Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons
Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, and Sam Cooke — the Clay/Sonny Liston fight, Miami, 1964
Cassius Clay and Sam Cooke, c. 1964
by Peter Guralnick
Jerry Brandt got them all tickets for the Clay-Liston fight in Miami on February 25. Allen brought his wife, Betty, Sam took Barbara, and J.W. came by himself, with Allen arranging for accommodations at Miami’s resplendent Fountainebleau Hotel. Allen had already registered and was in his room when Sam arrived, only to be told that there had been a mix-up about the reservations. It was not as blatant as Shreveport, but Sam had no reason to take it any more lightly. Miami Beach, like Las Vegas, had never made a habit of accommodating Negro guests. It might present the best in colored entertainers, but until very recently those entertainers had always come in through the back door. Sam called Allen, and Allen came down to the lobby and made a scene. “I just lost it. I screamed at them, ‘Don’t you know what prejudice is? How can you people, after all the discrimination we’ve been through, do the same thing?’ It was an embarrassment to me—Jewish place, Jewish people, and they didn’t want to give him a room?” Allen threatened to camp out in the lobby until they sorted this thing out. And in the end, the hotel came up with a nice suite on the second floor.
Malcolm X, too, was in Miami, as Cassius Clay’s personal guest. He was staying across the bay, at the Hampton House Motel, in a black section of town. Malcolm had arrived with his wife and three little girls over a month earlier for a brief family vacation (the first one they had ever had, Malcolm wrote in his autobiography), a gift from the challenger. Clay had then broken training and flown back to New York with Malcolm for a Muslim rally, where, speaking for the silenced minister (Malcolm was still under the interdiction imposed by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in the wake of his remarks about President Kennedy’s assassination), Clay told “cheering Muslim members,” the Amsterdam News reported, “that ‘Every time I go to a Muslim meeting I get inspired,’ [then] predicted to the audience that he would win the fight because ‘I’m training on lamb chops and that big ugly bear [Liston] is training on pork chops,’ in reference to the fact that Muslims don’t eat pork.” “Cassius Clay Almost Says He’s a Muslim,” was the disapproving headline in the News, a story that was picked up in newspapers all across the country and brought ticket sales to a grinding halt. The promoter threatened to cancel the fight unless Clay agreed to eliminate any further public reference to Islam or visible contact with his mentor, and Malcolm did not return to Miami until February 23, two days before the fight.
It was the same old story, Sam thought. Everyone wanted Cassius Clay to remain the “All-American boy”—and if he didn’t, the same black bourgeoisie that had opposed Martin and the Movement didn’t want the white world to find out about it. Fuck the white world. This was a young man who couldn’t be contained, who had embraced a despised doctrine of black separatism and self-determination out of religious conviction but who still retained an irrepressible gift for showmanship and abundant intellectual curiosity. Nor did it escape Sam’s attention that when the new British group, the Beatles, arrived in Miami for the second in a trio of phenomenally successful appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show (their major-label U.S. debut, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” had been dominating the pop charts for the last month), who should they seek out at his dingy Miami training quarters but Cassius Clay? Whatever the outcome of the fight, there was no doubt in Sam’s mind that Cassius was going to shake up the world, with his wit, his ingenuity, his sheer force of will. As Malcolm X said of his protégé, “Though a clown never imitates a wise man, the wise man can imitate a clown.” Like Sam, Clay possessed “that instinct of seeing a tricky situation shaping up . . . and resolving how to sidestep it.”
Sonny Liston, on the other hand, was a study in menace, the kind of plodding, surly gangster mentality that Sam had spent a lifetime seeking to sidestep. Liston had always been held up as the devil incarnate, the original bogeyman, by boxing commentators both black and white. “Sonny Liston: ‘King of the Beasts'” was the title of a Look magazine story on the upcoming fight, and the NAACP had disowned Liston two years earlier. James Brown almost alone among entertainers and sports figures had urged the black community to give Sonny a chance. “Sonny Liston isn’t the worst person in the . . . world and should not be treated like he’s the world’s first public figure to have a record of being in trouble,” James had declared, with an empathy born of his own troubled past. But there had been few concurring voices until now, when, faced with Clay’s baffling mixture of unpardonable braggadocio and inappropriate religious preference, the white sports establishment found itself forced almost by default to pick Liston as its choice. “An aura of artificiality surrounds Tuesday’s heavweight championship fight,” declared the New York Times. “On that evening, the loud mouth from Louisville is likely to have a lot of vainglorious boasts jammed down his throat by a ham-like fist,” a well-deserved comeuppance, suggested columnist Arthur Daley, even if that fist belonged to a “malefic destroyer.” The vast majority of black commentators, wishing perhaps that this embarrassing young upstart would just shut up and go away, reluctantly embraced Liston as well. It was the modern equivalent of the Cross and the Crescent, Malcolm told Cassius Clay upon his return to Miami. “This fight is the truth,” he said.
It was probably that same night that a number of the Muslims from Clay’s camp, including his younger brother Rudy (Rudolph Valentino Clay), who was fighting in one of the preliminary bouts, gathered in Allen Klein’s suite. To Jerry Brandt, who was now courting Rudy, too, as a potential William Morris client, the subject under discussion was purely pragmatic. He and Allen were advancing the proposition that the Muslims should keep their distance from Clay for the time being if only to allow him to continue to be able to make a living. Allen, who never ran away from a good argument (“I minored in Christian ethics in college. I had never been with Muslims before, but I heard Malcolm X on [talk show host] Barry Gray very early in his career, and I didn’t have to agree with what he said, I just liked to listen to him”), took it one step further. “I hope he loses,” he said to the disbelief of the Clay camp. “He’ll get more sympathy that way, and then you can really make a lot of money.” They were up till four o’clock in the morning, heatedly discussing a wide range of issues. “We were feeding them,” said Allen good-humoredly, “and they were just tearing the Jews apart, arguing about which religion came first.” At one point in the evening, J.W., who was there without Sam, got into a conversation with Clay’s road manager, Osman Karriem, whom he and Sam had both known as Archie Robinson when he was working for the Platters. Karriem was concerned that the growing enmity between Malcolm and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was developing into a life-and-death struggle for leadership that Malcolm was unlikely to win. J.W., who admired Malcolm for both his intellectual discernment and his oratorical skills, saw few viable alternatives. “I said there were two things he could do. He could either go to Adam Clayton Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church on Sunday morning and get up and say, ‘I have seen the light!'” Which was not exactly a realistic prospect. Or he could make a pilgrimage to Mecca, where, Alex felt, he would discover that the mumbo-jumbo mythology of the Black Muslim religion, with its equation of white people with “human devils” and its elaborate devolutionary theory of genetic “tricknology,” was far removed from true Mohammedanism. But Alex was uncomfortable with talking to someone about their religion, and he didn’t expect Karriem to go along with his thinking any more than Karriem would expect the older man to go along with his. So they continued their discussions late into the night, and eventually all talk returned to the fight.
The fight itself was as strange and unpredictable in its own way as the events leading up to it. The auditorium was only half full, even with all the comps the promoters had given out, when Sam, Barbara, J.W., Allen, and Betty Klein all took their places in the seventh row, with Malcolm just a few seats away. Cassius watched his brother win his first professional bout from the rear of the arena, wearing a black tuxedo. Then he retreated to his dressing room with Malcolm, where they joined together in silent prayer. After all the uproar surrounding the promotion, there was no need for words, and Cassius, who had created such a scene at the weigh-in that morning that the medical examiner nearly canceled the fight, exhibited a calm that appeared to reflect Malcolm’s argument that for the true believer in Black Muslim doctrine, there was no such thing as fear, that while “the Mohammedan abroad believes in a heaven and a hell, a hereafter, here we believe that heaven and hell are on this earth and that we are in the hell and must strive to escape it.”
Cassius entered the ring, armed with that belief. He was nervous, he admitted afterward (“It frightened me, just knowing how hard he hit”), and he began by furiously backpedaling, ducking and dodging and moving from side to side. But then he dropped his hands to his sides, and, with a look of serene self-confidence, in a manner that could be compared with that of no other heavyweight in history (though it was certainly inspired by his idol, the great welter- and middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson), he danced. Watched today, it remains a thing of grace and beauty, but it is the expression on Sonny Liston’s face that is most revealing—a look of puzzlement that suggested, Sam said later, that Cassius Clay won the fight right then and there.
As Clay continued to dance and Liston continued to lumber after him, there was a slow dawning of recognition on the part of the crowd. Allen had taken Clay in the second against J.W.’s $500 on Liston, and when the fight was over, with Liston refusing to answer the bell for the seventh, J.W. sat in stunned amazement, not only due to the unexpected loss of his $500 but because Sam was making his way to the ring.
Cassius was in the middle of an interview with television announcer Steve Ellis and former champ Joe Louis when he spotted Sam, almost disheveled with excitement, his tie removed, shirt open. “Sam Cooke!” the new champion called out with unabashed enthusiasm. “Hey, let that man up here.” Ellis did his best to ignore yet another in a string of uncontrollable developments (“I want justice! I want justice!” the new champ had just been calling out). “This is Sam Cooke!” Cassius shouts. “We see him. We see him,” says the announcer, looking utterly bewildered. “Joe, ask Cassius another question.” But Cassius is not to be deterred.
“Let Sam in,” he insists with all the fervor he has put into the fight. “This is the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll singer.” And Sam is almost catapulted into the ring as Cassius ruffles his hair and throws an arm around him. “Sam Cooke. Very good friend. Good vocalist,” says the announcer, while Sam and Cassius face off, much in the manner that Cassius and the “clown prince” of his entourage, Drew “Bundini” Brown, have been trading lines (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was the mantra Brown had given Clay) all through training camp. “We gonna shake up the world!” the champ calls out one more time. “You’re beautiful,” says Sam, his face wreathed in smiles, his expression one of innocent mirth. “Thank you, Sam, thank you,” says the announcer, finally able to hustle Sam off camera.
Dee Dee Sharp, who was performing at the Sir John Hotel and had been seeing Cassius on and off for the last few months, had been planning a post-fight party for him, and there was a big victory celebration at the Fountainebleau, but Cassius chose to go back to the Hampton House with Malcolm, Sam, and Jim Brown, the football great, who had provided radio commentary for the fight. They sat in Malcolm’s room with Osman Karriem and various Muslim ministers and supporters, eating vanilla ice cream and offering up thanks to Allah for Cassius’ victory, as an undercover FBI informant took note of this apparent nexus between the Nation of Islam and prominent members of the sports and entertainment industries. Sam was uncharacteristically quiet, taking in the magnificent multiplicity of the moment. To him, Cassius was not just a great entertainer but a kindred soul. He had made beating Liston look easy, and Sam was convinced he would beat him again. Because, armed with an analytic intelligence, he had made him afraid. Jim Brown, an outspoken militant himself, though not a member of the Nation, appeared to veteran black sports reporter Brad Pye Jr. to be more elated over Clay’s achievement than any of his own. “Well, Brown,” said Malcolm with a mixture of seriousness and jocularity, “don’t you think it’s time for this young man to stop spouting off and get serious?”
That is exactly what Cassius did at a pair of press conferences he held in the two days following the fight. He was a Muslim, he said. “There are seven hundred fifty million people all over the world who believe in it, and I’m one of them.” He wasn’t a Christian. How could he be, “when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blowed up. . . . I’m the heavyweight champion, but right now, there are some neighborhoods I can’t move into.
I’m a good boy. I never done anything wrong. I have never been in jail. I have never been in court. . . . I don’t pay any attention to all those white women who wink at me. If I go in somebody’s house where I’m not welcome, I’m uncomfortable, so I stay away. I like white people. I like my own people. They can live together without infringing on each other. You can’t condemn a man for wanting peace. If you do, you condemn peace itself. A rooster crows only when it sees the light. Put him in the dark, and he’ll never crow. I have seen the light and I’m crowing.
Then he returned to the little bungalow in the North Miami ghetto that he and his entourage had occupied dormitory-style, two or three to a room, for the last two months. He was greeted, as always, by neighborhood children hanging around to see what was happening, the same ones who had faithfully attended the movies he showed every night with colorful commentary in the backyard. “Who shook up the world?” he demanded, and they responded, “Cassius Clay!” “Who’s the prettiest?” he called out, leading them in an orchestrated chant, while Malcolm X looked on benignly. Clay and the kids could keep it up for a full hour if they felt like it. “Sometimes,” wrote George Plimpton in a story for Harper’s, “a bright girl, just for a change, would reply ‘me,’ pointing a finger at herself when everyone else was shouting, ‘Cassius Clay,’ or she might shout, ‘Ray Charles,’ and the giggling would start around her . . . until Clay, with a big grin, would have to hold up a hand to reorganize the claque and get things straightened out. Neither he nor the children tired of the litany. . . . The noise carried for blocks.”
Clay arrived in New York three days later, checking into the Hotel Theresa on Sunday afternoon after making the trip in his smart new chartered bus. On Monday, March 2, he gave an interview to the Amsterdam News, with Malcolm accompanying him to the newspaper’s offices. He was henceforth to be identified as Cassius X, he told his interviewer; he would no longer recognize his slave name. He was thinking of going on a boxing exhibition tour that might include Mecca, the Holy City, as well as Cairo, Rome, London, Germany, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey. Elijah Muhammad was “the sweetest man in the world. Malcolm X? I fell in love with him after watching him on television, discussing Islam with those educators—leaving them with their mouths wide open. . . . The whole world recognizes me now that they know my religion is Islam. The religion is the truth, and I am ready to die for the truth. I am the greatest.”
The following evening, he and Sam made the record they had started talking about the previous fall. Sam got Horace Ott to write the arrangements, with a&r man Dave Kapralik, who had courted Sam so assiduously for Columbia and signed Clay to the label, proudly on hand for the occasion. The song Sam had put together to showcase the champion’s limited singing skills was called “Hey Hey, The Gang’s All Here” and was little more than a variation on the age-old party chant. The one departure was a litany of place-names that evoked the classic r&b instrumental “Night Train,” with the singer calling out “Is Memphis with me? Is Louisville with me? Is Houston with me?” and the large backup chorus responding loudly and enthusiastically each time. They worked hard at it, with Sam supplying the energy and direction and keeping everybody’s spirits up while Cassius recited poetry and played the drums in between takes. And in the end, everyone walked out of the studio convinced that they had participated in something memorable if not musically significant (“It was a great thing,” said Horace Ott. “I said to my wife, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I like the mix.’ The New York Times came in and covered it”), somehow carried along by the champion’s indomitable self-belief and Sam’s invincible charm. Dave Kapralik alone was left to wonder if it might not be all over before it had even started as a result of Clay’s impolitic announcement that he was indeed a Black Muslim.
Cassius and Malcolm went to the UN the next day, where they were given a two-hour tour and Clay announced his plans to accompany Malcolm to Asia and Africa (“I’m champion of the whole world, and I want to meet the people I am champion of”), while signing autographs for UN workers and African delegates as “Cassius X Clay.”
Very likely that same day, Sam accompanied him to a New York television studio for a transatlantic interview with Harry Carpenter, the dean of British boxing commentators, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the repartée. After a five-minute analysis of the fight, punctuated by jokes, poetry, and Sam’s off-camera chuckles, Carpenter asked, “Cass, who’s that you’ve got there with you in the New York studio?” “Well, here with me,” Cassius responded affably, “I have one of the greatest singers in America, and I would say all over the world, Mr. Sam Cooke. Come here, Sam, I’ve got the British press here. This is Sam Cooke. As you can see, like me, he’s awful pretty.”
Sam is all smiles, dressed to the nines in a sharp, shiny suit and a radiant smile, as he perches on the edge of the microphone table with his arm around Cassius. They’ve been working on a record, which they expect to have out in another week, Clay says. “Would you like to give us a preview?” asks the host, and Cassius starts to explain how much better it would sound with the chorus behind him and the party atmosphere they created in the studio, until Sam, relaxed but clearly attentive to every nuance not just of Clay’s speech but of his physiognomy as well, starts beating out a rhythm on the table. “Come on,” he says, “let’s give them —” And then, tentatively at first, Clay starts singing the first verse, his eyes glued on Sam, as Sam guides the vocal with a softly voiced vocal of his own.
Hey, hey, the gang’s all here, join in the fun
Hey, hey, the gang’s all here, we gonna swing as one
When they come to the chorus (“Is New York with me? Is Chicago with me? Is London with me?”), it is Sam who adds his full-throated “Yeah,” to indicate, as Cassius has already explained to Carpenter, the high regard in which he is held throughout the world. It is a thoroughly charming performance, both for its artlessness and for the obvious affection that exists between the two men, and at the end, when Cassius asks his interviewer, “How’d you like that?,” the response is instantaneous and sincere. “I like that very much.”
“Well, Cassius, it’s been really great fun talking to you,” Carpenter says after Sam has gracefully excused himself. “It seems to me that you are to some extent a changed man. I detect a little quieting down, a little more dignity behind you. Is this right?”
“Well, I have changed a little,” replies the champ. “I don’t have to talk like I used to. I’ve been campaigning. Take politicians, for an example. They walk the streets, talk to people, meet people, shake hands, pass out pickets, talk about how great they are, ‘Vote for me’—and then after they’re in office, they quieten down.” In the background is the sound of Sam (and maybe Alex, too) chuckling to himself. Once the politicians have gotten where they want to be, said Cassius, they don’t have to campaign anymore.
What he didn’t say, but what he had been saying to the New York press, was that in just a few days, when Malcolm’s suspension from public speaking would be ended by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, he wouldn’t have to talk anymore, at least not about his faith, because Malcolm’s words would be so much more eloquent than his own. But Malcolm’s suspension was not ended. In fact, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, inflamed by Malcolm’s growing identification with the most celebrated public convert in the Nation’s forty-year history, as well as Malcolm’s all-too-evident disillusionment with his leadership, called up Cassius Clay two days later, on the evening of March 6, and told him that he must permanently sever his relationship with Malcolm. He told Cassius that he must also embrace the new name, Muhammad Ali, that Elijah had given him. Clay had been resistant when Elijah first broached the subject. “Muhammad Ali” was an “original” (that is, Arabic) name, the kind of honorific that Elijah had publicly declared would not be bestowed until the Second Coming of the Founder, Wallace Fard. Not only that, it incorporated a portion of Fard’s own Islamic name. But with an official announcement of the name change that night on Elijah’s radio broadcast, Cassius Clay no longer had any choice in the matter.
That Sunday, March 8, Malcolm announced his break with the Nation of Islam, making it clear that the break was not of his own volition and referring to Elijah Muhammad on national television as “morally bankrupt.” He made numerous attempts to contact Muhammad Ali, but none of his calls were taken. A little over a month later, he set off on the pilgrimage to Mecca that he had discussed many times with his onetime protégé, from which he would return a spiritually changed man. In Ghana, Malcolm ran into Muhammad Ali, on his own pilgrimage to Africa, at the Hotel Ambassador, but Ali would not speak to him. “Did you get a look at Malcolm?” he declared sarcastically to reporters. “Dressed in that funny white robe and wearing a beard and walking with that cane that looked like a prophet’s stick? Man, he’s gone . . . so far out, he’s out completely. No one listens to Malcolm anymore.” “That hurt Malcolm more than any other [rejection],” said Malcolm X confidant and biographer Alex Haley. But they never spoke again, and Malcolm was assassinated by Muslims loyal to Elijah some eight months later.
by Peter Guralnick
From the book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick. Copyright © 2005 by Peter Guralnick. Published and reprinted by arrangement with the author and Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.