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Marvin Gaye: Abraham, Martin and John. Not forgetting Bobby

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Ian Malin

If the last few gruesome weeks in Britain and America have taught us anything it is that both countries are governed by small men, men who will not be celebrated in song by future generations. And, if statues are erected to them, they will be torn down and thrown into the nearest drink before the concrete has set.

The American songwriter Dick Holler penned his most famous song, Abraham, Martin and John, in 1968, a year when fighting against social injustice mirrors our current desperate times. Holler’s classic is a tribute of course to Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The latter two had been assassinated earlier in the year. All were social reformers and political giants whose stature is a contrast to the leaders of today.

The song was first recorded by Dion and immediately struck a chord in the States where it reached No2 in the Cashbox Top 100. Dion Francis DiMucci, to give him his full name, was the Bronx-born lead singer of Dion & The Belmonts, who had a string of hits in the Fifties and in the Sixties as a solo singer. Runaround Sue and The Wanderer were also big sellers in Britain but by the mid-Sixties his popularity had waned.

Dion was, though, still famous enough to be one of only two current rock singers on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. Bob Dylan was the other. Holler’s song then revived his career and helped his recovery from heroin addiction. He had approached his record company to negotiate a new contract and they agreed on condition that he record the song. It sold over a million copies, the gold standard at that time.

Dion later became a born-again Christian and a serious, if only moderately successful, singer-songwriter. His version of Abraham, Martin and John was unlike anything his fans had heard. The sadness of the lyric has a counterpoint in a quite jaunty, folk-rock production that has an easy-listening vibe that its composer probably didn’t intend. It begins with an oboe that helps create a wistful air and Dion’s voice gives it real emotional heft.

The song has been recorded by a host of artists over the years. Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles, Andy Williams and Whitney Houston have all interpreted it. Dylan himself recorded a version as part of the Shot Of Love sessions though it has never been released. The best known version, though, was in the British charts exactly half a century ago and gave a shot in the arm to another career, that of Marvin Gaye.

In his book The People’s Music the late rock writer Ian MacDonald is scathing about Gaye whom he accuses of sentimental dishonesty and laziness. Behind his mask was a charming muddle who longed to be a messenger but hadn’t much to say, who sought sanctified love yet beat and humiliated his women and who wasted his last years on tacky synth backing tracks for erotic clichés murmured from a sofa like a voice-over actor in a sex movie dub studio.

Gaye, though, does have an undisputed legacy of two classic singles, Abraham, Martin And John and, notably, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, a No1 on both sides of the Atlantic and which rescued his career after the death of his singing partner Tammi Terrell. Abraham, Martin and John was a huge hit in Britain in 1970 but, oddly, not released as a single in the States. Whatever your thoughts on whether Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On was one of the greatest or one of the most overrated records of all time, his version of Abraham, Martin and John is heartfelt and sublime.

It is a simple song whose first three verses name each of the men in turn:

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, they die young

I just looked around and he’s gone

There is a long instrumental before a fourth verse that picks up the story of Bobby Kennedy and, in the Dion rendition of the song, an extra stanza about freedom (Didnt you love the things they stood for? /Didnt they try to find some good for you and me?) and a particularly poignant and effective line about Bobby walkin up over a hill with Abraham, Martin and John. This is missing from the Gaye version which fades away with more lush strings.

Dion is alive and thriving at 80, having recently released an album of collaborations, Blues With Friends. Marvin Gaye, in a horribly ironic death, was fatally shot by his father in Los Angeles in 1984, his ashes spread over the Pacific Ocean. Two years ago Marvin Gaye Jr featured on a first-class postage stamp in the States. Just like another singer gunned down before he had reached middle age, John Lennon. And just like Abraham, Martin, John and Bobby.


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