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    Muhammad Ali is famous for a number of reasons, from being the self-proclaimed greatest athlete of all time, to taking pivotal role in the civil rights movement. Aside from those, Ali had hidden talents as a singer and musician. During his life, Ali released not one, but TWO albums in 1963 and 1976, one of which could be considered a beginning force in the popularization of rap. Ali even starred in a Broadway musical, Buck White in 1969. 

    In 1963, the peak of Ali’s career was in sight. He was to face Sonny Liston in the World Heavyweight Championship the following year, and at the time he was the underdog. To assist in promotion, Ali was approached by the William Morris Agency to record an album for Columbia Records in front of a live audience. Soon after, in August 1963, Muhammad Ali (still under the name Cassius Clay) released his debut album, “I Am the Greatest."

    Written in collaboration with poet Marianne Moore and comedy writer Gary Belkin (though much of the work is attributed to Ali himself) the album is largely spoken word. The first eight tracks of "I am the Greatest" are titled rounds, as Ali claimed he would be able to beat Sonny Liston in just eight rounds. (He succeeded, winning by technical knockout when Liston refused to answer the bell for the seventh round.)  Ali boisterously and relentlessly trash talks Liston through tracks such as “Round 1: I Am the Greatest,” “Round 2: I Am the Double Greatest,” and “Round 5: Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall down” amid shouts of laughter, applause, and musical accompaniment. The album also includes Ali’s cover of the classic song “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King. 

     

    The album was very popular to the point where two singles records were released (for I Am the Greatest/Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall down, and Stand by Me/I am the greatest) and became even more so after Ali won in a massive upset against Liston six months later. With its biting wit and sharp rhymes, some called “I Am the Greatest” one of the very first rap albums, and Ali a pioneer rap artist. Though rap as a genre wouldn’t fully develop (develop is not the right word - perhaps "rise in popularity" or "gain traction on the charts") for about another twenty years, Ali helped set the stage for its creation by popularizing his form of ferocious and creative trash talking. Renowned hip hop artists like LL Cool J, The Fugees, and Public have said they draw direct inspiration from Ali; their tributes range from LL Cool J's 1990 hit "Mama Said Knock You Out" to "Rapper's Delight" by Sugarhill Gang. Even in modern times, artists are referencing Ali. Drake references him in the 2011 song "Under Ground Kings" with the lyric "I'm the greatest, man, I said that before I knew I was."

    Earlier, in 1969, Ali also starred in the musical “Buck White” on Broadway, during the time he faced public scrutiny and jail time for his refusal to go to war in Vietnam. Ali is featured in almost every song in the show, as a strong-willed black lecturer. Though "Buck White" only ran for seven performances, Ali's voice in the show garnered critical praise: New York Times critic Clive Barnes is quoted as saying he “sings with a pleasant, slightly impersonal voice, acts without embarrassment and moves with innate dignity.” 

     

     

    Ali would not release another album for some time, until 1976, when he teamed up for a record titled “Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay” with sports journalist Howard Cosell and Frank Sinatra. Yes, you read that correctly; Muhammad Ali recorded an album with Frank Sinatra, though it’s not what you think. The album is a kid-friendly, somewhat bizarre narrated story about Ali’s quest to a group of kids the evil Mr. Tooth Decay and his sidekick Sugar Cuba. Cosell, Sinatra, Ossie Davis and a few others voice the story’s characters that Ali and the group come across in their journey to defeat tooth decay and discover the importance of taking care of your teeth. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for best children's comedy album.

     

    The albums have not been reissued but used copies are available through various used sites around the internet. They are also both available on online music streaming services. 

    To read about the funeral arrangements and other upcoming Ali-related celebrations in Louisville, click here.

    To read about ten more things you might not know about "The Greatest" click here

    Image: Indiewire

    (Ali in "Buck White")

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    About Aaron Hartley

    22. Professional media consumer.

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