Behind the Song: ‘Abraham, Martin and John’
“Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby/ Can you tell me where he’s gone/ I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill/ With Abraham, Martin and John.”
On June 5, 1968, songwriter Dick Holler was in New York City working on a new album with the Royal Guardsmen when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It had been just two months since the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Holler headed home to Florida, where in just 10 minutes, he wrote a poignant song, connecting the murders to those of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. Holler told the Story Behind the Song to Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Bart Herbison: (This is) one of the most iconic songs we’ve done in the history of Story Behind the Song: “Abraham, Martin and John.” The songwriter is Dick Holler. He was working with the Royal Guardsmen on another famous song he wrote, which was “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron.” They’re up in a studio in New York and they’re having fun when Bobby Kennedy gets assassinated.
Dick Holler: I was with my partner, Phil Gernhard. I was his chief writer and associate producer, and we were in NYC actually doing an album with the Royal Guardsmen, their third album. I was in the hotel room sleeping. Gernhard was out partying, as he usually did late at night, and he came in at 2 or 3 in the morning and said, “Wake up! Wake up! They just shot Bobby Kennedy!” We got up and watched TV all night. We canceled the sessions we had coming up because we just didn’t feel like working. We went home to St. Petersburg, Florida. Phil said, “What shall we do?” I said, “Well, we should probably go into the office. There will be a lot of phone calls and stuff.” I went in there and our music group was in the back, and I went back there and wrote “Abraham, Martin and John.” I played him the song. We thought about changing it around, retitling it, but it pretty much stayed the way I wrote it.
BH: Did it happen quickly?
DH: Yeah, about 10 minutes. I wasn’t thinking much. I just turned on the tape recorder, which was always right there by the piano, and started the song.
BH: Did any of the families ever talk to you about it? Any of the Kennedys, Coretta Scott King? You had to have heard from some of them, I’m guessing?
DH: No, I heard from the press. I heard from the writers and the TV people. Direct contact with any of the members of the Kennedy family, I don’t think so.
BH: There were a lot of versions of that song. ... Moms Mabley had done a version of this. That was really a good version. Dion had the version I recognized coming up. I think people have stolen your song because there are versions out there on the internet that have other political leaders in it. What is the most moving thing someone has said to you about that song? We all cried (when we heard it). I still get emotional when I hear that song, Dick.
DH: I’ve had several people write some nice things about it. I appreciate that very much. I’m fortunate to have written that song, but I am sorry that the circumstances arose to let me write it.
BH: Did it get out pretty quickly? From the writing to the record?
DH: No. I wrote the song with the Kingston Trio in mind, or Peter, Paul and Mary in mind. In the background, I wasn’t really thinking about who could record this the best. So, we tried a lot of people. I’m not a great singer. I’m average. We tried a lot of singers and it wasn’t working out, so we went to Hialeah, Florida, where I met Dion for the first time. He was just coming off of his drug problems. Actually, we were looking at him to see if he would be suitable. You never know.
BH: Having said that, you can’t have someone record this that has so many distractions going on that would overshadow the theme of this song. You can’t do that.
DH: Sure, and we wanted to make sure that whoever did it, did it properly and respectfully. We turned down a few parodies because of that. Dion was fine. He cut it in New York. It took off kind of slowly and then the Smothers Brothers put it on their TV show. It was the show where the musicians were on strike.
BH: I remember that.
DH: They did a very nice acoustic version of it. A lot of people were affected by the song because Dion wasn’t singing with that orchestra behind him.
BH: Did it surprise you? This is a weird question and I’ve never asked it in all these episodes, but did it surprise you how good it was when you heard somebody else sing this thing?
DH: I was very flattered and pleased that so many different artists interpreted it differently. Andy Williams did it with one guitar. A very meaningful version. Kenny Rogers did it somewhat like that. Smokey Robinson did it as a gospel song. That was a great record. He premiered it on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” They got so many letters on it that they released it as a single. It wasn’t going to be a single, but he released it as a tribute. Then Tom Clay did it in a medley with “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love.” Emmylou Harris did it in a medley with “It’s a Hard Life.” She sang it in a medley with that. It’s been performed in many different ways.
BH: Your son David has joined us. David, anything you would like to add to the importance of the song?
David Holler: I’ve always asked the same question: Which versions are you most impressed with? One that he mentioned was Bob Dylan, just in the fact that Bob Dylan doesn’t do many cover songs. There was a release a couple years ago on a compilation, and on the back of the box, I was sharing this with Dad, it said, “All songs written by Bob Dylan except ‘Abraham, Martin and John,’ written by Dick Holler.” For a songwriter, it doesn’t get better than that.
DH: Yeah, that was quite a kick! It was the last song on the album.
BH: This message is to both sides of the political spectrum: It might do the world good to take a five-minute break and have the whole planet listen to that song right now because we are richer for it.