Monday, January 20, 2014

Examining 10 covers of "Abraham, Martin and John"

1968's "Abraham, Martin and John" was a departure for Dion DiMucci. The faded doo-wop superstar was the king of a passé genre and in need of a career shakeup. The unlikely solution came in the form of a mournful look at America's assassination culture penned by Dick Holler, the guy who wrote "Snoopy vs. The Red Baron" for the Royal Guardsmen. The song's weary simplicity paired well with Dion's earnest, emotional delivery and made it a major hit. Today the whole thing sounds a bit sentimental and maybe even a little goulish, but according to my mom it was pretty striking to an audience still shaken by the Kennedy and King shootings. (At the very least, it's aged better than Tommy Cash's similarly themed country hit "Six White Horses.")

"Abraham, Martin and John" also spawned a multitude of covers. In an era of loose copyrights where pop songs were routinely cannibalized as soon as they hit the AM waves, zeitgeist-bait like Dion's track was guaranteed to make the rounds. I've spent a fair bit of time digging through as many covers as the internet has to offer. Many are bad, most are bland and a few are kind of nuts. I've picked out a few of the more notable renditions for an exercise in contrasts.

Moms Mabley
I have no idea how a conventionally arranged rendition of "Abraham, Martin and John" sung by a gravel-voiced, 75-year-old comedienne cracked the U.S. Top 40 in 1969, but it's pretty neat that it did. As a black, openly gay, defiantly vulgar woman born in 1895, Moms Mabley had borne witness to just about every form of prejudice the Civil Rights movement sought to combat. Hearing Moms croak out Holler's ode to some of the movement's lost leaders is simply a more poignant experience than hearing the same words crooned by a good-looking Italian guy from the Bronx - no disrespect to Dion. (For added coolness, Moms is still the oldest Top 40 artist ever.)

Kenny Rogers
Sincerity is key to pulling off a song like "Abraham, Martin and John." Kenny Rogers is well known as one of the ten least sincere humans ever to set foot in a recording studio. You don't need to listen to this cover to know that it's a heaping mound of Nutri-Sweet brimming with oversung verses, tinkling chimes and forced sentiment. Kenny even wraps up the track with a sing-along refrain of "Precious Memories," which isn't a descriptor most sane folks would apply to a string of political assassinations.

Andy Williams
It's a bit ironic that Andy Williams, a man nearly synonymous with schmaltz, delivered one of the most genuinely affecting renditions of "Abraham, Martin and John." Williams was apparently a close friend of Robert Kennedy's, which adds another layer of sadness to what's obviously a sad song no matter how you look at it. The arrangement is appropriately sparse, just Williams' voice accompanied by quiet acoustic strumming. When he hits the bridge, though, the guitar breaks into a nervous skitttering that captures the aching uncertainty of Holler's lyrics and invests Williams' haunted vocal with a visceral sense of loss. The guitar drops out entirely just as Williams sings the word "Bobby" with heartbreaking clarity. It's a performance as personal as it is universal, and it might just be the best treatment the song ever received.

Marvin Gaye
If Marvin Gaye had recorded this cover even a year later, I suspect it would have been a masterpiece. As it is, this track catches him in his transition between the swinging party-soul of his early work and the darker reflection of his post What's Going On career. It's a cool tune, smooth and string-filled, sad but hopeful, tied together by Marvin's inimitable voice, but it's a little too in line with the Motown house sound for it to stand with his classics. That may also have something to do with Holler's lyrics, which just don't pack the ragged emotion of Marvin's best social commentary.

Tom Clay
This is just weird. Tom Clay, a journeyman radio DJ and scandal magnet (he lost jobs for accepting payola and bilking kids with a fraudulent Beatles fan club, among other things) mashed up "Abraham, Martin and John" and Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now" as sung by The Blackberries with audio samples of speeches by Martin Luther King and the Kennedys and news broadcasts of their assassinations. If that wasn't pandering enough, the track is bookended by obviously scripted clips of an interviewer asking children questions about prejudice and hatred and receiving blissfully oblivious responses complete with adorable mispronunciations. While the sampled content itself is undeniably compelling – I can't hear Andrew West exhorting Bobby Kennedy's entourage to "take a hold of [Sirhan Sirhan's] thumb and break it if you have to" without getting chills – presented like this it's more than a little gross, especially in the context of Clay's career of cynical cash-ins. Still, this was somehow a major hit that sold more than a million records. So it goes.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
This is easily the most fun version of "Abraham, Martin and John" that I've heard. I'm not sure if that's a good thing. On the one hand, investing the song with some actual rhythm and energy is far preferable to putting it through the paces of over-earnest pathos yet again. On the other hand, it's sort of odd to hear a dirge for the Civil Rights era transformed into a dance track. Either way, Smokey's in fine vocal form and it's a pretty happening tune.

The Denison Hilltoppers
Here's a college acapella group that mashes up "Abraham, Martin and John" with snippets of military-themed fight songs like "Anchors Aweigh" and "The Halls of Montezuma." I'm not sure what to make of that.

Leonard Nimoy
I came into this cover expecting it to be a standout of bad taste, but I'm guilty of painting my Star Trekkers with too broad a brush. Although he tends to get bundled in with William Shatner's famously flamboyant crimes against music, '70s Nimoy actually had a pleasant singing voice and solid production. This rendition is just fine, which is weirdly disappointing.

Wilson Pickett
Pickett opens his semi-cover of "Abraham, Martin and John" with a tribute to Moms Mabley's rendition. It's noteworthy that he doesn't extend the same recognition to Dick Holler, as Pickett jettisons Holler's lyrics all together and turns the song into a tribute to "Cole, Cooke and Redding." (That'd be Nat King, Sam and Otis, if you somehow couldn't figure that out.) In this incarnation, it's a moving, deeply personal song about departed friends. Pickett even includes a verse looking ahead to the day when he'll join his comrades in the beyond. Still, something feels off about substituting singers, no matter how legendary, for some of the most towering figures in the country's struggle for equal rights. Factor in that the original honorees were all felled by assassin's bullets while Pickett's buddies were lost to lung cancer, a plane crash and a sketchy flophouse homicide, and this take seems perilously close to trivialization.

Bon Jovi
Exactly as inventive, entertaining and necessary as you'd expect.


  1. I've asked my father what were his favourite covers of the song, and you pretty much nailed it from top to bottom. Note: I've also heard that Tom Clay's version (arrangement) was also lifted from someone who brought the idea to him. Since you can't copyright an arrangement, Tom allegedly copied the idea of doing a version with taped speeches and news broadcasts. Still, well done.

    1. Thanks, I've always been fond of this piece even though I know it's kind of a niche topic.

  2. There's nothing "ghoulish" about this song, and it isn't a "mournful look at assassination culture." It's a song of mourning, if you'd been through 1963 and 1968 you'd understand why it was played so much and sung by so many. If you'd been through 1969 and 1970, you'd understand why people brush away tears when they hear it, even today.

    Mourning isn't ghoulish, and recounting those who were killed trying to make the world a better place isn't a "look at assassination culture."

    1. I agree that it isn't a ghoulish song if you're aware of the context and the sincerity behind it. My point was that a modern observer looking at it without that knowledge could easily misconstrue it as someone cashing in on a series of tragic events (and I'd say the Tom Clay rendition arguably does fit that bill).

      As for "assassination culture," I think the "Didn't you love the things they stood for?" and "It seems the good they die young" lines are the singer's attempt to understand why these terrible things kept happening. Even the linking of the Lincoln assassination to the more contemporary killings can be read as an attempt to understand the patterns of violence that robbed us of so many forward-thinkers and peacemakers. I'll stand by that as an exploration of America's cultural history of political assassinations.

      Even if you disagree on those points, I think we're on the same page as far as the song itself goes. I'm a great fan of it, and I'm fascinated by the changes it's gone through in the hands of so many different artists, which is why I wrote this piece. If you're choosing to focus on two turns of phrase that could possibly be interpreted as put-downs, I feel like you're looking for negativity that isn't there, at least not intentionally.

    2. I do stand by my dig at Bon Jovi, though. That one's definitely intended as a put-down.