Remembering our leaders: Tom Clay, “What the World Needs Now/Abraham, Martin, and John” (1970)

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(Above: CKLW’s Tom Clay, in younger days.)

Federal holidays to honor great Americans are celebrated in strange ways.  Just a few minutes ago I saw a Tweet from a sandwich shop urging me to “dream big,” since it is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the way to dream big is to think about dessert.  Other stores will try and sell mattresses in honor of past presidents.  Generally, we celebrate these events in the US by giving people the day off to sit home and not for a minute consider why they aren’t working that day.

Back in my radio programming days we’d use the day to make an excuse to play a song that should probably be in the rotation in the first place.  I am sure if you tune around the radio today, you’ll find Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, and John” on one of the two or three days a year it gets dusted off. (The powerful performance from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is worth watching.) AM&J made #4 on the charts, which ordinarily would earn it a spot in the rotation somewhere.

Your various retro alternative stations are far more likely to include U2’s “Pride (In the Name Of Love),” which was issued in 1985 in a picture sleeve with Dr. King on it. (Wait – that means my copy is now 32 years old?) I’ve always liked the song but disliked the historical inaccuracy.  “Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky” starts the final verse, telling the tale of King’s assassination.  Dr. King was actually shot closer to dinnertime and pronounced dead after 7pm that evening.

The most powerful selection that you likely won’t hear today comes from a disk jockey named Tom Clay.  Clay was one of early rock and roll radio’s colorful figures. Clay rose to prominence in Detroit at WJBK radio in the 1950s.  He got caught up in the payola scandals of the early 1960s and lost his job there, only to hop around the dial (and the country). He was well-known at KRLA in Los Angeles, but returned to Detroit at the end of the 60s to work at The Big 8, CKLW.  It was there that Clay put together this piece, which mixes two well-known songs – “What the World Needs Now” and “Abraham, Martin, and John.” The record went on to sell a million copies and made #8 on the Billboard chart – and never receives much airplay anymore.

It’s a powerful record on both sides.  The flip side, called “The Victors,” will disappoint Michigan football fans expecting that school’s fight song.  Instead, you’ll hear Taps as Clay recites the names and ages of young men lost in battle.  The version of “Abraham, Martin, and John” is interrupted with audio of news coverage from the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, along with the recording of a tearful Ted Kennedy eulogizing Bobby from the 1968 funeral. For my money, though, the open and close of the A-side are perhaps even more powerful than that. At the beginning and end of the track are the voices of school children that Clay interviewed, and the last kid’s remark always gets me. After a series of kids explaining that they don’t understand words like “segregation” and “bigotry,” Clay asks a child “What is prejudice?”  The child responds, “I think it is when someone is sick.”  Almost fifty years later, and the kid is still correct.

You won’t likely hear this on the radio anywhere, but you can hear it by clicking here.

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