It’s a shame Cassius Clay’s “I Am the Greatest” was recorded in 1963, when Clay was still Clay and not yet Muhammad Ali. A year or two later, it might have been a better album, aided by the budding black-pride consciousness that Ali unveiled on an unsuspecting America still familiar with Clay the sweet-swinging court jester. As it stands, “I Am the Greatest” serves as a time-capsule relic of Clay as entertainer, a minstrel-show participant doing his act amid the sounds of impossibly dated orchestral wallpaper and seemingly canned audience response.
This is not to say “I Am the Greatest” — a recording of Clay in a staged nightclub setting in his pre-champ days in 1963 — is anything less than invaluable. On the contrary, it serves to set up the historical drama in Clay’s shift into Ali, into a harbinger of celebratory blackness both of and distinctly before its time. This drama — not the fighter’s quick hands and impeccable footwork — is what inspired George Plimpton and Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe to wave their New Journalistic pens at Ali and examine the fighter as a pop icon equal parts athletics, entertainment, politics and spirituality. The same drama is what prompted millions to look upon Ali as a prophet, marveling at his
When “I Am the Greatest” was released, Clay was just a boxer and,
to many, a bit of a clown. Nobody actually believed he would beat Sonny Liston in the 1964 heavyweight championship bout that is the subject of much of the spoken-word album. By all accounts, Clay should have lost and then faded into a dated memory of his loud mouth and self-proclaimed good looks. (And “I Am the Greatest” would not have been pulled from vinyl-only obscurity almost 36 years after its initial release.) For all his talk of declaring Liston’s jaw “a disaster area,” even Clay had doubts. Instead he won, forcing Liston to voluntarily bow out between rounds in a storybook finish to Clay’s princely arrival as a champ and a hero.
Did Liston listen to “I Am the Greatest” before the fight? If so, he must have been beguiled. On one hand, there was Clay, an expert in twisted psychology. His tireless, almost mantric, dismissal of Liston’s foreboding legend is effective, if only for its determination. On the other hand, Clay was a comic, a joker out for a few laughs and the flattering glare of the spotlight, convincing the world — and himself — that he was the greatest. Even more impressive was his ability to turn such a declaration in on itself and proscribe it as a consciously comic stance, winkingly exposing its absurd grandiosity. By relying on self-deprecation, he made such a self-appreciating claim all the more indisputable. In a way, the record shows Clay both as the Trojan Horse and the war-hungry soldiers within it.
Such a reading makes “I Am the Greatest” an interesting album. The sounds on the record itself, however, do not. In short order, the album consists of spoken-word bits and mock dramas delivered over orchestration that would be at home in a Borscht Belt night club. Of course, Clay was spewing beautiful bits of poetry. “Here I predict Mr. Liston’s dismemberment. I’ll hit him so hard he’ll wonder where October and November went,” he says. Clay hadn’t yet acquired the pure poetic genius he would make his own. There are no lines quite as good as “I have rassled with an alligator/I done tossled with a whale/I done locked up lightning/And thrown thunder in jail,” delivered in “When We Were Kings,” the magnificent documentary of his 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.” But he’s sparring with words, no doubt.
And for anyone wondering if Clay could sing like he could sting, among the disc’s bonus tracks is a straight rendering of “Stand by Me,” melody and all, and an original go-go number, “The Gang’s All Here.” He didn’t quite have the voice of an angel, but then an angel couldn’t have dropped Liston. “I Am the Greatest” may not be the greatest album, but as part of the historical record, it puts up a doozy of a fight.