The song was released in August 1968 and by December was No. 4 on the Billboard charts. It sold more than 1 million copies and was covered by artists from Bob Dylan to Whitney Houston, the Daily News reported.
Holler, distressed after hearing of Kennedy’s murder in June 1968, sat at his piano in St. Petersburg, Florida, and recorded a demo.
“It all happened simultaneously, the music and the lyrics,” Holler, 83, told the Daily News. “I just wrote it that fast. And I was a bit astonished by that.
“We returned to the office to get our bearings. And when I left that day, and went home, I had the song.”
Dion was an unlikely singer for the song. Although he was famous for songs like “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue,” he was a recovering heroin addict without a record contract and had not scored a big hit since “Ruby Ruby” reached No. 2 in February 1963.
Holler’s biggest success as a songwriter had been the 1966 novelty, “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron,” recorded by the Royal Guardsmen.
After being convinced to sing the song, Dion recorded it in one take.
“They wanted me to (try) another,” Dion told the Daily News. “I said, ‘Listen to it. I got it.’”
The song hit a nerve.
“The country was in a very restless period,” Dion told the Daily News. “That was one of the reasons for the arrangement. I felt it was a handle to some kind of salvation, to link us to a higher reality. To touch our hearts.”