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Memphis Blues

April 4, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The week he died, American soul and R&B were at a high-water mark.
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April 4, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The week he died, American soul and R&B were at a high-water mark.

Reflecting on today's anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s murder, its 50th, pulls our minds toward images and sounds that surrounded that day in 1968: to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel; to Dr. King's speech in Memphis the day before his assassination. This anniversary has weighed on my mind more than usual, maybe because I've just recently arrived in Washington, D.C., where some of the worst rioting happened in his shooting's aftermath. It's pushed me to reflect on what that day must have felt like: impossible, inevitable, terrifying, infuriating, tragic, confusing, apocalyptic.

Trying to understand a moment like this, I think about the music folks might have been listening to that day, and the next and the next, and what purpose it might have served in their everyday lives. The people who turned on the radios in their kitchens or cars, or the radios they heard at the lunch counter, or the beauty parlor, or standing in the thick smell of the auto shops. Although FM radio and the LP were on the rise in early '68, the Top 10 and AM radio still reflected the center of the pop music listening experience. Millions of people must have heard the news on the radio, in between the hits and the weather and the ads. Was music helpful? Did it feel irrelevant? Disrespectful?

Billboard's Top 20 R&B Chart from the week of March 30, 1968 tells us something about what many people were listening to at that time, especially African-Americans. Soul music was flourishing in all directions — and probably at its high-water mark.

This set of songs showcases the diversity and creativity of late-'60s soul. You can hear some of the last great releases out of the classic Stax and Atlantic lineups, like Sam & Dave's "I Thank You," and Percy Sledge's "Take Time to Know Her"; Aretha Franklin on her rise as Lady Soul ("Since You've Been Gone" was a huge hit), the beginnings of The Sound of Philadelphia in The Delfonics; the first smash from Sly and the Family Stone's rock-and-soul hybrid, two James Brown songs (he had five Top 10 R&B hits that year, and three No. 1s), and one of Dionne Warwick's big crossover hits. Motown was losing some of its grip but still strong in Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' "If You Can Want."

I keep going back to The Impressions' "We're a Winner," the group's last hit before Curtis Mayfield went solo, and a signpost of where he was headed in making socially conscious soul. How did those confident lyrics feel on April 5 or 6? Bitter? A call to the future?

And then there's the deep blues of The Temptations' "I Wish It Would Rain" and Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." I have to believe these songs provided a little comfort, or a way to express mourning. "Dock of the Bay," which was released in January of '68, had been No. 1 throughout March and held on in the Top 20 for another month.

I've listened to "Dock of the Bay" and "I Wish It Would Rain" so many times I've stopped hearing what's great about them. But hearing them in the context of King's assassination opens up new pathways to them, and to the people who loved them before they were "legendary."

Dr. King's death was a part of a heartbreaking continuum. These songs were heard the day before he died, too, when he traveled to Memphis in support of sanitation workers calling out racism and demanding better working conditions. They were heard here in Washington, D.C., in the African-American neighborhoods where riots erupted later on April 4. The contradictions in the juxtaposition of "We're a Winner" and "Dock of the Bay" tell us as much as we're willing to hear about the realities of that terrible day.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Onkey is the Senior Director of NPR Music in Washington, DC. In this role, she leads NPR Music's team of journalists, critics, video, and podcast makers, and works with NPR's newsroom and robust Member station network to expand the impact of NPR Music and continue positioning public radio as an essential force in music.