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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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