Muhammad Ali’s achievements are renowned: Olympic gold medalist, heavyweight boxing champion, humanitarian, civil rights activist. But would you believe he was also nominated for the Grammy Awards in 1964 and 1976?
Swapping his boxing gloves and shorts for a black tie and tail, Ali recorded a comedy album at Columbia Records’ Manhattan studios in early August 1963. A live audience hooted and screamed as the fighter unleashed a volley of punches and right hooks, but the actual punches thrown by Ali, 21, during the recording were verbal in nature.
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The pugilist who appeared in front of the microphone was not yet heavyweight champion. He wasn’t even Muhammad Ali at the time. Still known as Cassius Clay, he may have been just a heavyweight title contender, but he was already a world champion artist.
“Ali’s genius for marketing was out of the ordinary,” says Jonathan Eig, author of the biography Ali: a life. “He understood early on that being an artist was good for the boxing business. If he could generate more publicity for himself, he would attract more people to his fights and get an earlier chance at the heavyweight championship.
Ali’s rhyming verses help him strike a deal in the music industry
With quips as quick as his fists, Ali had earned his nickname “Louisville Lip”. He wielded rhymed couplets like weapons to stun his opponents before battles and to strengthen his fighting game.
“The pace of my poetry gives me an unprecedented pace in the ring,” Ali told the media. Prior to a March 1963 fight with Doug Jones in New York City, the talkative boxer even took to the stage of a dimly lit Greenwich Village cafe for a poetry battle against seven of the city’s greatest beatnik poets, a bout that ‘he won by popular acclaim.
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Ali’s entertaining doggerel and his growing fame led Columbia Records to sign him to record a spoken word album titled – naturally – “I Am the Greatest”. The tracks, renamed “rounds” for the album, opened with the sound of a bell and featured a mix of stand-up comedy, rhyming verses and comedy sketches. The live audience clapped and sneered as if it was an open mic night at a comedy club as Ali blasted out bluster such as “This kid fights very well; he has speed and stamina / But if you sign up to fight him increase your confidence. “
Ali mercilessly taunted reigning heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston throughout the album. His track “Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down” is a trash-talking masterclass. “Friends, Romans, compatriots, lend me your ears. I am coming to bury Liston, not to praise him, ”the“ Boxing Bard ”told the audience. “He can’t fight,” Ali said of Liston. “I watched him box in the shadows and his shadow won in the first round.”
The boxer was not afraid to turn his humor on himself and wink at the audience to let them participate in the joke. “Sir. Clay, have you ever been in love?” Asked an audience member with a stuck question, “Not with anyone else,” the fighter joked.
Although Ali was quick-witted, he wasn’t doing freestyle on the album. Columbia Records hired comedy veteran Gary Belkin to help Ali as a ghostwriter. The album’s original cover notes mentioned Belkin as a producer, but he was not credited as a co-writer until a re-release of the album in 1999.
Belkin later claimed that he wrote most of the content for the album, but Ali told the Miami News he never paid anyone to write a poem for him, although he admitted that Columbia Records could have.
“He put in some of the comedy, the skits,” Ali said of Belkin. “But all my poems are mine.” Evidence submitted to a Senate subcommittee investigating boxing corruption in March 1964 suggests otherwise. Payments made by Ali’s backers include an expense of $ 600 to Belkin for the development of a poem for Ali’s appearance on the “Jack Parr Show”.
Regardless of who wrote the material, Ali’s reviews weren’t impressed. “Cassius, if you look below the surface, is just speaking loudly to build a great door against the retreat that Liston will blow him into,” wrote Oscar Fraley, United Press International sports reporter.
Ali’s album skyrockets the charts
When Ali fought Liston on February 25, 1964, he was a 7-1 underdog. Even inside Columbia Records, doubts surfaced. “Get the Money / Before Clay Fight Sonnyan aspiring poet wrote on a company bulletin board. After punching Liston in verse, Ali knocked him out in the ring to become heavyweight champion.
According to Columbia Records, sales of “I Am the Greatest! after the fight overtook those of Barbra Streisand and even the Beatles. The record company rushed the new champ into the recording studio to sing a cover of the Ben E. King hit “Stand by Me” and a version of “The Gang’s All Here” with help from singer and friend Sam Cooke.
“Ali used to hang out at rhythm and blues clubs in Louisville and was a huge fan of pop music. He even had a record player in his car, ”says Eig. “If he had had the chance to become a singer, he would have loved it.”
A quickly released single with a reworked title track from “I Am the Greatest!” and “Stand by Me” sold 100,000 copies in its first week. Rave reviews followed as “I’m the greatest!” Received a Grammy nomination for Best Comedic Performance alongside comedians such as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and The Smothers Brothers. All of them lost that year because of Allan Sherman’s recording of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”.
A second Grammy nomination followed for Ali in 1976, after returning to the recording studio to face a tougher enemy than Liston, the Tartar. In “The Adventures of Ali and His Gang Against Mr. Tooth Decay”, the boxer known for his mouth was promoting good oral hygiene to children. The album, which also featured the voices of Frank Sinatra and sports presenter Howard Cosell, received a Grammy for Best Children’s Recording.
Although Ali never won a Grammy, his musical legacy lives on. His swagger and rhymes have been cited as the forerunners of the lyrical swap in modern rap battles, and the heavyweight champion has been credited as a hip-hop pioneer by artists such as Chuck D.