“Abraham, Martin and John” — Marvin Gaye

Although not a name you hear much any more, without Marvin Gaye we might never have experienced Motown Records as we know it and love it.

Starting out in the early 1960s, Marvin Gaye was one of the key people, along with Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy himself, who made Motown label such a success.

He started out as a session drummer, producer and composer for groups like The Miracles and The Marvelettes, one of whose early releases “Please, Mr Postman” helped put Motown on the map, before being persuaded to perform himself.

And it’s just as well he did, for the world would have been a much poorer place if Marvin Gaye had never stepped to the front of the stage.

When you say “Marvin Gaye” to most people these days, they’re likely to think of his record “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”…unless, that is, you’re speaking with a young person who is more likely to think of the record called “Marvin Gaye”, a tribute to the great man’s style by Charlie Puth and Megan Trainor from a couple of years ago…

Although if you’re going to be remembered for any individual song, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is by no means the worst song to have as your epitaph. It would be much worse if you were Joe Dolce, for example.

With music and lyrics by superstar Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was Motown’s third attempt at making this song a hit. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles tried it first but Berry Gordy stopped their version even reaching the record shops.

Gladys Knight and the Pips then had a go — their version made it to Number Two on the Billboard chart.

A decent enough result you might think…until Marvin Gaye’s version the following year stormed to Number One and stayed there for seven weeks.

Marvin Gaye also had significant success in a series of duets with some great female singers, including “It Takes Two” with Kim Weston and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need To Get By” with Tammi Terrell.

You might have thought by now he had enough success for anyone to be going on with, but after Tammi Terrell’s brain haemorrhage stopped her touring and performing, he moved into what I consider to be the most important part of his career.

Marvin Gaye was one of the first chart-topping artists to write and perform songs with a strong social conscience. But his unique trick was that the songs he wrote and performed were so beautiful, with his sweet, soaring vocals and the wonderful musicians who together comprised the Funk Brothers performing at their very best in the background that, unless you listened very, very carefully you might not realise what the songs were about at all.

The way he delivered social conscience on a hit record almost subliminally has never been bettered.

“What’s Going On” and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” are in themselves beautiful songs. But I talk to plenty of people who are surprised to learn that those lyrics were inspired by the civil rights movement and the inner-city riots in the US during the late 1960s.

But for me, Marvin Gaye’s best song, and in many ways his most sobering commentary of all, was one he didn’t write himself… “Abraham, Martin And John”.

Dick Holler wrote the music and lyrics for “Abraham, Martin And John”, which was his only significant hit as a songwriter.

It was first recorded (in a version with slightly different words) by Dion, who’d achieved success in the early 1960s with hits like “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer”.

The genius of the Marvin Gaye version, though, was making it into a much simpler song and in the process…paradoxically, you might think…making it even more poignant and powerful.

The song was written about four heroes of the struggle for civil rights and emancipation — Abraham Lincoln (who freed the slaves), John F Kennedy and his brother Bobby (who between them did so much to put the civil rights legislation in place in 1960s America) and Martin Luther King.

All those fine people shared one thing in common, apart from their concern for equality between people irrespective of the colour of their skin and the flavour of their beliefs. Tragically, all had their lives cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

It is perhaps a tribute to their work that, in the end, the world became more like their vision for it than the hatred and segregation preached by those who had so cruelly ended their lives. In the end, the good guys won…but at a significant cost…

The lyrics for “Abraham, Martin And John” are so powerful precisely because they are so simple.

All four verses follow exactly the same structure, except for a change to the name in the first line of each verse. It’s an enormous tribute to Marvin Gaye’s vocal prowess that he very subtly changes the delivery for each verse, which keeps the listener’s interest in the vocal right the way through despite singing almost exactly the same words over and over again.

Each verse starts with a poignant question…

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 was gone

There’s also an intriguing mystery to the title of “Abraham, Martin and John”. Based on the verses themselves, it should have perhaps been titled “Abraham, John, Martin and Bobby” as those great men are sung about in a different order to the title and Bobby Kennedy didn’t make the title at all.

I’ve long wondered whether leaving Bobby Kennedy’s name out of the title was deliberate. Whilst most people have heard of his brother John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy is much less well-known today and certainly lacks the iconic status of his brother in popular culture.

Yet it was actually Bobby Kennedy, whilst US Attorney General working for Lyndon Johnson after his brother’s assassination, who got the Civil Rights Act onto the statute books. Bobby Kennedy’s role in the struggle is often forgotten (as, in fairness, was Lyndon Johnson’s who invested a significant amount of his own personal credibility to get the legislation passed…perhaps surprisingly for a former Senator from the South in the early 1960s).

I’ve always liked to think that Bobby Kennedy’s omission from the title of “Abraham, Martin And John” is, in its own way, some sort of commentary on that injustice.

Whether or not I’m right about that, today’s song combines some poignant lyrics, sweet, soaring vocals and some of the best strings ever put onto a record.

Ironically, Marvin Gaye also died too young. And also by a bullet, although in this case one fired by his own father in the context of a family dispute rather than an assassin.

But the tragedy of a life cut short too young is just as poignant in his case as it was for those giants of the civil rights movement Marvin Gaye sings about in “Abraham, Martin And John”.

I’m always humbled by the beauty and mastery of today’s song…I hope you are too.

Here’s Marvin Gaye with “Abraham, Martin And John”…(and let’s not forget Bobby too…)

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3zOwKyf9QND3gMCveQLFHt

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store