Muhammad Ali’s influence as a cultural icon has been arguably greater than any other athlete in history. And while he inspired a broad range of music, he also participated in the art with nominal success thanks to his celebrity.
Ali died Friday (June 3) at a Phoenix hospital. He was 74.
Much like Shaquille O’Neal, Deion Sanders and the 1985 Chicago Bears Shufflin Crew who all followed in suit, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest boxer sought to recreate his success in the ring on the mic and dabbled in music on the side — albeit with a sound sense of humor.
In 1963, still just a contender six months before he famously knocked Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship, Ali — then Cassius Clay — released a primarily spoken word comedy album on Columbia Records boldly titled I Am the Greatest. On it, he collaborated with comedy writer Gary Belkin on the material, performing it live before an audience of 200 people.
The album was a poetic trash-talking wind up to the Liston fight (the first eight tracks are even listed as “Rounds” — a nod to Ali’s claim he would beat Liston in eight rounds) but actually saw some success as well, particularly following his upset victory in just six rounds, prompting the release of Grammy Award-nominated title track “I Am The Greatest” as a single with B-side “Will The Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down.” “I Am The Greatest” was also released that year with a cover of Ben E. King’s classic “Stand By Me.”
The phenomenon was real, and Ali’s album peaked at No. 61 on the then-named Top LP’s chart in 1963 (it later became known as the Billboard 200). In 1964, he hit the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart with his “Stand By Me” cover and “I Am The Greatest.” (Ali earned a second Grammy nomination in 1976 for best recording for children, for “The Adventures of Ali and His Gang Vs. Tooth Decay.”)
Listen to I Am The Greatest below, followed by a video of Ali and Sam Cooke singing the their collaboration “The Gang’s All Here.”
But that wasn’t quite it for Ali’s musical career. In 1976, the then-two-time World Heavy Weight Champion teamed with Frank Sinatra, Ossie Davis, Howard Cosell and others to record an album called Ali and His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay. The sometimes-musical cautionary tale against eating too much sugar was nominated for a Grammy for Best Recording for Children in 1977.
Listen to the opening track (and whole thing) here: