The City of Boston presented its Martin Luther King Music Achievement Awards to notable African-American artists with strong Boston ties three times, in 1988, 1990, and 1991. It coupled the awards ceremony with a concert, and the funds it raised supported citywide activities marking Rev. King’s January 15 birthday. Symphony Hall hosted the 1990 awards ceremony.
The Class of 1990 included drummer Alan Dawson, singer and educator Semenya McCord, and choir director and educator John Andrew Ross. It also included two pop singers, Jan Strickland from the 1950s and Bobby Brown from the 1980s. (The inaugural Class of 1988 included Mae Arnette, Jaki Byard, Roy Haynes, Sabby Lewis, and Donna Summer).
The 1990 concert featured the Count Basie Orchestra led by Frank Foster, and Tony Bennett with his trio. ”It was clear from the outset that the ensemble has lost little of its power since Basie’s death and the subsequent losses of such longtime sidemen as guitarist Freddie Green,” wrote Bob Blumenthal in the Globe the next day. The band played its set in “the comfortable modern mainstream territory that Basie’s band of the 1950s did so much to define.” That, however, made the show a bit too predictable. “Sustaining the Basie legend appears to have become something of a rote exercise.”
Tony Bennett and Ralph Sharon’s trio followed with four numbers before joining with the Basie Band. Again there were more hits, but, wrote Blumenthal, “Bennett’s intensity and obvious respect for his material kept the audience rapt.”
Emcee Tanya Hart, then with WBZ-TV, then presented the awards. Dawson, McCord, Ross, and Strickland received their awards in person. Brown did not attend. The evening ended with the audience joining in to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
This wasn’t the only musical tribute to Dr. King coinciding with his birthday in 1990. On January 14, the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center presented “A Joyful Noise,” with the Bullock Brothers gospel singers, the Filipino Chorus of Tremont Temple Baptist Church, and the Shiloh Baptist Hymn Singers of the Medford Baptist Church. And on King’s birthday, Semenya McCord presented her eighth annual tribute, “Journey Into a Dream,” with a variety of musicians, including vocalists Mili Bermejo and Lisa Thorson, and drummer Herbie King’s band.
King, who lived in Boston on Mass Ave just a few blocks from Symphony Hall in the early 1950s, doubtless would have enjoyed the music and the people it brought together.
Tony Bennett was a fitting choice to sing at Boston’s tribute concert. He marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965, and here he and Harry Belafonte remember that time.