By Peter “The Emperor” Stitt
On January 8th 1935, a baby was born in Tupelo, Mississippi into a family struggling through endless poverty, just “white trash” in the minds of the white middle-class, a kid with no future. He went on to become the most important figure in entertainment history and, in the process, completely destroyed the established barriers of race.
On January 17th 1942, a baby was born in Louisville, Kentucky into a family struggling through endless poverty, just another “black kid” in the minds of the white middle-class, a kid with no future. He went on to become the most important figure in boxing history and, in the process, completely destroyed the established barriers of race.
A quality these two iconic figures shared was instinctive intelligence, much of the seemingly apocalyptic disruption they caused to the white status quo that then existed came not by design but as a result of their personalities and upbringings. They didn’t, at least initially, seem to know what they were doing, they were being themselves. Muhammad Ali displayed an increasing self-awareness as he matured but Elvis Presley drowned in a sea of material success, cronies and complacency.
It is hardly surprising that Ali and Presley became good friends, their backgrounds were so similar and they became the two arms of the pincer movement of civil rights within entertainment and sport. Given that the civil rights in question were those that should have always belonged to all in America, it was crucial that the movement was supported by prominent figures from both black and white communities. Elvis, less articulate than Ali, preferred not to comment on politics but songs such as “In the Ghetto” and “If I Can Dream”, and of course his friendships with BB King, Fats Domino and others, make it clear where Elvis stood on civil rights. Muhammad, possibly less aware than Elvis of the McCarthy Witch Trials of the ‘40s and ‘50s that wrecked the careers of so many within entertainment who held “liberal” views, just wore his heart boldly on his sleeve.
During the height of Elijah Muhammad’s influence upon him, Ali spouted some decidedly segregationist ideas on UK TV that led to accusations of racism. In 1957 Elvis was accused of making a racist remark (in a place he had never visited and at a time he was clearly somewhere else) and was similarly accused. Muhammad later rejected that area of the Nation of Islam’s teaching whilst many black friends leapt to Elvis’ defense. Blues man Ivory Joe Hunter said: “He showed me every courtesy. I think he’s one of the greatest.” whilst pianist Dudley Brooks declared: “He faces everyone as a man”. We all knew Ali wasn’t racist and Michael Parkinson, the man who interviewed him on TV, cites Ali as the greatest interviewee he ever met in a career of nearly half a century.
Ali and Elvis shared the pressure and loneliness of being “the greatest” in their respective professions and they came to represent America to the world in a way that no politician could ever achieve. Later, Muhammad would fulfill Elvis’ last engagement after his friend had died. The Las Vegas Hilton Hotel’s new Pavilion was supposed to open with a special Elvis show in October 1977 and, as Hilton’s then Vice President, Henri Lewin put it: “We wanted it to be the greatest opening ever. We considered him so great that what we replaced him with was the Ali-Spinks fight. When we lost Elvis, we knew we had to get Ali no matter what it cost. No one else was big enough.” Opening delayed, Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks in February 1978, whilst helping his old friend out again.
Elvis fell in love with Gospel music, and his family’s move to Memphis in November 1948 was a natural one for the young Presley, it gave him access to Beale Street, the best black music and the best black clothes. It was probably more innately natural for Elvis to sing blues than Dean Martin stuff, he had lived in similar poverty to most blues singers and had seen the disdain with which he, too, was viewed by middle-class white America. Presley had been brought up with blues around him as surely as any black kid because he was on the same social level as his black neighbors, they were all in hell, with the world looking down on them. When Elvis recorded those classic Sun Records tracks he was playing his music, our music, for black and white, for everyone and anyone. The new hybrid music sounded so fresh and natural because it was fresh and natural.
At the Memphis WDIA fundraising event of 1957 for “needy Negro children”, Elvis was happy to take a back seat whilst Ray Charles and other R & B and Gospel stars played. He only came out on stage, at Rufus Thomas’ request, to show his support for the cause at the end of the show. He was later heard profusely thanking BB King for the musical education he had picked up from the old master. Carla Thomas recalled Elvis staying with her and the other black kids after the show, fooling around on piano, “He stayed that long, and we were just having a lot of fun. I remember that Elvis.” The year before this event, Elvis had actually broken the law in attending a Memphis fairground on a designated “colored night” because he simply felt “at home” with people whether they were black or white. Later Rufus Thomas would state, "Well a lot of people said Elvis stole our music. Stole the black man's music. The black man, white man, has got no music of their own. Music belongs to the universe." I agree with that sentiment.
Elvis and Jackie Wilson were simply a huge mutual fan club. Elvis adored Wilson’s voice, technique and exuberant live performance style whilst Jackie said of Elvis "A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis" which sets the notion of Elvis “stealing” black music on its head. This interaction with black artists was not publicized at the time by any of the involved parties but, when Elvis first appeared on national TV on the Dorsey show on January 28th, 1956, white middle-class America was outraged by the appearance of a white black man. By the Milton Berle show and the legendary performance of “Hound Dog” that caused so much trouble in June that year, the establishment were convinced that Elvis was part of a black conspiracy to undermine civilization as they knew it. In some ways he was, and he did, because things would never be the same again. As Little Richard put it "Elvis was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn't let Black music through. He opened the door for Black music." Ernest Withers concurs: "Elvis was a great man and did more for civil rights than people know. To call him a racist is an insult to us all."
Elvis’ 1968 NBC TV Special allowed us all to forgive him for the endless run of Hollywood drivel he had allowed himself to be contracted to. Just prior to the historic TV show he had hit us with “Guitar Man”, US Mail” and “Big Boss Man”, following the gig he gave us “Suspicious Minds” and the “From Elvis In Memphis” album which, for me, would be a good contender for the title of greatest rock/soul album ever made, right up there with “Otis Blue.” The man was back and we loved him.
In Muhammad Ali’s life controversy also came quickly. As the Heavyweight Champ a conversion to the Nation of Islam was a horror story for white America. Muhammad seemed brainwashed and, even when Malcolm X told him they had all been sold a pack of lies and there were white Muslims in Mecca, Ali took the side of Elijah Muhammad against his former friend. Ali became public enemy No.1 and his subsequent refusal of the draft for Vietnam pushed everything “over the edge” and brought direct confrontation with the US government. However, as the civil rights and anti-war movements gathered momentum, Ali gained a new support base comprised of students and hippies that seemed at odds with his strict Islamic views.
Ali’s performances in the ring at the time were those of the most gifted heavyweight in history. The drama and controversy of the Sonny Liston fights, the anger and bad blood with Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell, the ease with which he raced through the division, Ali was clearly special as a fighter, immensely complex as a human being. The man was an artist in the ring, speedy and artistic, unlike any heavyweight since Jack Johnson, and yet he still had the grit to demolish a Cleveland Williams. Outside of boxing he was a black leader, a young man who feared nothing and nobody, including the US government. To black America, he was their son, their Heavyweight Champion, a high earning black celebrity who would get out of the car and walk into black areas just to meet the normal people in any city he visited.
What won Ali respect and, more importantly, affection from the white mainstream, however, occurred as a result of the events following his glorious 1960s rampage. The world looked at what he had sacrificed when he was stripped of his title and license and realized that his “political” and “religious” convictions were sincere, looking at the conflict in Vietnam afresh. When he returned to the ring he fought Jerry Quarry and Bonavena, top contenders, after a layoff of three and a half years! Perhaps the most significant event in the “rehabilitation” process that Ali underwent in the eyes of white America without, himself, taking a backward step was the first defeat of his career against Joe Frazier at Madison Square Gardens on March 8th 1971. Ali fought his heart out, took a pounding like we’d never seen him take, and then showed grace in defeat. We had all wondered how the great man would handle a defeat and he showed class, humility, grace. Muhammad had now won all of his battles with the world due to the character he displayed there and then, he was back at the very top of human achievement and he had not compromised at all. THE man was back and we loved him.
Later Muhammad would defeat the “unbeatable” George Foreman in 1974 in Zaire to reclaim his title, truly internationalizing the Heavyweight Championship of the World in the process. One year earlier, Elvis had performed in the “Aloha from Hawaii” satellite show, broadcast to possibly the biggest TV audience in history. Elvis and Ali were the two most recognizable human beings on the planet, known for providing pleasure and entertainment for people regardless of nationality, race, class or religion.
I think mutual respect is the best description of the nature of Ali and Elvis’ relationship. Ali speaks fondly of Elvis: "Elvis was my close personal friend. He came to my Deer Lake training camp about two years before he died. He told us he didn't want nobody to bother us. He wanted peace and quiet and I gave him a cabin in my camp and nobody even knew it. When the cameras started watching me train, he was up on the hill sleeping in the cabin. Elvis had a robe made for me. I don't admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you'd want to know." The robe mentioned refers to the one Elvis presented to Muhammad before he fought Joe Bugner the first time and upon the back it says simply and truthfully “The People’s Champion.” That is probably the closest you will ever get to Elvis Presley expressing an opinion of anyone, his management rigidly controlled pretty much everything he said and did. On the few occasions he broke free he would produce something like the album “From Elvis in Memphis” or the ’68 TV special.
Ali also recalled taking Elvis out to a club one night dressed in a disguise because, had the clientele known it were Elvis, he would have been mobbed whilst Ali was a familiar face there. They must have been like two big kids together and I think it is a tragedy that Elvis didn’t get to spend more time with Muhammad. Maybe Elvis would have learned better to cope with fame and been able to walk freely with normal people, in contact with reality.
Ali was a wild, free spirit and could not be contained whilst Elvis seemed to enjoy the Colonel’s enforced containment. Success early in life must be difficult to handle and, whilst Elvis enjoyed hanging with the “yes men” and being able to blame bad artistic moves on the Colonel, Ali had more of an innate intelligence for seeing the truth within a situation. Muhammad was perhaps more inherently honest to himself because he was not frightened of what he might find while Elvis did not wish to hear bad news. They were like brothers who could behave like children sometimes when they were together but, as occasionally happens, the younger man turns out to be the more rounded and more complete person.
It’s all done and dusted and, whilst it could be argued that Elvis neglected his God-given talent for most of his career and underachieved, who wouldn’t want to be able to claim the commercial and artistic record of Elvis Presley? That voice and charisma touched the world intimately in a way no other artist has ever come close to. That is how good Elvis Presley was and is. He cut across race and religion.
Ali, meanwhile, went on fighting and ended up “damaged” as a consequence. It may seem stupid to ask the question but: is this a bad thing? None of us could have stopped Muhammad fighting on, it was entirely his choice. Is it not, also, true to say that Muhammad’s found more peace with his current condition than he would have in perfect physical condition? And have the great man’s great achievements stopped due to his medical condition? I remember American hostages being freed during the first Gulf War, I know that crowds still gather whenever Muhammad is around. Maybe this was all just meant to be and perhaps Muhammad knew this and that would explain the dignified and quietly confident way in which he has accepted his medical state.
The word Allah simply means God in Arabic and I believe that we are sent these gifted and beautiful people by God to entertain us, take us along with them on their emotional and physical roller coaster careers and, ultimately, to teach us lessons. There is a great deal to learn from the lives of Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley, some negative things but, overwhelmingly, the experience of them has been a huge positive for mankind.
(The quotations used here largely come from Peter Guralnick’s “Last Train to Memphis” and from the official site of the Elvis Presley estate.)