For all their punching, blocking, and feinting, the heavyweight champions also did a fair amount of singing. I knew about some of this before I started working on The Boxing Kings; I grew up in the 1970s, when Joe Frazier, “famous heavyweight singer,” as the commercial called him, might show up on your television, harmonizing about the joys of Miller Lite. But working on the book, I learned about other heavyweight vocalists, including Max Baer, Ingemar Johansson, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Muhammad Ali. For all I’d read about Ali, how had I missed that he had tried his hand at singing?
Below are three Ali performances—two dating from when he was still known as Cassius Clay. I enjoy them all, but I wanted to get an expert opinion, and I’m lucky enough to have access to one: my friend Janice Meyerson Scheindlin, an international opera singer—she has performed in Leonard Bernstein productions at the New York Philharmonic, Tanglewood, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the London Proms, among her many other credits—agreed to give a listen. Below is video of Ali’s three performances, along with our discussion. Hope you enjoy!
Cassius Clay, “Stand By Me,” 1963
PB: Wow. This is pretty amazing for a guy who probably never had a singing lesson. He’s not perfect, but he’s pretty good.
JS: Oh, boy.
JS: Well, he does have a pleasing sound, a pleasant voice, but if he weren’t famous as a boxer, no one would want to listen to it.
PB: I’m not saying he could have made his living this way, just that he sounds good. He doesn’t sound good to you?
JS: No. There is a great deal of instrumental accompaniment going on, which gives the piece a harmonic structure—which it needs, because Clay doesn’t sing pitches through the center of the note. He approximates them. And with some types of singing, that is a desired effect—in certain types of modern classical music, a technique called “Sprechstimme” in, e.g., Schoenberg; and in jazz and blues, what's called “bending the pitch.” But it has to be done in a controlled way.
PB: And I’m guessing that this is not controlled . . .
JS: No. I get the sense that with Clay, the pitch approximation wasn’t done on purpose but because he can’t do it the right way. The accompaniment masks a lot of the worst notes.
PB: As a performance, though, it comes off fairly well, I think. Maybe the fact that the song is familiar means that we’re willing to cut him some slack? People love this song and they’re happy to hear it, so long as it isn’t being butchered.
JS: That’s true. The song helps a lot—as does the accompaniment. If Clay were in a room by himself, though, with no accompaniment, and you didn’t know who he was, it would be not very good at all. But I can see why he made the record, and I’m sure his fans loved it.
PB: That’s a safe bet.
Cassius Clay with Sam Cooke, “The Gang’s All Here,” 1963
In this brief clip, Clay has help from a quasi-divine quarter: the great Sam Cooke, who so beclouds Janice’s judgment that she never really gets around to assessing Clay’s contribution:
PB: Just a little ditty, this one. He recorded a full-length version but I like this better. Hard to assess Clay's vocals here, given his choice of singing partner.
JS: The glorious Sam Cooke’s solid musicianship keeps Clay on pitch. I couldn’t help but listen to what came next on YouTube, which was Sam singing alone.
PB: That’s cheating.
JS: He is spot-on with pitches and a beautiful singer. Totally in control with his phrasing.
PB: Maybe we should move along.
Muhammad Ali, “We Came in Chains,” 1969
In the third clip, Clay, now Muhammad Ali, appears on the Ed Sullivan Show to sing “We Came in Chains,” a highlight of the short-lived Broadway musical in which he appeared, Big Time Buck White. He was in exile from boxing at this time, due to his draft case. I'm not positive, but he might have written this himself. It sounds like something he could do.
PB: This is a hoot. A real period piece, but rousing, in its way.
JS: Yes, I liked this one best, because here you see Ali the performer. He is mesmerizing, charismatic.
PB: This might be what it would have been like if he had ever broken into song in the middle of a fight—or after a fight, as Tyson Fury has done. I'm almost surprised he never did. Here, he’s kind of talk-singing, I guess.
JS: Yes, he still doesn’t sing the pitches through the center of the note—they are still approximated. But he is so commanding as a performer, who cares? He built the performance up in a masterful way.
PB: My favorite part is actually after the song is over, when he talks with Ed Sullivan. You see his courtesy and charm and manners. "Mr. Sullivan." This is his Louisville side, courtesy of his parents. So different from the boastful alter ego.
JS: I had forgotten how weird Ed Sullivan was. I have a friend who does an Ed Sullivan imitation, which I always thought was over the top—until I saw this. Do they let people like that on TV anymore?
PB: Ever watch any Lawrence Welk?