How Martin Luther King's Assassination Led Elvis To Record This Song

For many, the idea of rock n' roll, especially pertaining to rock legend Elvis Presley, brings thoughts of drugs, partying, and chaos partnered with the glitz and glam of fame. While there's certainly a bit of truth to some of this, there's far more behind the scenes than meets the eye. For the King of Rock n' Roll, inspiration came from all around him — sometimes from the most unexpected places, to those who didn't know him personally. The power and emotion behind his performance of one song especially were brought on by an unlikely source.

In 1968, during a time when tensions in the United States were at a high, Elvis released the song "If I Can Dream." His vocals on the track are gritty and powerful in a way that only Elvis could achieve, and the emotion backing up each note came from a place of real feeling. Of course, any musician who's passionate about what they do will no doubt have intense feeling driving their work, but this song gave something more. That's because the inspiration for it came from something Elvis, and most of the United States, for that matter, had been bothered by for some time: the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy deeply affected Elvis

During the Civil Rights Movement, the United States was already experiencing a major shift, but things changed drastically on April 4, 1968. Activist and famed speaker credited as a leader among the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, while staying at the Lorraine Motel, according to the King Institute. His death shook the United States to the core and set Elvis himself down a path of deep thought regarding the state of the country.

The events following King's assassination weighed even heavier on the rock star when U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy was killed two months later, on June 6, 1968, in Los Angeles, California. According to Graceland, Elvis was busy working on his latest special, "Elvis," when he heard the news of Kennedy's death, and it resulted in a long night of deep conversation with the show's director, Steve Binder, and several others. The conversation between them was heartfelt, and Elvis let his feelings out during the discussion, describing the world as he hoped it could be. The lengthy close-knit chat led Binder to change direction regarding the ending of the special. The program was scheduled to air in December. A finishing number that was initially meant to be a Christmas song began to take a completely different route.

Elvis changed his comeback special to add a powerful ending

The conversation with Elvis regarding the hardships facing the country inspired Binder. He wanted the "Elvis" special to be truly special. Eventually, according to Graceland, songwriter Walter Brown wrote the song "If I Can Dream" for Elvis at the request of Binder. When Elvis listened to the song, he agreed to record it. His passionate performance wowed not only the band recording with him, but Elvis himself could even sense that something was different about this track, telling Binder, "I'll never sing another song I don't believe in."

According to Country Thang Daily, there were tears rolling down the cheeks of the backup singers during the recording session, and one recalled, "Elvis has never sung with so much emotion before. He means every word." The song is notable not only for the inspiration and Presley's vocals, but also for its direct quotations of Martin Luther King Jr., who had been killed in Elvis' own hometown. It's a sad thought, however, that such a beautiful and powerful track was born out of the sorrows of tragedy. Listen to the full song, "If I Can Dream," on YouTube.