Muhammad Ali and singer-songwriter Bill Withers (best known for his ’70s hits “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Use Me”) met in 1967, after the boxer had been stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing service in the U.S. Army. The two became friends, and seven years later Withers was among the artists invited to perform at the Zaire 74 music festival in Africa with James Brown, B.B. King and others, which preceded the “Rumble in the Jungle” bout between Ali and George Foreman. Below, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer remembers the “positive force of nature” that was Ali.
I became involved in Zaire 74 when Gary Stromberg, who had a PR firm, asked me if I wanted to go to Africa for the fight. It was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. In the Kinshasa Hilton were people like [author] Norman Mailer, [journalist] George Plimpton, B.B. King and James Brown — you don’t get those kinds of people in the same space too often. It really showed the magic about Ali. The people in Zaire loved him; they followed him around, and he was running his mouth and going on.
We were all out in this big soccer stadium. And rumor had it that in order to make things look good, the government had executed dozens of the best-known pickpockets. It was a big PR thing for Mobutu [Sese Seko, dictator of Zaire from 1965 to 1997], I guess. So we’re all walking around, looking on the ground for blood.
I hung out as much as I could with Ali and George [Foreman] both because they flew food in for them — so if I hung around, I got to eat what they ate. I remember walking around with Ali and his brother [Rahman] in the middle of the night. And Ali’s father [Cassius Clay Sr.] was this great character who would sing “My Way” at the drop of a hat.
Remember, this happened because [promoter] Don King had gotten an option from Ali and George to get $5 million [each] for the fight; the only problem was he didn’t have $10 million. But that was the genius of Don: He found this guy Mobutu in a country that most people had never heard of, who at the time was the sixth-richest man in the world or something. And when you got there, the disparity between opulent wealth and people living in cinderblock houses with no windows … it was an odd odyssey.
Ali would talk to anybody. I’ve never seen anyone with the energy to talk that much. He talked all the time. From the guy who parked the cars to Fidel Castro, everybody had some kind of moment with Muhammad Ali. I would see old-time bigots who obviously had issues with his political stance. But after five minutes with Ali, they were fans. You know how you call friends up on the phone? You couldn’t harness Ali. He always was in perpetual motion. It would be like trying to catch a hummingbird in your hands.
The last time I saw Ali was at a book signing, probably in the ’90s. He had Parkinson’s by then and was speaking very slowly. He wanted me to sit behind him onstage while he answered questions, and women came up to kiss him.
When I said goodbye to him, lo and behold, Parkinson’s and all, Ali went into his boxing pose. I said, “My man, still going.”
Ali squeezed about as much out of this life as you can. And I’ll tell you one thing: He would be loving all this brouhaha about him. If I ran into him, he’d probably say, “Bill Withers, I told you I was the greatest.
As told to Gail Mitchell
This article originally appeared in the June 18 issue of Billboard.