(An iconic shot from the Beatles’ February 1964 meeting with Cassius Clay. They left after a few minutes of photogenic clowning, and Clay asked a reporter, “Who were those little sissies?”)
Fifty years ago this spring, the Beatles were beginning to earn their place on the list of worldwide icons of the 20th century. And so was a man who topped many of those lists at century’s end. Muhammad Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay, met the Beatles in Florida during their first visit to America, shortly before he knocked out Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship. The story of that meeting is here.
It’s not the story I’m telling today.
In August 1963, Columbia Records took Clay into a recording studio in New York, thinking they might capitalize on his upcoming bout with Liston. There Clay cut “Stand By Me,” which had been a hit for Ben E. King in 1961. Clay did it straight, with none of the histrionics for which he was then as famous as he was for his boxing skills. He’s clearly an amateur singer struggling to stay on pitch, and toward the very end, he comes completely disconnected from the backing track. (The backing track itself is oddly slathered in sleigh bells.) Nevertheless, Clay’s “Stand by Me” is better than it has any right to be, and it would peak at #102 on the Bubbling Under chart 50 years ago this week. The flipside, “I Am the Greatest,” charted separately and reached #113. It’s more along the lines of what the average American would have expected to hear from the verbose young boxer—Clay sings his own praises over a rockin’ 50s-style instrumental track, punctuated with laughter and applause that sounds canned.
The sessions over four days in August resulted in a whole album, I Am the Greatest, which charted beginning in October 1963. It did not include the single (at least not until the 1999 CD reissue), but featured a series of spoken-word pieces, mostly about Clay’s greatness. (One of them is titled “Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down?”) At the time, it was claimed that Clay had written the pieces. Many critics praised his skills as a poet and would quote the album as Clay’s own words for years thereafter. But most of it was actually written by veteran TV writer Gary Belkin, who was credited as producer on the original album. (Click that link—the story is fascinating.) I Am the Greatest reached #61 on the Billboard album chart during a 20-week run and received a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Recording.
You know the story from that point: Clay would join the Nation of Islam within days of defeating Liston in 1964 and would adopt the name Muhammad Ali in 1966. He’d be stripped of his titles in 1967 after refusing to report for the military draft. (Middle America would not find him quite so entertaining after that.) When he returned to boxing in 1970, he fought a string of legendary bouts that made him the legendary figure he remains today.
And instead of making records, he would inspire them. In 1975, Johnny Wakelin, a white British singer, recorded “Black Superman,” which became a gigantic hit in the US and the UK. In 1977, the biographical movie The Greatest would feature a song by George Benson called “The Greatest Love of All,” which became a modest hit then, and would become a bigger one when Whitney Houston covered it in 1985.
Fifty years ago this week, the Beatles ruled the record chart with the top five singles in America. And had you looked far down the same chart, to the Bubbling Under section, you’d have seen another all-time champion there too.