Muhammad Ali: His Musical Legacy and the Songs he Inspired
On February 25, 1964, former Olympic gold medalist Cassius Clay knocked out the seemingly invulnerable Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. With the surprise KO, Clay overcame betting odds that some bookies had put as high as 10 to 1, and immediately earned outrageous international celebrity and a concrete place in American sports history. As the newly crowned champ boasted at ringside moments after the victory, in his trademark braggadocio: "I shook up the world."
Decades later, rappers would make tiresome boasts of their figurative knockouts and imaginary championships, but Clay did it for real. He had the audacity to release his album I Am The Greatest!
in 1963 while he was still just a contender. After his stunning win over Liston, Columbia Records issued two of the tracks as singles, with "I Am The Greatest" bubbling under at #113 on March 21, 1964, and his cover of "Stand By Me
" reaching #102 a week later. He was merely a footnote on the charts, but his musical influence would be monumental.
While the world that Clay had shaken up to that point was largely athletic, in coming weeks and months he extended his talent for inciting ground-tremors more broadly. A polarizing figure in 1960s America, Clay infuriated whites from the start of his pro career with his talent for self-aggrandizing and unabashed signifying. As the journalist Murray Kempton, appointing himself a spokesman for white America, infamously wrote of the Clay-Liston fight, Sonny was "the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line." Clay's place as an incendiary black hero on the volatile landscape of Civil Rights Era America grew exponentially following his victory over Liston, first with the public announcement of his membership in the Nation of Islam (an affiliation that prompted his 1964 name change to Muhammad Ali), and later, with his 1967 refusal to be inducted into the US Armed Forces on religious principles.
This later controversy cost Ali his title, and three and a half years of boxing in his prime. By the time he appeared on the cover of Esquire
magazine in April 1968, posed by designer George Lois as the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, Ali was undeniably the most famous conscientious objector in the nation, and an iconic representation of a young, defiant African American spirit amidst the rise of Black Power. Indeed, given that by his late 20s Ali had impressed himself so certainly — and permanently — on the American imagination, it's no surprise that music is one of the many cultural places in which he left a recognizable legacy. The champion's influence in popular music is decades long, direct and indirect, and every bit as electric and animated as the man himself.
The most immediate way that Ali registered his presence in American music is through his own direct contribution, by way of the 1963 Columbia Records novelty LP, I am the Greatest!
, released under his birth name Cassius Clay. Largely a compilation of the boxer's vainglorious poetry set to musical accompaniment, the album contains two fairly straight musical numbers: a surprisingly earnest rendition of the Ben E. King classic "Stand By Me," with the young boxer crooning in a soulful (if at times pitchy) tenor; and a bright, bubblegum pop rendition of "The Gang's All Here" with Ali's pal and guest artist Sam Cooke.
That Ali perceived his recording projects as less of the comic sideshow Columbia distributed them as is evident from a British television appearance he made shortly after the startling victory over Liston. Appearing with Cooke in an interview segment for the BBC sports anthology show Grandstand
in March 1964, Ali prompted his singing compatriot into an impromptu a cappella performance of "The Gang's All Here," and the look of sincerity on the champ's face betrays the seriousness of his musical intentions.
While Ali may have fancied himself a man of estimable musical talent, he has been a frequent muse for other artists. One of the earliest examples is "The Ballad of Cassius Clay," an uptempo doo-wop number that the group The Alcoves recorded as a single for Heaven Records in 1964. Countless other tributes followed, especially by African American artists. The Memphis singer Eddie Curtis followed Ali's victory over Liston with the narrative blues, "Louisville Lip
," and Alvin Cash's 1967 single, "Ali Shuffle
," took later note of the champ's controversial name change and paid homage to his celebrated footwork in the ring with a heavy boogaloo beat.
Ali's place as a muse for black artists, stateside and internationally, only grew after his Vietnam era exile. Reinstated in professional boxing after 1971 and regaining the championship with a surprise knockout of George Foreman in 1974's legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire (an appellation possibly inspired by a Jethro Tull song
), Ali inspired a number of notable tracks through the second decade of his pro boxing career. The 1973 reggae anthem, "Cassius Clay," with the legendary toaster Dennis Alcapone translating Ali's signifying talents into Jamaican patois, offers a notable example of Ali's transnational influence in this period, as does "8ieme Round
," an Afro-pop tribute to Ali's triumph over Foreman, by Zaire's own Trio Madjesi and Orchestre Sosoliso. The white British pop star Johnny Wakelin twice traded on the champ's immense popularity throughout the black diaspora with two funky singles in the mid-70s: 1974's "Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)
" and 1976's "In Zaire
." Closer to home, Ali's swaggering re-ascension to the title inspired a number of aggressively funky efforts by African American artists, including the uptempo "The Best Ever and Muhammad Ali
" by Philly soulsters The People's Choice in 1975, and the synth-heavy seven-inch "Muhammad Ali
" by Detroit singer Sir Mack Rice in 1976. By the end of the decade, capitalizing on Ali's continued fame and success in the ring, Alvin Cash even released an updated, disco rendering of "Ali Shuffle."
Since his retirement from boxing in 1981, and his progressive change in image from a revolutionary black athlete to the Parkinson's-stricken American torch-bearer at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Ali's influence on popular music has endured internationally across styles. Texas rockers The Fabulous Thunderbirds name-checked the champ on their 1986 hit, "Tuff Enuff
," with lead singer Kim Wilson offering to "fight Muhammad Ali" as one of the feats of derring-do he pledges to show his love for the song's object of affection. Introspective chanteuse Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) was more oblique in her references to Ali in the slow title track to her 2006 album, The Greatest
Once I wanted to be the greatest
Two fists of solid rock
With brains that could explain any feeling
And as we move deeper into the 21st century, Ali's decades-old, self-celebratory refrain, "Float like a butterfly, string like a bee," has influenced countless musical efforts, including a Teo Macero electric jazz track, a Pama International reggae number, and a straightforward rock thumper
from the veteran Colorado group Big Head Todd and the Monsters in 2010.
Even off the stage and beyond the recording studio, Muhammad Ali's influence on popular music's swaggering personalities is palpable. When British singer Terence Trent D'Arby released his debut, Introducing the Hardline to Terence Trent D'Arby
, in 1987, he compared his impenetrable confidence to that of the former champ's in an interview with Melody Maker
magazine. "Tell people long enough and loud enough you're the greatest and eventually they'll believe you," said D'Arby. "And once they believe you're the greatest, you become the greatest."
Less directly, Ali's highly visible, performative boasting in the lead-up to his fights is an obvious influence on the characteristic stage demeanor of hip-hop MCs. Fittingly, ESPN made that connection clear with the 2006 television special, Ali Rap
, hosted by Public Enemy's Chuck D, and featuring appearances by Fab Five Freddy, Ludacris, and MC Lyte.
Finally, while many of these examples of Ali's musical influence seem logical, merging as they do the champ's boldness in the ring with pop music's tendency for bluster, let's not forget the oddities that Ali inspired as well. Do many people remember country banjo king Earl Scruggs's tribute, "Muhammad Ali," from the 1977 live LP, Strike Anywhere
? How about the pseudo-operatic 2000 track "Cassius Clay
" by Italian pop singer Gianni Morandi? And lest we forget, George Benson's 1977 ballad, "The Greatest Love of All
," later made much more famous by Whitney Houston and played at countless high school graduations, was originally the theme song to The Greatest
, Ali's biopic, in which the champ was played by none other than himself.
Michael Borshuk is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of Swinging the Vernacular: Jazz and African American Modernist Literature, and for ten years, from 1999 to 2009, wrote on jazz for Coda magazine.
August 28, 2013