You may have read my recent post on Muhammad Ali’s starring role in Buck White, the black radical Broadway musical. An intrepid commenter turned me on to Ali’s earlier… material, his 1963 album, I Am the Greatest!. It even had a bit of backing vocals by friend and fan, Sam Cook! While it was largely a novelty album, primarily consisting of Ali’s brilliant spoken word braggadocio, it also contains his early attempts at a singing career. Not yet heavy weight champion, and still “Cassius Clay”, no one can say Ali lacked confidence.
How he got cast for Buck White after this, I do not know.
The Gang’s All Here
Stand By Me
Ali and his close friend Sam Cooke harmonize on a BBC sports program.
Listen to the splendor that is Johnny Wakelin’s “In Zaire.” I love the shit out of this song, but so far I’ve resisted posting it here because of the totally 70s videos of it floating around out there (as if this has ever stopped me before?). Now I’ve decided that I like them, go figure.
The lyrics describe the infamous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” prizefight that saw world Heavyweight champion George Foreman pitted against the former world champion, Muhammad Ali. In a stadium filled with screaming fans in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round.
But the music, can we talk about the music? This track is such a killer. It simply stomps all over your face and smashes you to a pulp. Afterwards, you are glad of this. Dig the (very Adam and the Ants-sounding) dual drum attack, the rumbling, limber, almost menacing bass lines, the jangly, rusty-sounding guitar. And that voice, that phenomenal booming voice. A voice that could give Tom Jones a run for his money. I must admit, given Johnny Wakelin’s propensity to sing about black people, “Black Superman,” Ali, Africa, etc, I thought he must actually be a black man himself. The first time I saw a video of him, after loving this song for so many years, I will admit I was shocked to find that he was in fact, a goofy, fashion-challenged white guy with lamb-chop sideburns who dressed like a pimp!
September 9, 1971 saw the population of Attica State prison in western New York state rise up and seize the facility, taking 33 staff hostage. Attica was infamous at the time for both being stuffed at twice its capacity, and for the inhumane living conditions of its majority-black and Puerto Rican community. Prison officials allotted one bar of soap and roll of toilet paper per month and a bucket of water per week as a shower. Inmate mail was regularly censored, visits were highly restricted, and prisoner beatings happened constantly. Responding to news of the imminent torture of one of their fellows who’d assaulted a prison officer, a group of prisoners freed their brother and rose up after guards denied yard-time to the full population.
After four days of negotiation, Governor Nelson Rockefeller—who refused the prisoners’ requests to come to the prison and hear their grievances—blessed Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G. Oswald’s order to retake Attica by force. This resulted in the death of nine hostages and 28 inmates in an episode that shocked the conscience of a nation wearied by war, assassination and urban unrest. It also saw the birth of modern prison reform.
My childhood television-watching memories were pretty much informed by three people: Maxwell Smart, Julia Child and the late, great Flip Wilson. Comedian Clerow “Flip” Wilson was a Laugh-In regular and a frequent guest on Johnny Carson, but I remember him best, and most vividly, from his variety show that ran on NBC in the early 70s.
Whether he was dressed in drag as Geraldine (watch him flirt here with Muhammad Ali), or posing as the con-artist minister, “Reverend Leroy” (before he goes off to “fight sin” in Vegas, watch here as he puts in charge of his flock Redd Foxx‘s “Pussyfoot Johnson”), Flip and his show were definitely groundbreaking, and not just to my childhood mind—although I was probably the only kid in my neighborhood who went around shouting, The Devil Made Me Do It!
Anyway, The Flip Wilson Show was a regular stop for mainstream acts like Aretha Franklin and The Jackson 5, but, for his five years on primetime network TV, Flip was also a tireless champion of ripening greats like Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor and Albert Brooks. And while I don’t remember their appearances, some of them, fortunately, are now showing up on YouTube. As “reissue fever” sweeps the land—or just Pitchfork—witness below the great Lena Horne doing her rendition of “Rocky Raccoon.” Amazing!
I’m looking forward to next week’s VH1 series, Lords Of The Revolution, with an excitement approaching…apathy! I mean, we all know the drill: yet another 5-parter assembled from already available footage both superior and less sanitized. Still, with Leary, Warhol, Ali, Cheech & Chong, and The Black Panthers each spearheading a night, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
If you’re curious as to what it might look like, check out the VH1 trailer. And for those of you who lack the time—or energy—to “tune in,” but still want a hit of era-defining idealism, click right here.