,Martin and John. It was originally recorded by Dion .
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Neal Smith - "I'm Eighteen"They're Playing My Song

With the band in danger of being dropped from their label, Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith co-wrote the song that started their trek from horror show curiosity to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Jack Blades of Night Ranger and Damn YankeesSongwriter Interviews

Revisit the awesome glory of Night Ranger and Damn Yankees: cheesily-acted videos, catchy guitar licks, long hair, and lyrics that are just plain relatable.

Harold Brown of WarSongwriter Interviews

A founding member of the band War, Harold gives a first-person account of one of the most important periods in music history.

00s Music Quiz 1Music Quiz

Do you know the girl singer on Eminem's "Stan"? If so, this quiz is for you.

Emilio Castillo from Tower of PowerSongwriter Interviews

Emilio talks about what it's like to write and perform with the Tower of Power horns, and why every struggling band should have a friend like Huey Lewis.

History Of RockSong Writing

An interview with Dr. John Covach, music professor at the University of Rochester whose free online courses have become wildly popular.