Muhammad Ali and the power of charisma

I’ve met a lot of famous people. As a journalist in the music industry, a&r man, pop singer and producer, and editor and publisher of film and tv magazines, it’s always been part of the day job.

I wouldn’t say I was blasé, but I have to admit that, from day one, I’ve rarely been overwhelmed.

The day I started at Music Week, for instance, in August 1967, I was sent to London Airport. The Mamas & The Papas were coming into town and there would be a press conference.

An 18-year-old boy, barely a year out of Wolverhampton, hob-nobbing with the world’s press and one of the best-selling acts around – I should have been excited. But, honestly? No.

Every now and then, there’d be a frisson, like the time I got the phone call from George Martin which I told you about last week.

But there’s only been one brain-jolting, stomach-turns to-jelly, honest to goodness melting moment, and that was when Muhammad Ali came into the room.

It was a big room, a community centre on a north London council estate. There were maybe 200 people already there. At the very moment Ali came through the door I was on the opposite side, a good 40 feet away, with my back to the door, deep in conversation.

And yet, my stomach did turn to jelly, and I knew he was there. Maybe it was a change in atmosphere caused by those who saw him immediately.

But I have never, ever in my life felt someone change the energy in a room so utterly.

I turned around, and there he was: the Parkinson’s-stricken hero of my boyhood, still picking out the closest child, mock-boxing him, making him feel the centre of the universe.

Undeniably in his prime the most beautiful man in the world, he was now a shuffling relic of himself, and yet still possessed of the charisma that had made him the most famous man on the planet, a charisma that could literally be felt.

I watched in awe as he made his way through the room, confronted by, surrounded by and followed by love.

At the same time, the journalist in me picked up on the reactions of two other quite well-known guys also present: former (and soon to be again) world heavyweight champion George Foreman; and former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.

Foreman regarded the only man who had ever knocked him out with clear affection. Frazier, on the other hand, just looked irritated. Frazier’s relationship with Ali was very complex, with some serious – and, to be fair, quite justified – bitterness thrown in.

Watching George Foreman with Muhammad Ali was touching in the extreme. He looked after Muhammad like an attentive brother. I talked to George and he encouraged me to talk to ‘The Champ’. “He’s still all there, inside,” he told me.

So I did, and I told Ali that, as a child, I had been allowed to get up at 3am in the morning to listen to the live BBC broadcasts of Floyd Patterson’s three fights against Ingemar Johansson. The thrill of being awake in the early hours of the morning, and the noise of the crowd and the excitement of the commentary turned me into a lifelong boxing fan.

Then, one Saturday lunchtime, I caught Fight Of The Week on BBC television’s Grandstand, and there was this boy-man, just seven years older than me, and utterly mesmerising. I was hooked. Apart from his first fight with Sonny Liston, when I – along with every boxing expert in the world – thought he was going to be killed, I never lost faith.

I told him I was 15 when he beat Liston. He said something I could barely hear, so I put my ear close to his mouth, and he repeated, in his whisper: “I know. I can’t believe Muhammad Ali is 50.”

Even Muhammad Ali talks about ‘Muhammad Ali’.

Growing up in the era of Ali, The Beatles, American Civil Rights, John F. Kennedy and Bob Dylan, gave millions of us belief that the future was bright and golden; just……better.

My song this week is about my own disappointment that that faith proved to be false.

Two episodes sparked the song. One was watching a programme where Louis Theroux was in an American prison talking to lifers and Death Row inmates about what it takes to survive in such a place.

One of the prisoners was describing the mind games played in the constant search for a place at the top of the heap. Then he said something that I didn’t understand at first. He said it in a chilling voice, with a throwaway smile. “Gabos.” Louis looked as puzzled as me. So the inmate explained: “Game ain’t based on sympathy, man.”

Whoah! What he was saying was, there was no value placed on higher feelings. It was dog eat dog, and if you didn’t look after number one you were dead.

Which set me thinking about the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda and their merciless treatment of each other. And of the child soldiers in Sierra Leone who would overrun villages, round up the men and boys and ask them to choose, “Short sleeve, or long sleeve?” Which meant they had a choice for their hand to be cut off at the wrist, or their arm above the elbow.

I’m not a pessimist by any means. Generally I find the world an exciting and fascinating place. But by the same token, I’m not blind to the wickedness evident all around me.

Maybe I should have written a song about the need for more heroes. Where is the new Muhammad Ali? Where are The Beatles for our children? Is there a JFK or a Bob Dylan on the horizon?

But I didn’t. I wrote this song, called Time Rushes By. The recording is a work in progress, so I hope you can see through the faults.

 

2 Comments

  1. Like this track very much, Paul. Great drums! Love the little repeated guitar run-down too. George Melly had great charisma, saw him performing at a pub in Shepherds Bush in the ’70s, he sat on a table outside the gig room between sets, all alone, looking down, not making eye contact, but charisma seeped out of his very pores.

    Like

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