The following is a unique djrobblog musical tribute to one of the greatest
boxers humanitarians of all time.
Muhammad Ali died Friday night, June 3, 2016. Ali, reviled as he may have been, was at one time (and possibly still was at the time of his passing) the most recognized and most popular sports figure in the world, bar none. But his personality transcended boxing and sports. Ali was an activist, an anarchist, a humanitarian and a comedian, among many other things.
At a young age, he even tried his hand at singing. He sang in his church choir as a child before boxing revealed his true calling in life and made him famous.
So it is with that musical thought in mind that I thought I’d pay tribute to the man, the true “Greatest” of all time.
You’ve seen some of the many other tributes that have emerged in the days since his death. But this unique approach chronicles the major milestones and mileposts of Ali’s life, and provides the musical soundtrack that went along with them. As you read it, you’ll be amazed at the parallels between Ali and the music (and artists) that reigned supreme during the times he achieved some of his biggest milestones. Some of the most popular music throughout Ali’s life almost seemed as if it was made especially with him in mind.
So starting from his first day on earth and ending with his last, here’s djrobblog’s tribute to the life of Muhammad Ali.
1942: Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., on January 17, in Louisville, KY., to Odessa and Cassius, Sr. Musically, big band music was all the rage, with bandleaders like Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller ruling the charts. On Clay’s birthdate, Miller had the #1 song in America with “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
1960: At age 18, Clay wins the light heavyweight boxing gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome (by beating Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski). On September 6, he and two other U.S. Olympians, Wilbert McClure and Edward Crook, line up for their gold medals. The #1 song in America that day was Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now Or Never.” Years later, Presley and Muhammed Ali would become friends, with Elvis giving the boxer a training robe studded with rhinestones that spelled out “The People’s Choice” on the back.
1960: Clay turns professional and wins the first fight of his pro career on October 29, winning a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker. The most popular music artists at the time were Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Sam Cooke, and the Drifters who have the top tune in America with “Save The Last Dance For Me.”
1964: At 19-0, Clay is a heavy underdog in a heavyweight championship match with Sonny Liston. He predicts victory and delivers one on February 25, 1964, when Liston doesn’t leave his bench after round six. The Beatles are the biggest music act in the world at this point, having just arrived in America for the first time earlier that month (Feb. 7). By the time of Ali’s championship victory, the Fab Four have the two top songs in the U.S. with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.”
1964: On March 6, Clay announced that he has changed his name to Muhammed Ali after announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam and became a follower of the Muslim Faith. He would later join the Sunni Muslim Faith after falling out of favor with the Nation. At this point, the Beatles have three of the top singles in the U.S.A., with “Please Please Me” joining the first two. In a few weeks, they would own the entire top five as “Twist and Shout” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” would join the others in that upper chart echelon.
1967: On April 28, Ali refuses induction into the U.S. Army based on religious convictions. He angers many Americans and is later stripped of his WBA heavyweight title and his boxing license after proclaiming “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong, no Vietcong never called me ‘nigger’…”
However, contrary to popular belief, Ali was not a draft dodger. He considered himself a “conscientious objector.” He didn’t flee the country to avoid arrest, instead standing firm on his beliefs while staying put here in America. He would rather go to jail and serve time (although he never had to while his draft-evasion case went through the court of appeals) than go against his beliefs.
With a song title that likely described how many “patriotic” Americans felt about Ali’s actions at the time, the top single in the land that week was “Something Stupid” by the late Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy.
1970: Ali is allowed to fight in Atlanta (Georgia had no state boxing commission bat the time). With what was likely three years of pent-up frustration from not boxing professionally, Ali knocks out Jerry Quarry in three rounds on October 26. The most exciting new group in America at the time were the latest find by Motown Records, the Jackson 5. Their “I’ll Be There” was the #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100. The brothers, led by little Michael, became the first act to ever top the chart with its first four releases (“I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “The Love You Save” had all reached #1 earlier that year).
1971: On March 8, Ali fights heavyweight champion Joe Frazier for the first time in New York. In this “Fight of the Century,” Frazier wins by unanimous decision after knocking down (but not out) Ali in the final round.
By this time, the Jackson 5 had been bested by their white counterparts, the Osmond Brothers, who were in their final of five weeks at #1 with “One Bad Apple.” That song had successfully prevented what would have been the Jackson 5’s fifth straight #1, Mama’s Pearl” from reaching the top only a few days earlier. But just like Ali to Frazier, the Jacksons would have the last laugh in this “battle” of family musical acts.
1971: On June 28, the Supreme Court reverses the 1967 draft-evasion conviction. The top-selling tune in America that day was Carole King’s classic “It’s Too Late” backed with “I Feel The Earth Move,” both taken from her classic #1 Tapestry album. Ironically, it wasn’t too late for Ali and he was about to really make the earth move in the new decade, with historic title bouts that would result in the legendary boxer reclaiming his heavyweight title not only once, but twice more, making him the only boxer to ever do so.
1974: On January 28, Ali exacts revenge on Frazier, beating the former champion (by this time, George Foreman had become the reigning champ) in 12 rounds. That week, chart champion Barbra Streisand achieves her first number one single with “The Way We Were,” a song that would go on to become the biggest hit of 1974. Just as Ali eventually conquered his sport with the most heavyweight boxing titles ever, Streisand became the singer with more #1 albums than any other woman in history (ten and still counting).
Babs herself would know a little something about fighting. In 1979, she would star in a movie (“The Main Event”) about a down-and-out boxer. She would record the movie’s theme song, “The Main Event/Fight,” a million-selling top-3 hit.
1974: On October 30, in a marquee fight known as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali regains the heavyweight title in Zaire after knocking out George Foreman in the 8th round. His famous “rope-a-dope” style of fighting, in which Ali would allow Foreman to get him against the ropes and swing away until Foreman tired himself out, was in full effect during this fight.
Fittingly, the outspokenness of Ali was matched on the Hot 100 by the sociopolitical protest anthem by Stevie Wonder, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” which was the #1 song on the chart during the Ali win. A decade later, both Wonder and Ali would be major forces in the fight to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.
1975: On October 1, Ali fights Frazier for the third time in the famous “Thrilla in Manilla” in the Philippines. Ali retains his belt, although both fighters are heavily battered and bruised. Frazier retires after the 14th round to end the fight. By the way, the #1 single in America that week was David Bowie’s “Fame,” something Ali arguably had more of than anyone else at the time.
1975: Anyone who calls himself “the Greatest” had to have a song written about him, right? “Black Superman/Muhammed Ali,” a song by Johnny Wakelin and the Kinshasha Band, reach es the Billboard Hot 100. Its up-and-down chart life mimics that of its subject, Ali, who had lost and then regained his heavyweight title earlier in the decade (and would again later). The song charts twice, first debuting in March then falling off the chart in May. It re-enters the chart in June and peaks at #21 in September before finally leaving the Hot 100 on October 4, 1975, the same week Ali beats Frazier.
1977: On May 19, the film “The Greatest” is released in America. The movie is based on the autobiography “The Greatest: My Own Story,” co-written by Ali and edited by Toni Morrison. The song “The Greatest Love of All” was written for the movie with Ali in mind and sung by George Benson. It was a big #2 R&B hit that summer. Of course, the late Whitney Houston remade the song in 1985 and took it to #1 on the pop charts in ’86. But on May 19, 1977, when “The Greatest” was released, the top song in America was another one by fellow legend Stevie Wonder and his tribute to another great American legend: “Sir Duke” (Ellington).
1977: Youngest daughter Laila, who would go on to become a world champion boxer herself with an undefeated professional career record of 24-0, is born on December 30. The top song in America that day? “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees. It was the first of four songs to reach #1 from the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, making that the first album ever to achieve such a feat.
1978: Leon Spinks, a former Olympic gold medal winner, strips Ali of his title on February 15. It was a 15-round split decision by the judges. The top song in America that day was “Stayin’ Alive,” of course, by the phenomenal Bee Gees, who ultimately became the pop chart champions of the seventies.
1978: Ali regains the title by defeating Spinks in a unanimous decision on September 15. Continuing with the dominant disco theme during the latter part of Ali’s reign as champion, the top song on the Billboard Hot 100 that day was “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste Of Honey.
1979: Perhaps signaling the end of an era, Ali announces his retirement on June 27. Ironically, while Ali may not have wanted to hear anymore bells ringing between fight rounds (or ever have his own bell rung again), the #1 song in the U.S. that week was “Ring My Bell” by disco one-hit wonder, Anita Ward. It was a bell that signaled the imminent end of another era: disco, as the “Disco Demolition Rally” would occur at Chicago’s Comiskey Park baseball stadium only two weeks later, and 1979 would be the last year that the genre would dominate the pop charts.
1980: Ali comes out of retirement on October 2, to fight reigning heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, who beats Ali by way of technical knockout in the 11th round. Perhaps appropriately, the number one song in America that day was Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” a song whose title could have easily described Ali’s situation. (Btw, Queen had just displaced Diana Ross’ “Upside Down” from the top.)
1981: On what would be his last fight, Ali loses a unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick on December 11. He retires for good with an overall record of 56-5. The number one record in America that week was Olivia Newton-John’s biggest hit (and the biggest hit of the ’80s), “Physical.” Getting physical in the ring was something with which Ali had been quite familiar during his legendary championship career.
1984: Ali is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease on September 21, 1984. The degenerative disease affects Ali’s speech and causes uncontrollable muscle tremors, most visibly in Ali’s left hand. At the time, the #1 album in America was the Purple Rain soundtrack by Prince & the Revolution. The band would have the #1 single the following week (beginning Sept. 23) when “Let’s Go Crazy” K-O’d John Waite’s “Missing You” on the Hot 100.
1996: In what was perhaps Ali’s biggest triumph, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion overcame his physical disabilities long enough to light the Olympic torch at the opening ceremonies in Atlanta on July 20. The #1 single on the Hot 100 was rap icon 2pac’s “How Do You Want It” backed with “California Love” as track 2. Like Ali, the late Tupac Shakur had been an outspoken critic of the establishment and a champion of black causes.
2001: On December 25, the film Ali, starring actor/rapper Will Smith in the lead role, opens across America. The film’s box-office gross fails to exceed its budget cost, but does earn Smith a nomination for Best Actor (he loses to Denzel Washington who became only the second African-American to win the award following Sidney Poitier).
The #1 single in America the week of Ali’s release was Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me.” It seems that everything associated with Ali became the Greatest. Nickelback’s hit wound up being named the biggest hit of 2002 in Billboard and ended the ’00s as the most played song of the decade on U.S. radio, having been spun over 1.2 million times over the airwaves.
2002: With the Nickelback single still at #1, Ali receives his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on January 11. His is unique as it stands as the only one to be erected on a wall, versus on the ground. The reason: Ali didn’t want his name being stepped on. Request granted, sir.
2005: On November 9, then-president George W. Bush presents Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Bush is quoted as calling Ali the “greatest of all time.” The top tune in America that day was Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” featuring Jamie Fox. Fox would go on to become only the third African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor in a lead role for his portrayal of the late Ray Charles that year.
2016: On Friday, June 3, Ali dies of septic Shock following a long battle with Parkinson’s. It’s a twist of irony that the title of the #1 song on this date is “One Dance” by the rapper Drake, considering the #1 song in America on the day of his first pro fight in 1960 was “Save The Last Dance For Me” by the Drifters.
It’s also yet another association with greatness, as Drake has had more Hot 100 chart entries than any other rapper in the chart’s 58-year history.
And knowing how Ali prided himself in “dancing” around in the boxing ring while “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee,” this final “Dance” alliance almost seems appropriate.
Just reviewing this list of classic #1 tunes and albums that occurred concurrently with many of Ali’s own triumphs is an instant reminder of the greatness he embodied and that with which he seemed to surround himself.
Now, we mourn the loss of this most charismatic man who stood firm in his beliefs and who loomed as large in life outside the ring as he did in it. And now the same country that once reviled the man as un-American because he wouldn’t go to war for it, appropriately honors the man posthumously, for he is in death as great as he was in life.
Rest in heaven, Muhammed Ali.
PS. For those of you who think a music-related tribute to the world’s greatest boxer is completely far-fetched, check out this videoclip featuring Cassius Clay’s remake of Ben E. King’s classic “Stand By Me” from 1963.