The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle once said writers are attracted to boxing because it’s not only a “metaphor for individual struggle,” but also because boxers literally give a piece of their lives to their craft and to entertain people. In a 2001 New York Times story, Joe Louis biographer David Margolick argued that no athlete had inspired as many songs as the so-called Brown Bomber, counting 43 at the time, though there were/are probably hundreds, from Memphis Minnie’s “Joe Louis Strut” (1935) to Yeasayer’s “Ambling Alp” (2009). Most emanated from Louis’s defeat of Italian boxer Primo Carnera in 1935, as fascist Italy invaded Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. The tributes continued when he defeated Nazi-affiliated German champ Max Schmeling during Hitler’s reign, which made Louis not only an African-American hero but a symbol of U.S. freedom defeating tyranny.
Also a world heavyweight champion during a politically charged time, the late Muhammad Ali has inspired scores of musical tributes, starting in the 1960s and up through the 2000s. But unlike Louis, who enlisted for WWII, Ali refused military service in Vietnam, while openly and repeatedly critiquing America’s racism and white imperialist power moves. He was dubbed a “fistic pariah.” As a result, he became a global hero, unlike any athlete previously, and most of the best Ali songs came from musicians outside the U.S., especially after his 1974 knockout of then-champion George Foreman in Zaire’s “Rumble in the Jungle.” After listening to about 50 Ali-inspired songs, I’ve picked a handful below that really gave me a jolt.
Cassius Clay feat. Sam Cooke, “The Gang’s All Here,” from I Am the Greatest (1963)
Six months before he “shook up the world” — knocking out the dourly methodical heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, converting to Islam, and changing his name — Ali promoted the fight with an album of mostly witty, boastful recitations, such as “Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down,” during which Ali predicted the “total eclipse of the Sonny.” But oddly, the young contender beamed brightest on a musty pop ditty with soul icon Sam Cooke, who was already at the peak of his artistic powers. In this clip, both men seem to exist in an untouchable glow of otherworldly talent, personality, and physical beauty. That Ali, no singer and not even a champion yet, rivaled Cooke’s charisma, is astonishing. Oh yeah, legendary poet Marianne Moore, an Ali fan, wrote the album’s liner notes.
Jorge Ben, “Cassius Marcello Clay” (1971)
As one of the artists who embodied Brazil’s Tropicália movement — the politically volatile, late-1960s mix of pop and the avant-garde in music, poetry, and theater — Jorge Ben survived the era without being tortured, imprisoned, or exiled like so many of his peers. And his Ali tribute, like much of his work, does not overtly state radical ideas; rather, he embraces Ali as a heroic, poetic figure, who we should “save” and revere. But this is no reverent hymn — the lyrics playfully nominate Ali as the successor to Batman, Superman, and Captain America, while favorably comparing his footwork to that taught in samba schools and used by the Brazilian soccer team to win the 1962 World Cup! With a flurry of strings, strumming, and nuanced percussion, not to mention Ben’s float-like-a-hummingbird voice, the song is already mesmerizing before an eruption of scatting and a conga breakdown. “Soul brother, soul boxer, soul man,” testifies Ben on the fade.
Mister Calypson, “Muhammed Ali” [sic] (1971)
In 1971, Ali’s ban from boxing for refusing military service was lifted — with Supreme Court decision Clay v. United States — and he fought bête noire Joe Frazier for the first time, so a spate of songs were released to capitalize. This one-off, by Trinidadian “Mister Calypson” (presumably a takeoff on Harry Belafonte’s album of the same name), displayed the rhythmically rollicking, brass-barking calypso style at its best as a fearless, freewheelin’ op-ed column. The song emphatically calls out Ali’s ban as a “mockery of justice” and builds an awesomely infectious refrain around the quip, “line up the heavyweight division for mass execution.” Mister Calypson glibly laundry-lists Ali’s defeated foes, giving Jerry Quarry an extra dig, gibing that he couldn’t have beaten the champ “with a machine gun.” Boom!
Dennis Alcapone, “Cassius Clay” (1973); Dr. Alimantado and Soul Syndicate, “I Am the Greatest Says Muhammad Ali” (1975)
Ali’s impact in Jamaica was enormous and musicians from the island produced perhaps the most creative tributes, particularly from toasters/talk-over artists/DJs, who rapped improvised vocals over other popular songs. Dennis “Alcapone” Smith took Jackie Mittoo and the Soul Vendors’ 1967 hit “Drum Song” and gave it an anxious lope, coolly injecting startling wails and goofy catchphrases (“Wa wa chihuahua / Wa wa chi-woo”) into his evocative rambles about Ali. Dr. Alimantado, born Winston Thompson, was first known as a DJ for production genius Lee “Scratch” Perry, before going out on his own to record one of Jamaican music’s most fascinating sonic assaults, Best Dressed Chicken in Town (with one of the most unforgettable album covers of all time). On this instrumental tribute, Alimantado and Perry distort and tweak the fuck out of every sound, concocting a collage as complex as Ali himself.
Trio Madjesi and Orchestre Sosoliso, “8ème Round” (1974)
After Ali’s shocking eighth-round knockout of George Foreman, a raft of songs were churned out, but this clip of two Zairean Afropop groups teaming up to perform their tribute (interspersed with fight footage) on what looks like a Kinshasa public-access show is peerless. With two of Trio Madjesi’s three vocalists donning boxing robes to ostensibly stand in for Ali and Foreman, the fabulously costumed Sosoliso (plus dancers) work out a bubbling, chattering, free-ranging groove that, at times, seems to be spinning like a gyroscope about to tilt over. Almost midway through, the two “boxers” sit down on chairs to be toweled off and advised by their “trainers,” finally facing off, gloves on, as the third Madjesi member serves as referee. The fake “Foreman” is eventually KO’d flat, though the two pugilists later embrace. The entire spectacle goes on for almost 14 minutes.
Le Stim, “A Tribute to Muhammad Ali (We Crown the King)” (1980)
Here’s an authentic, highly coveted disco-soul 12-inch classic, based solely on the music contained herein. Hmm, not entirely, but close! This mysterious Detroit act — credited to H. Andrei Duncan — never made another record under the name Le Stim, and only a tiny clutch of crate-diggers would’ve ever heard of them if not for the song being featured on Boston duo Kon & Amir’s rare-groove compilation Off Track Volume One: The Bronx in 2007. Kon (the DJ) and Amir (the collector) only included an edit, though, while the original is nine and a half radiantly worthy minutes. After a racing, orchestral funk intro, the unnamed vocalist (Andrei Duncan?) beckons, “Gather close, everybody, we’re gonna tell you a story …” and starts bearing witness about the Greatest. Then, approximately 2:40 in, it goes: A momentous cowbell break plus guitar and organ razzle-dazzle, not to mention the horn section’s jabbing and bobbing and weaving. The vocals return with Ali superlatives galore, but the real tribute lies in how the band’s unstoppable shimmy puts in serious work, just like the champ.
BEST OF THE REST:
Alvin Cash, “Doin' the Ali Shuffle” (1967)
Chicago-based soul shouter who hit in 1963 with the ineffable “Twine Time” elevates this somewhat cornball affair with throaty hoots and hollers. Might’ve really kicked on a second take.
Don Covay, “Rumble in the Jungle” (1975)
Covay had a couple of classic ’60s soul hits (“Mercy Mercy,” “Seesaw”), but here he throws himself into period funksploitation shtick with gusto.
Ben Folds, “Boxing” (1992 demo)
A forceful version of a beautifully written show tune by the yelping alt-rock pianist, “Boxing” channels an aging Ali chatting with Howard Cosell.
Fugees feat. John Forte, A Tribe Called Quest, and Busta Rhymes, “Rumble in the Jungle” (1996)
One of the last Fugees recordings, for the documentary When We Were Kings, “Rumble” was coproduced by Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill, reaching No. 3 in the U.K. Hill also spit the track’s most memorable verses: “See, Ali appears in Zaire to connect 400 years / So we the people, dark but equal, give love to such things / To the man who made the fam' remember when we were kings.”
Freakwater, “Louisville Lip” (1998)
This indie country band from Ali’s Kentucky hometown warble a riveting ballad that plays off the mythical story of the boxer throwing his gold medal from the 1960 Olympic Games into the Ohio River after not being served at Louisville restaurants because he was black (it was also reported that the then-18-year-old was taunted and called “the Olympic nigger” by local whites). In 1996, Ali was presented with a replacement medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
Jay Electronica, “Patents of Nobility (Unreleased) (Real)” (2000s)
Less a song than an enthralling raw demo, this version of “Patents” (there are others) mixes a clip of Ali schooling hostile BBC talk-show host Michael Parkinson with a brassy funereal beat and Jay Elect’s mystical verses, which sound like they were recorded on an iPhone 5S.