I was commissioned to write these sleeve-notes by Joe Foster for his label Rev-Ola’s 1998 reissue of I Am The Greatest, the Cassius Clay album pulled from the shelves by Columbia Records amid his championing of civil rights and name change to Muhammad Ali.
To those of us who grew up with Ali, whatever our persuasion or interest in boxing, he was – as I wrote nearly 20 years ago – King Of The World.
In the mid-60s, the writer Gilbert Rogin, one of those hard-asses equally at home publishing fiction in The New Yorker as filing sports coverage in the dailies, expressed the perplexing prospect presented to the world by Cassius Marcellus Clay’s complex personality.
Insisting on using Ali’s despised “slave-name”, Rogin was attempting to assess this giant’s world-beating activities inside the ring, but his remarks refer equally to this collection of bragadoccio raps, bar-room poems and verbal whuppings delivered to the likes of vanquished rivals such as Sonny Liston.
Also present and correct is the rare version of Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, a finely delivered performance which rivals those of the greatest vocalists who have also covered the song.
At the time of recording Clay’s cachet was pretty damn high. His charisma, stunning physical abilities and spitfire mouth had combined to turn around the fortunes of the US boxing industry; annual receipts rose from $7.8m in 1963 to £26.5m two years later.