The original version, recorded by
Dion, featured a gentle
folk rock production from
Phil Gernhard and arrangement from John Abbott. The song features a
flugelhorn, an electric organ, bass, and drums.
Although it was quite unlike the rock sound that Dion had become famous for in the early 1960s, and even more unlike Holler and Gernhard's previous collaboration in the 1966 novelty smash "
Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron", "Abraham, Martin and John" nonetheless was a major American hit single in late 1968. It reached number 4 on the
Hot 100 and number 1 on Chicago station
WLS and was awarded an
RIAAgold record for selling a million copies. In
Canada, it topped the charts, reaching number 1 in the RPM 100 on November 25, 1968. In 2001, this recording would be ranked number 248 on the
Songs of the Century list. The record was also popular with adult listeners, reaching number 8 on the Billboard Easy Listening survey. The personnel on the original recording included
Vinnie Bell and Ralph Casale on guitar, Nick DeCaro on organ, David Robinson on drums, Gloria Agostini on harp, and George Marge on
Marvin Gaye, with an orchestral arrangement by
Norman Whitfield, also recorded a version in 1969 that became a top-ten hit (reaching number 9) in the United Kingdom in 1970 (Gaye's version was never released in the U.S. as a single but was featured on his 1970 album, That's the Way Love Is, and was one of his first experiments with social messages in his music which would culminate in his 1971 album, What's Going On.)
Moms Mabley, best known as a comedian, performed a completely serious version that hit the U.S. Top 40. It reached number 35 in July 1969 and number 18 on the R&B charts, making Mabley (at 75) the oldest living person to have a U.S. Top 40 hit.
Rosey Grier, who had been one of
Robert F. Kennedy's bodyguards and helped subdue
Sirhan Sirhan after the shots that killed Senator Kennedy following his victory in the 1968 California Democratic primary were fired, recorded a version for his 1986
gospel album Committed.
As part of medleys
The song is also featured on
Tom Clay's 1971 "What the World Needs Now Is Love/Abraham, Martin, and John", a medley combining Dion's recording with
Jackie DeShannon's recording of
Burt Bacharach's "
What the World Needs Now Is Love", along with vocals by The Blackberries. Clay's recording features narration (an adult asking a child to define several words associated with social unrest), sound bites from speeches given by President
John F. Kennedy,
Robert F. Kennedy, and
Martin Luther King Jr., along with sound bites from the live press coverage of Robert Kennedy's assassination, and his eulogy by his brother
Edward M. Kennedy. It reached number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on August 14, 1971 and number 32 on the R&B charts. It reached number 3 in Australia.
Emmylou Harris performed it as the second part of a medley with
Nanci Griffith's song "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go" with her acoustic band, the Nash Ramblers, in the early 1990s. The medley was released on their 1992 live album
At the Ryman.