It ended, to nobody's surprise, in exuberant tri-city harmony as dozens of America's greatest stars linked hands on stage and sang Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" to Martin Luther King Jr. while thousands of black-tie-clad concert goers at Washington's Kennedy Center, New York's Radio City Music Hall and Atlanta's Civic Center let the spirit move them, waving luminous green light sticks and singing as if their freedom depended on it.

The chorus of the simple, ecstatic anthem was still anchored in its birthday declarations, but the song had been born in a time of neglected honors and so needed new verses. Over the weekend, Wonder, architect of the concerts and catalyst of the holiday, wrote the victory lyrics (and took out a full-page ad in today's Washington Post to share them).

And on his last trip to the stage last night, beaming and incandescent, he sang them surrounded by a chorus of friends and fans, with Quincy Jones trying to reprise his "We Are the World" conductor's role but quickly buried under an avalanche of joyful noise.

Wonder started it off.

We knew it didn't make much sense

for anyone to be against

or try to take offense

at a day in your celebration . . .

Enter Diana Ross.

. . . 'Cause we all knew in our minds

that soon there'll be a time

that we would set aside

to show just how much we love you.

And then these stars, who had first known each other when Wonder was Little Stevie, when Ross was the skinny one in the middle, and when King was still alive and dreaming of better tomorrows, joined their voices.

So together we agreed

what could fit more perfectly

than to have a world party

on the day you came to be . . .

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, sang Bob Dylan and Elizabeth Taylor on stage, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. Robert Dole in the audience.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YA, sang the Pointer Sisters and Rep. Mickey Leland and the Shiloh Baptist Choir.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, sang 2,000 Washingtonians, black and white, rich and poor, old and young, all rocking the Opera House with waves of joyous relief.

And as other stars took up the song simultaneously in New York and Atlanta, Amy Grant and Gregory Hines continued it in Washington.

We just never understood

how a man who died for good . . .

From there, June Pointer and Eddie Murphy led the song:

Could not have a day

that would be set aside for his recognition

because it should never be

just because some cannot see

the dream as clear as we

that they should make it become an illusion

and we all knew everything

that he stood for time will bring

for today our hearts can sing

thanks to Martin Luther King.

Yet with all the talent here and elsewhere, it was still King's voice, with its hypnotic cadence, that resonated through the night, as it has for more than 25 years. A half-dozen times in the program, King's own words, taken from the pulpit and from the marches, from the firing line of freedom, served as a reminder that the hardest step is not the first, but the next.

Despite the exuberance of the event and the sense of justice in there finally being a national holiday in King's honor, Wonder still took time to make the sober observation that King's symphony of social and racial harmony remains unfinished.

"In spite of all the joy and pleasure we had tonight celebrating the birthday of Dr. King, we must always remember in our hearts that congratulating ourselves for past achievements is no guarantee of future rewards," he said, just before launching into the finale. "If Dr. King were alive today, he would be fighting for the malnourished, the unemployed, the disenfranchised that still exist in too great a number in our society. The real way to honor his memory is to personally take up the fight, and keep on pushing forward."

The three concerts are expected to net several hundred thousand dollars for both the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and Malcolm-King College in Harlem.

If pushing forward was the future, echoes of the past resounded in the two-hour program, which was being taped and integrated with the New York and Atlanta concerts for broadcast an hour after its end. That meant some annoying, though thankfully brief, delays. WKYS personality Donnie Simpson had exhorted the Washington audience, which has a reputation for being staid, to be hot and for the most part they tried, though it took Diana Ross to lift them up out of their seats for more than a standing ovation. When she came out and did her signature tune, "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand," 2,000 people followed her instructions perfectly, holding hands and swaying en masse in a lovely moment reminiscent of "We Shall Overcome." From there it was a simple step to "Happy Birthday."

In New York a black-tie crowd that had paid up to $1,000 a ticket filled cavernous Radio City Music Hall. The list of the event's chairpeople read like a Who's Who of political and corporate leadership, including the state's two senators, the governor, the mayor, the City Council president and congressional representatives, each of whom had his moment in the spotlight.

In the evening's pervasive spirit of unity, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) -- who reminded the audience that the Black Congressional Caucus had "succeeded against overwhelming political odds to have this one day set aside" -- was full of praise for David Rockefeller. Rockefeller remarked how pleasant it was to share a podium with "Charlie." Even Mayor Edward Koch, criticized in the past as indifferent to the concerns of his black and Hispanic constituents, was warmly received.

Between stars, other stars from politics and the arts spoke of King and his influence on their lives. In Washington, Mayor Marion Barry recalled the King influence on a young Fisk undergraduate and how his "dream supplied the spirit and substance of the civil rights movement" and "forever changed the character of a nation."

New Yorkers like producer Joseph Papp, Barbara Walters and former lieutenant governor Basil Patterson echoed those sentiments and, choruslike, the testimonials all ended with the speakers' names and the simple declaration "and we're a part of the dream."

In Atlanta, Dick Gregory expressed his delight with the holiday. "I've been like most black folks, fakin' it on George Washington's birthday, sitting around eating cherry pie." The crowd chuckled. "I ate chitlins at some white folks' house the other night. I asked, 'What kind of chitlins are these?' 'Stuffed chitlins,' they said. 'Unstuff it,' I said. She said, 'They come that way.' " The crowd roared.

He then took off after the bad food in a Movement-targeted restaurant in Georgia ("so bad even the roaches ate out," "you needed Blue Cross, not Diners Club"), and FBI men who got so confused infiltrating both sides that "they started calling Martin 'sir' and Hoover 'boy'."

In New York, the three-hour show was cohosted by Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte, who covered the inevitable delays and technical snafus with good-natured clowning. "By 9 o'clock tonight when this goes on television," Belafonte promised, "no one will know what you know."

One running gag concerned Cosby's decision to wear a maroon Morehouse College sweatshirt throughout the proceedings. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and his father were Morehouse graduates.

"Many of us backstage violently complained about the way he dressed," Belafonte confided to the audience. "I mean, he is undoubtedly the richest black man in America."

Cosby responded with gibes about Belafonte's seniority. When Belafonte failed to appear on cue at one point, Cosby announced, "Harry will be down in a minute. A man his age has a lot of things to do to get ready." He subsequently referred to Belfonte, who wore a business suit, as "O Great, Well-Dressed One."

The evening featured Whitney Houston and Al Jarreau joining Ashford and Simpson in "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and a hot set by salsa star Ruben Blades ("Let's share the dream," he urged on the behalf of Latin Americans), and a standing ovation for Dionne Warwick's powerful "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Neil Diamond made his first New York appearance since 1977 ("We've been practicing").

A subdued Bette Midler, wearing something long, black and classy, sang "The Rose." "Solemn occasion," she said, in response to shouts of "Where's Mick?" inspired by her campy video with Mick Jagger.

Ben Vereen, interrupted in midpresentation by a stage manager, quipped, "You mean I didn't get the job?" and broke into a tap routine. "You got it now!" someone shouted.

After the assembled New York cast sang "Happy Birthday," Lionel Richie and Warwick led an impressive version of "We Are the World."

"It was," said Belafonte, "written in the spirit Dr. King would have approved of."

Afterward, the higher-price ticket holders in each city adjourned to supper dances -- at the National Building Museum here, the New York Hilton and the Marriott Marquis Ballroom in Atlanta.

In Atlanta, it was Patti LaBelle who bedazzled 4,600 partyers in the sold-out Civic Center. She brought the black and white audience, dressed in everything from evening gowns to after-work attire, to its feet to boogie in the aisles with her 1985 hit, "New Attitude." Then she evoked her gospel roots -- and the roots of the movement -- with "How Great Thou Art," spinning across the stage like a swirling soul top with "You Are My Friend."

"God bless each and every one of you," said Coretta Scott King, resplendent in a sequined black, gold and green evening gown. She kicked off, with Atlanta's made-for-prime-time Mayor Andrew Young, in red bow tie and cummerbund, picking up as emcee and dancing in the wings. "Let's show the nation, when it comes to enthusiasm, New York and Washington have nothing over Dr. King's home town," he said as the crowd played to the cameras with cheers.

King's widow singled out actress Cicely Tyson, who once played her in a TV documentary about the slain civil rights leader, Bernice Reagon, a black-culture historian with Smithsonian Institution who founded the inspirational singing group "Sweet Honey in the Rock," and singer Joan Baez for "Trumpet of Conscience Awards." The awards are given annually by the Martin Luther King Jr. Center here to artists demonstrating their support to King's goals. Tyson accepted "in the name of God, who created Martin Luther King."

Earlier, Tyson, in a stunning black and gold robe, said, "Martin Luther King was a man who had music in his words and love in his deeds."

"All right!" shouted Shawn Garrison, 27, a black Atlanta psychotherapist, as Kenny Loggins belted out "This Is It," one of his top hits.

"We're having a birthday party tonight," said Loggins, giving the crowd permission to get down. "You might feel like movin' a little bit."

Indeed, as he cut into "Footloose," the finger-popping theme song he wrote for the movie of the same name, Mayor Young got itchy feet in the wings and began dancing backstage, in tune with the crowd. "It's a privilege to be part of this ceremony tonight," said Loggins, dedicating "Forever" to King.

The performers also included Thelma Houston and jazz musician extraordinaire Wynton Marsalis, whose trumpet played "Minor Blues" and "Innocent Blues."

Gospel superstar Andrae Crouch injected such spirit with "Right Now" that one fan began shouting, "YASSUH, YASSUH," clapping and rocking.

The Washington program, for the most part sober and on schedule, actually began with the Pointer Sisters shouting "I'm So Excited," and if the song didn't seem like the most appropriate kickoff, it certainly helped the audience lose some of its control. Still, one would have hoped for "Freedom" over "Dare Me."

In Washington, at least, there were no transcendent musical moments. When Dylan and Wonder joined voices on the latter's "The Bell of Freedom Still Rings," it was melodically ragged but sentimentally right, and oddly, very reminiscent of the Basement Tapes. And when Dylan and Wonder joined Peter, Paul and Mary for "Blowin' in the Wind," the '60s Dylan anthem, it never jelled. Actually, it was fairly awful, and they only did two of the three verses, at that. But the execution was less important than the moment and what people heard was not simply a melody, or a lyrics, or even voices, but Voices.

Wonder did a medley of older favorites and one song from his new album, while Dylan did a raucous revamping of "I Shall Be Released," backed by Wonderlove and a gospel trio. Other musical performers included Christian pop star Amy Grant and Peter, Paul and Mary, whose readings of "This Land Is Your Land" and "If I Had a Hammer" provoked a resonant emotional responce. Eddie Murphy neither sang nor joked, but simply (and hurriedly) narrated one of the half-dozen mini-documentaries on King's life and career.

In fact, the most eloquent moments in the Washington concert came from dancers Judith Jamison and Gregory Hines, Debbie Allen and Michael Peters, and especially from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. The elegant Jamison's swirling, introspective grace and the kinetic Hines' polyrhythmic paean to the rhythm of King's speech were brief and pointed. Peters and Allen played the parts of King and his wife, not as symbols of a movement, but as human beings caught up in the tide of history, trying to sustain themselves while the weight of responsibility to others intruded on their private moments.

The Ailey dancers took more time and created a stunning triptych of black history, from the horrors of slavery and the triumph of heart in "Buked" to the tension and release of "Sinner Man" to the vibrant cotillions of "Rock My Soul."

At the end of the Washington concert, Stevie Wonder joked with the audience as he prepared them for "candle" waving: "Hold it up so I can see it, okay?"

They did and they laughed, and he responded, "You look marvelous."

Soon after, he said something to everyone that came across most personally.

"I thank everybody from my heart. This is the greatest night of my life."