The story of Dion's "Abraham, Martin and John"

The history of the ballad that mourned the casualties of the civil-rights era

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The original Laurie 45 of Dion's "Abraham, Martin and John". ebay.com

"Abraham, Martin and John" by Dion

Written by: Dick Holler

Recorded: August 1968 (Allegro Sound Studios, New York, NY)

Length: 3:15

Takes: 2

Produced by: Phil Gernhard

Arranged by: John Abbott  

Musicians:

Dion DiMucci: lead vocal, lead guitar
Vincent Bell: guitar 
Nick DeCaro: organ
Unknown: bass guitar
David Robinson: drums
Unknown: French horn, oboe, harp, strings

Releases:

Single: Laurie 3464 (October 1968), b-side, "Daddy Rollin' (In Your Arms)"; Highest position charted: #4 (November 1968) 

Album: Dion, Laurie 2047 (November 1968)

History:

Although the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was an apocalyptic event in the history of America -- the first such assassination in the country's postwar era, coming at a time when Americans had succeeded in convincing themselves nothing but superpower prosperity lay ahead. Yet it shocked the nation so badly, arriving in the middle of what might have been its most staid era, that the collective reaction was overwhelmingly quiet and mournful. Radio stations stuck to "beautiful music" instrumentals only after the shock set in, and Phil Spector's just-released A Christmas Gift for You, the greatest holiday album of its era, died an ignominious death on the charts, unfairly ignored for cheerily representing an era which had suddenly died along with the President.

"Abraham, Martin and John" was therefore the first hit song to address the death of JFK, and it did so by creating a context, quietly suggesting that while "it seems the good, they die young," these four men had also died in the service of the same cause.

There was a popular precedent for the Lincoln-JFK comparison, an urban legend, already in full swing by 1968, that suggested the two deaths shared a high degree of similarity. (They don't.)

But while it was a moment waiting to happen, the song itself came from a very unlikely place. Dick Holler was a Louisiana native who'd made some noise during the JFK era as a late period rockabilly and swamp-pop cat, performing with the likes of Jimmy Clanton and Dr. John; later, he formed the first band to record "Double Shot of My Baby's Love," which was to become a frat-rock hit for the Swinging Medallions. As a songwriter, his resume was even stranger: his only hit was a novelty about the Peanuts comic strip called "Snoopy and the Red Baron," which had been a hit for a Florida group called The Royal Guardsmen. (The cartoon dog had been known to sit on his doghouse and pretend he was a World War I "flying ace.")

Moved by the events of the last few years, Holler wrote a churchy ballad called "Abraham, Martin and John," in which he drew comparisons between the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, the black face of the modern civil rights struggle, and the two white brothers who'd first addressed it. Positioning all four as civil rights martyrs -- historically correct or not -- made for a tribute that was startling and mournful at once, placing the deaths in the context of a historic struggle. Yet Holler wasn't sure the Guardsmen, the Laurie label's most recent hitmakers, could do it justice.

Dion DiMucci had already proven himself proficient in several different musical genres, from his early doo-wop days with the Belmonts ("Teenager In Love") to solo hits like "The Wanderer," which he'd had on Laurie. Around the time of JFK's death, however, Dion found himself slipping deeper into a decade-long, all-consuming heroin addiction which eventually derailed his career. Now clean and ready once again for pop stardom, he attempted to re-enter the pop charts with a dark blues rocker about his addiction entitled "Daddy Rollin'." His old label, however, refused to resign Dion unless he covered "Abraham" instead, and though DiMucci never saw or heard anything but the song's sheet music, he detested it.

He eventually caved, however, some say due to pressure from his mother-in-law, who was convinced it was a hit. "Rollin'," often considered the superior song by critics, made the b-side, and "Abraham," which Dion cut grudgingly in one quick take, nevertheless became his ticket back to fame.

Trivia:

  • Amazingly, part of Dion's original reluctance to "Abraham" may have been that he didn't see the historical connection. Depending on who you believe, it was either his mother-in-law or producer Phil Gernhard who first heard Dion realize what the song was truly about. Phil claims the moment of revelation came during the TV broadcast of the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"; a musicians' strike forced the singer to perform the ballad solo on guitar, which may have driven the point home. (Remember that he'd only ever sung the song once before.)
  • The song was not only a hit for Dion, it became an instant standard of its era, selling a million copies, getting four million on-air spins, and inspiring dozens of covers. In fact, "Abraham, Martin, and John" holds the record for most top 40 cover versions of any song: five. The most famous of the covers came courtesy of Detroit DJ Tom Clay, who combined it with a version of Jackie DeShannon's "What The World Needs Now Is Love," mixed in speeches from the Kennedys and King and added a series of interview snippets with children who professed ignorance of terms like "bigotry" and "prejudice." It was a Top 10 hit in 1971. A straight and serious version by 75-year-old comedienne Moms Mabley made her the oldest person ever to have a Top 40 hit, a record which also still stands. 
  • Although "Abraham, Martin. and John" was very good for Holler and DiMucci -- Dion claimed to have received over 4,000 letters thanking him for recording it -- its success was short-lived for both men, neither of whom ever had another pop hit. (Holler would, however, write several songs for Cher, James and Bobby Purify, Petula Clark, and the Bellamy Brothers.)  
  • Dion has since come to terms with the song and its legacy, telling one interviewer, "I realized that what these four guys had in common was a dream... It was like they had the courage to believe that a state of love really can exist." 

Covered by: Ray Charles, Tom Clay, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, Bon Jovi, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Vale, Kenny Rogers, Cliff Richard, Tori Amos, Whitney Houston, Paul Mauriat, Moms Mabley, The Brothers Four, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Marillion, Andy Williams, Paul Weller, Leonard Nimoy