Fifty years ago, all Americans were gripped by shock and sadness by the back-to-back assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
King, the leading figure in the country’s civil rights movement, was gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968 – and when liberal candidate Kennedy was shot to death just two months later, on June 5 in Los Angeles, it seemed that our country might very well be spinning out of control.
The assassinations set in motion social and political upheavals which continue to this day.
Songwriter Dick Holler, sitting alone at a piano in a tiny St. Petersburg office, was able to encapsulate what many of us were feeling – a particularly personal degree of loss – in a three-minute ballad.
He called it “Abraham, Martin and John,” and it took him 15 minutes to write, start to finish. The experience, he said, was cathartic.
Holler recalled that he was in New York City with his business partner, record producer Phil Gernhard, on June 5, 1968. They were putting the finishing touches on an album called Snoopy For President, by a Florida group called the Royal Guardsmen.
Holler and Gernhard co-wrote the band’s multi-million selling 1966 hit “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
In New York, “It’s a three or four-day project, so we’re at a hotel,” Holler recalled. “I’m asleep, and Phil comes in. He says wake up, they just shot Bobby.”
Kennedy – barely two months into his candidacy – was dead.
“We turn on the television and we stay up for a pretty long time. Then we decide to cancel the session and go back home to St. Petersburg.”
The King assassination, of course, was still on everyone’s mind.
Back in Florida, “We didn’t really feel like working, but Phil said ‘Let’s go in and check our calls,’” said Holler. “The first day, I went into the back room and I wrote ‘Abraham, Martin and John.’ I did a treatment like the Kingston Trio might do it.”
Holler composed a lilting, melancholy folk song, uptempo at first and gradually slower and more stately each time he played through it. In the lyrics, he tied together the assassinations of American leaders Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and JFK’s younger brother, Bobby:
Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young
I just looked around, and he’s gone.
At song’s end, all four martyred ghosts walked off into the distance together.
Gernhard, who had produced dozens of local and regional records (including the doo-wop classic “Stay,” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs) knew that “Abraham, Martin and John” was a hit waiting to happen.
Together, he and Holler auditioned dozens of singers and pop bands.
“We thought about getting the proper representation for the song, and making sure it was reverent enough,” Holler said. “We didn’t want to just throw it to anybody.”
Gene Schwartz, the president of New York-based Laurie Records (the Royal Guardsmen’s label) convinced the producer and the songwriter who should record “Abraham, Martin and John.”
Dion DiMucci had been the label’s star act in the early 1960s; lately he’d fallen on hard times. A recovering heroin addict, Dion (as he was known) was living in South Florida, and attempting to re-invent himself as an acoustic guitar-strumming folk act.
At Schwartz’s insistence, they brought “Abraham” to the fallen star.
“He was doing all these folk songs for me,” Gernhard recalled. “Some he wrote, some were by Nilsson, Leonard Cohen … he had a very mumbly kind of style. I thought, oh my God, this guy’s voice is perfect for that song, because he won’t telegraph it.
“I said ‘I’m going to send you song, and I want you to work it up in this same style. The writer’s version is bouncy.”
At first, said Gernhard, Dion was reluctant to cut the song. He called it “opportunistic.” It took some convincing, but Gernhard got to him Allegro, Laurie’s New York City studio, where he recorded “Abraham, Martin and John” in a single take. Arranger John Abbott orchestrated the oboe and heavenly harp.
“I wanted a very subliminal record, that wouldn’t make any entreaty to cry,” Gernhard explained. “It was the record I wanted. I didn’t want them to understand it until the fourth or fifth listening.”
Released in October, Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” sold a million copies in less than a month. The record reached No. 2 in Cash Box, and No. 4 in Billboard.
To date it’s been recorded by Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Harry Belafonte and more than a dozen others.
There were even cover versions by Leonard Nimoy and comedian Moms Mabley.
The Royal Guardsmen themselves very nearly had the first recording. Eager to break free of their reputation as nothing more than “Snoopy” novelty boys, the Ocala-based band thought Holler’s historically significant tune could be the one to break the mold.
According to lead singer Barry Winslow, Gernhard promised the song to them … then reneged.
“I walk in the hall and there’s Dion DiMucci,” Winslow said. “He was real clammy and looked horrible when I met him; he was braced up against a wall, sitting on a stool. And Gernhard’s just drooling all over him, you know?
“I walked into the kitchenette and I heard him: ‘Anybody here ….’ And I’m thinking oh my God, he’s done it. He’s gonna give this to Dion. We are screwed.”
**Quotes are taken from Phil Gernhard, Record Man by Bill DeYoung (University Press of Florida, 2018).