Making Of: How John Legend’s Version of a U2 Classic Came to Life for MLK Tribute

It’s never felt like a more important time to remind the world of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s leadership of and contribution to the civil rights movement. Black people are still fighting for equity and social justice, which simply should not be. Made Music Studio stands firm in its commitment to making the music industry and the world around us a more equitable and just place.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, Made Music Studio founder and composer, Joel Beckerman gives us a behind-the-scenes look into the making and production of John Legend‘s rendition of “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, a U2 megahit. This project was imagined and brought to life for The History Channel’s documentary special about Dr. King’s life, death, and legacy.

Watch Legend’s recording of the piece, and read all about the making of the magic below.

How did this project come to life?

Our friends at The History Channel and Peacock Productions came to us with an incredibly exciting, yet daunting, assignment: to consider what the soundtrack would be for a documentary special marking the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Producer David McKillop said, “there’s no new Martin Luther King footage. You’ve seen it all.” His vision was how that footage was to be woven together to support a contemporary narrative; a piece of living history that resonates today. The story he wanted to tell is not only the history of Dr. King’s life and death, but the lasting legacy, its current day relevance, and a focus on the work yet to be done.

Some of the ‘scoring’ I created came from gospel choir sounds with modern arrangements of familiar church melodies, simple piano touches, and subtle string ‘colors’. There are also larger-than-usual stretches of silence to bring forward the poignant moments of the story, as well as some touches of historical music of the time.

Not long into the process, we were introduced to The History Channel’s Saevar Halldorsson, who initially joined to support the documentary’s promotion, but it became clear from the beginning that he was also had thoughts about the score of the overall special. It was a great collaboration!

Why did the program need a song?

We all agreed it was important to start off the special with a surprising and powerful moment that helped audiences instantly know that this wasn’t just another historical documentary; that this was different and rich with a deep level of emotion and modernity. Immediately what came to mind was the U2 song “Pride (In The Name of Love)”. Instantly familiar to many, it’s a truly great song with a powerful lyric that captures and expresses the spirit of the man — the leader — in celebration of his courage, dignity, and sacrifice.

But who could we ask to sing and reinterpret this in a way that was fresh, yet reverent?  The initial thought we had was to work with John Legend, but we knew it would be a reach to get him for a project with a relatively modest budget. Fortunately, he loved the song and, of course, the subject matter. I envisioned his interpretation as being more like a prayer.

We originally created some tracks for John to sing to, but they all ended up feeling a little forced and rigid. The idea arose to put him in the studio with just a piano — a simple, expressive solution that allowed him to be moved as he saw fit, to swell the tempo, and to truly celebrate Dr. King in a more spiritual, musical way. This approach clicked with him immediately. He and I co-produced  on only a handful of takes with several interpretations and with only a tiny bit of finessing before the final version was born. It couldn’t have taken more than 90 minutes, as happens with so many great music endeavors.

The History Channel team loved the song interpretation so much that they decided to not only use it for the opening of the doc, but also for the on-air promotion.

There was one hitch, and it was a significant one. We were days from the premiere and had not yet heard back from U2’s Bono with any indication that he would approve the request. U2 is notoriously extremely cautious and discerning about licensing their music for TV, but in the final moment, Bono loved the idea and granted us a license. John subsequently told me that Bono had called him and congratulated him on the interpretation.

Who chose the U2 hit?

There were certainly a number of discussions, but “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was an immediate favorite, which I brought to John, and he loved the idea. In fact, to this day, he’ll often play this arrangement of the song live in front of large and small audiences alike.

Why was this production meaningful to you? Why does it matter now?

This arrangement lives on, just as the work for equality, dignity, opportunity, and justice under the law continues. It’s been so prevalent in my mind that this song and this version is so relevant and speaks to this moment, not only for its resonance with the Black Lives Matter movement, but as a signal of the times — where we witness everyday a gross lack of equal justice under the law and equitable healthcare for Black and Brown people in the age of COVID. These unfortunate truths are taking such a toll on families, livelihoods, and the dignity of these communities.

We all have a reasonability to uphold what is right and just for all of humanity. Dr. King and the courageous people who both preceded and followed him have done so much heavy lifting and we have come a long way, but there is still so much work left to be done. It is beyond time for privileged white Americans to put in the work to unlearn centuries of white supremacist behavior and thought patterns. It is beyond time for us to show up for and elevate Black and Brown voices.

This song and John’s interpretation speaks to the deep yearning, despair, and fatigue of the Black community at this moment in history. But it also speaks to the celebration of the power of peaceful protesting in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Any fun facts about this piece?

This interpretation is actually used by the National African American Museum of History and Culture as a part of the permanent collection.

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