I’m not sure that it had ever really occurred to me that there was a first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It seems such a normal part of the calendar now, that the struggle to get this day of recognition and then have it declared a national holiday is all lost in my memory (that I live in Canada, only exacerbates this amnesia, of course). So imagine my surprise to learn that the first one was in 1986 – during the Reagan presidency.
At a concert that evening to celebrate the occasion at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, Bob Dylan performed four songs on stage with Stevie Wonder and his band, Wonderlove. I have a bootleg of this, but I find it a little confusing – Dylan is introduced twice, for example. It’s clearly taken from a television broadcast, because people talk over the opening of a couple of the songs. The order that I think makes sense is Dylan singing “The Bells of Freedom” with Wonder, followed by a high-tempo performance of “I Shall Be Released” with Wonderlove. I like this a lot – they give a lot of space to Wonder on the piano, and the crowd certainly gets right into it, clapping along. It’s a nice performance.
This was followed by a version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” where he is accompanied by Wonder, and by Peter, Paul and Mary. This is almost exactly as you would imagine it would be, not that that makes it bad by any means. Hell, Stevie Wonder could sing the phonebook and it would probably be good.
Speaking of which, the whole set ends with Wonder singing “Happy Birthday” to King in a special arrangement by Quincy Jones. Dylan is on-stage for this, along with everyone else who would have been there. I can’t say that I cared for this at all.
This is Icon Bob territory, trotted out for the black tie gala to sing his now anthemic songs. There are worse versions of him.
In trying to find a video from this show, since I know it must be out there, I stumbled across this 1969 video of Wonder performing “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Glen Campbell. Incredible. Watch this: