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How Muhammad Ali Became "King of the World"

David Remnick is the author of the new book "King of the World" (Random House) about heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Remnick was appointed editor of the New Yorker Magazine this year, and is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Lenin's Tomb."


Other segments from the episode on October 28, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 28, 1998: Interview with David Remnick; Commentary on black and white influences in country music.


Date: OCTOBER 28, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102801np.217
Head: David Remnick
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE INTERVIEWER: Cassius, can I ask you how you're feeling now at this point?

CASSIUS CLAY, PROFESSIONAL BOXER: I'm feeling great. I'm ready to go to war right now.

INTERVIEWER: Well, when you say you're ready to go war right now...

CLAY: If I see that bum on the street, I'll beat him before the fight.

INTERVIEWER: You'd actually take him on before the fight?

CLAY: Beat him like I'm his daddy.

INTERVIEWER: I saw Sonny Liston a few you days ago, actually...

CLAY: Ain't he ugly? He's too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me.

INTERVIEWER: Well, he told me to bet my life that you wouldn't go three rounds.

CLAY: Well, if you want to lose your money, then bet on Sonny.

INTERVIEWER: May I ask you this?

CLAY: Because I'll never lose a fight. It's impossible. Tell him. It's impossible. Ask any of my fans when was the last time I lost.

I'm too fast. I'm the King. I'm not only a fighter. I'm a poet. I'm a prophet. I'm the resurrector. I'm the savior of the boxing world. If it wasn't for me, the game would be dead.

GROSS: That was Cassius Clay in 1964, shortly before he won the world heavyweight title by defeating Sonny Liston. Soon after, Clay took on a new name, Muhammad Ali. And he became famous, not just for his rhymes and his abilities in the ring, but for his religion and his politics.

Although his outspokenness initially alienated many Americans in the mainstream, Ali became a beloved American hero.

David Remnick has written a new book about Ali in the '60s called "King of the World." Remnick began his career as a sportswriter for "The Washington Post." He became the "Post's" correspondent and went on to write about Russia and other subjects for the "New Yorker."

He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "Lenin's Tomb." Over the summer he became the new editor of the "New Yorker" magazine, replacing Tina Brown.

I asked David Remnick why he wanted to write about Ali.

DAVID REMNICK, AUTHOR, "KING OF THE WORLD"; EDITOR, "NEW YORKER": You know, I wanted to write a story that was distinctly American. Having written a couple of books about Russia and having immersed myself in foreign affairs and foreign reporting for so long, I really wanted to write first and foremost a story about the United States at a particular time.

And in Muhammad Ali, and in not writing a full-length biography, but rather about writing about the early '60s, I discovered that I could write about race in a kind of unexpected narrative-driven way that usually I've been lost at.

With these Russian books, they're big, baggy monsters. There's no clear narrative going on. And with Muhammad Ali and the story of his becoming -- the way he became champion, the way he became a folk legend, I discovered a story in a particular period of time that excited me on all levels: as narrative, as politics, as race -- still our most important American conversation -- all these things on the shoulders of, I think, the most electric personality, of my time, anyway.

GROSS: You say that Ali entered the world of boxing at a time when the expectation was that a Black fighter would behave with absolute deference to White sensibilities. Give me an example of what you mean there.

REMNICK: Well, the champion at the time when Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, was in the Olympics -- he was then a light heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics -- was Floyd Patterson. And Floyd Patterson was certainly no earth shaking fighter. He was not Joe Louis, by any stretch of the imagination. But he imitated Joe Louis as a social type, for reasons of being accepted by the White world, by the White columnists like Jimmy Cannon or Red Smith.

And Patterson was champion for a very brief time before he was utterly destroyed in the ring, twice, by Sonny Liston; who was a different type; who was somebody who was a destroyer; who was in his time was a fighter not unlike Mike Tyson; and a personality not unlike Mike Tyson; a kind of an extremely scary figure to everyone.

The NAACP endorsed Floyd Patterson before his fight with Sonny Liston, because they were so terrified that Sonny Liston would come along and occupy this place in the American culture, which really only accepted Black men as athletes. And it would be bad for -- for the race, essentially. But lo and behold, Sonny Liston was the superior fighter and beat Floyd Patterson twice, both times in the first round.

GROSS: Well, Ali, when you interviewed him, told you that he wanted to be a new kind of Black man when he became famous as a fighter. How do you see him fitting in as a new kind of Black man in the world of boxing?

REMNICK: Well, he was what's still called a race man; not that Liston or Patterson weren't necessarily. But he was in a new and surprising way -- he represented a generational shift that took Whites and middle class Blacks as well by surprise. He was the forerunner to the Black Power movement. He was the forerunner to the draft resistance movement.

He came along at a time when these sort of things were unknown to Whites. He grew up in a household in which his father was a fairly humble sign painter in Louisville, Kentucky. And his father was deeply influenced -- as were many Blacks throughout the country in the '20s, '30s and thereafter -- by Marcus Garvey; Black Nationalism of a kind that Whites had no clue about.

And by the time he -- even before he was fighting, he was filled with this notion of what a Black man, what a Black woman, what anyone in segregated Louisville had to live through and suffer. And he would have none of it.

GROSS: Well, before he became politicized and before he joined the Nation of Islam, he became known for his really flamboyant style of showmanship, and particularly for his great rhyming. And what insights did you get about how he developed that showmanship and the verbal flamboyance?

REMNICK: It began at the beginning. He had his first fight when he was 12 years old. Another kid had stolen his bicycle and little Cassius Clay was very angry. And he went down to a basement gym run by a cop in town named Joe Martin.

And Joe Martin said, stop being so angry, and stop threatening to beat everybody up. And why don't you learn how to fight?

And so Cassius Clay learned how to fight, and put on gigantic gloves. He was a little, skinny kid. And he fought one of those sort of church basement-type fights. And he won a split decision -- 12 years old, 98 pounds. And his reaction afterwards was: "I am the greatest. I will be champion of the world. I am the greatest."

The rhetoric that you would hear years and years later -- and you would think he invented it last week -- it came out of his mouth after a split decision against another 12-year-old.

GROSS: What was Sonny Liston's reaction to Ali's kind of playful but also aggressive verbal showmanship before their first championship bout?

REMNICK: Fury and confusion. Sonny Liston was a very simple man, intellectually limited, emotionally limited. And this drove him crazy. He was a great and powerful fighter. He thought he would have no trouble with this guy who fought like Sugar Ray Robinson. He danced around the ring, which, you know, was a bit fey for a heavyweight, after all.

And Cassius Clay, who was fearful of Sonny Liston in his heart, because he knew how powerful he was -- he had seen what he had done to Floyd Patterson -- wanted to find a way to get to his mind, to unnerve him, to scare him, to make him second-guess, to think, really, that he was crazy. Because the one thing Sonny Liston couldn't deal with was somebody who was nuts.

Always in prison, where Sonny Liston had spent some time, the person you never dealt with, the person you always avoided, was the crazy man. That's what you avoided.

And Cassius Clay knew that. I'm calling him Clay now because that's who he was at the time. And Clay did things like, you know, drive his bus to Sonny Liston's house in the middle of the night at three in the morning, run up to the door, and start pounding on the door, screaming and yelling and acting like an insane person.

And Sonny Liston would come out on the lawn in his short bathrobe, not knowing what to make of this guy. And it really unnerved him. And Clay -- and then Ali -- did it over and over and over again. And the one thing Sonny Liston couldn't deal with was a madman.

GROSS: Of course...

REMNICK: But for Clay, of course, it was all by design. And the most famous instance of it was the weigh-in before the first fight. The weigh-in -- Cassius Clay comes in and starts screaming and yelling. Usually these are routine performances, in which you don't really do anything other than get weighed and flex your muscles and get the hell out of there.

He's screaming and yelling: I'm going to destroy him -- and he's jumping at Liston. And his pulse rate is up to -- God knows what it was -- hundreds and hundreds above of what it should have been. And then an hour later after it was over he was absolutely normal and took a nap. It was the most amazing performance, and Sonny Liston went into that ring thinking he was dealing with a nut.

GROSS: It's a very wrestling kind of attitude to have, that type of showmanship.

REMNICK: Well, it's funny you should say that. One of the influences on his showmanship was Gorgeous George, who was the Hulk Hogan of his time. Gorgeous George, a professional wrestler who wore his long blond tresses down past his shoulder blades; who sprayed himself with eau de cologne before going in the ring; who caused everyone to hate him -- also knew how to fill an arena.

And before one of his minor fights -- before the championship fights -- Clay went and saw Gorgeous George. He was on a radio show with him. And he learned from Gorgeous George, and he imitated Gorgeous George.

He got all this rhetoric from the dozens -- playing the dozens on the street, from his father who was a braggart, from Marcus Garvey, from the air, from God knows what. But he had an amazing ability, Muhammad Ali did, of assembling influences that were in the air and making than his own.

GROSS: My guest is David Remnick. His new book about Muhammad Ali is called "King of the World." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Remnick, the new editor of the "New Yorker." He's written a lot about Russia -- Russia and the former Soviet Union. His new book is called "King of the World," and it's a book about Muhammad Ali.

How was Ali introduced to Islam?

REMNICK: It's strange. We think he was influenced when he first went down to Miami and basically met some street guys who were selling, you know, Nation of Islam newspapers. Not so. When he was an amateur fighter still high school, he would go in a station wagon with some other amateurs from Louisville and fight in regional flights.

And one time he was up in Chicago. At that time the Nation of Islam was completely centered in Chicago. Elijah Muhammad live there. And as a kid he was wandering around on the street, and he was given a copy of "Muhammad Speaks." And he also bought a record album of Elijah Muhammad's rhetoric -- his sermons, essentially.

And he brought these home, and he was completely taken up by it. Clearly, this was a searching kid; not an intellectual powerhouse; not a, you know, master of his schoolwork; but a searching mind; someone deeply troubled by the segregated place where he grew up; deeply troubled by the fact that his father was a sign painter who really believed he should have been an artist and was held down.

And these things influenced him. And he -- for his senior paper in his senior year of high school he wanted to write a paper on the Nation of Islam. Well, no one had hardly heard of the Nation of Islam in Louisville.

And the teacher said, no, you can't write about this strange and ultimately threatening thing. So there was the seed of it. And then, of course, it blossomed when he became a professional fighter after the Olympics and started meeting with Muslims and Muslim teachers in Miami.

GROSS: You say that when he became a member of the Nation of Islam that Elijah Muhammad was ambivalent about Cassius Clay and ambivalent about boxing in general. What was that ambivalence about?

REMNICK: He was ambivalent about boxing because he thought, not unreasonably, that the history of boxing, in the United States, especially, is rooted in slavery. It's rooted in the spectacle of strong Black men made to fight each other for the amusement of Whites.

And Elijah Muhammad was for obvious reasons all against that. On the other hand, although he saw Elijah Muhammed as the spiritual father of the movement, the person he was closest to was Malcolm X. Malcolm X was not bothered much by boxing. In fact, Malcolm X was a pretty good athlete growing up. He liked these things.

And so he was able to sort of dance the dance for awhile. And Malcolm X was extremely close with Clay, and was down in Miami with him leading up to that first dramatic fight with Liston. They both stayed at the Hampton Court Hotel, and Malcolm was there as Clay's guest with his wife.

And they became extremely close. It was the formative relationship, where politics and where religion was concerned, prior to Cassius Clay becoming Muhammed Ali. Then the story turns.

GROSS: Yeah, well, Ali kind of got in the middle of the dispute between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

REMNICK: Exactly. And Malcolm X's dispute with Elijah Muhammad had to do with a number of things, including the fact that Elijah Muhammad had fathered children outside of his marriage, which Malcolm X objected to; financial irregularities; the fact that Malcolm X thought that Elijah Muhammad was putting himself far too forward, despite his leadership of the movement.

And they split in the most dramatic way possible, just before this fight. And Malcolm X went down to Miami as much for a vacation -- a psychic vacation for himself. No, until then, by the way, no one really knew that Cassius Clay was, in effect, a member of the Nation of Islam. He knew very well -- he was very sophisticated about this -- that if he announced that he was an adherent to the Nation of Islam before the title fight, the fight would never happen.

And, in fact, the promoter of the fight, Bill McDonald, did find out, because there were some press leaks. And he threatened to call the whole fight off. And Clay refused to renounce anything. And they came to a compromise, and the compromise -- he would wait till after the fight to announce this.

So in the course of 24 hours, in February 1964, Cassius Clay became heavyweight champion of the world to the shock of the entire sporting world, and the next morning announced to the shock of everyone that he was a new and different man, a member of the Nation of Islam.

GROSS: Ali told you when you were talking with him that one of his greatest regrets was basically having abandoned Malcolm in favor of Elijah Muhammad.

REMNICK: When I went up to visit Muhammad Ali in Darien Springs, Michigan, where he lives on a farm, one of the first things he did was take a 8-by-10 glossy out of his briefcase and show it to me; rather silently, because he doesn't speak that much now, for obvious reasons.

And it was a way of showing me that: here I am with Malcolm X -- the picture was of him and Malcolm X -- and it was a very moving way of showing me -- you know, he wasn't taking a picture out of Elijah Muhammad or some other fight.

It was this relationship that he was deeply proud of; and I think in some ways sorry about, because, as you know, after he became champion, Malcolm X went up to New York with Clay -- soon to become Ali. They were great friends. They went to the UN. They hung out at the Hotel Teresa in Harlem, and all the rest.

But then Elijah Muhammad put his foot down and demanded that he choose -- the fighter choose -- between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. And he did. He chose, and he rejected Malcolm X severely and immediately and completely; so much so that on a subsequent trip to Africa some weeks later, they literally -- Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali -- bumped into each other in a hotel lobby. Malcolm X tried to approach him in the friendliest way possible. And Muhammad Ali simply mocked him, made fun of him.

And that was the end of it. And, of course, a year later Malcolm X was gunned down at the Audubon Ballroom uptown in Manhattan.

GROSS: Ali's showmanship certainly helped sell tickets for his fights. What about his membership in the Nation of Islam? A lot of White people saw the Nation as being an anti-White group, and were very alienated by Ali's conversion. How did that affect who showed up at his fights?

REMNICK: Well, at first it was a great threat. And as you know, in the second Liston fight -- first of all, they could barely get a venue. They could barely find a place to fight. There was the threat of the mob. There was also the specter of the Nation of Islam. And a championship fight was held in a small town in Maine, in front of just a few thousand people -- three or four thousand people.

I mean, this is unimaginable. This is when boxing, by the way, was still big. In 1998, perhaps, you could believe it, when boxing has kind of faded and become almost vestigial, with the exception of certain fighters: Tyson, Holyfield, Oscar de La Hoya. And you can be sure it had its effect. And certainly, when he refused to draft, this sense of alienation -- the sense of division between Ali and his public only deepened. And...

GROSS: Well, for some people it deepened, but for others -- like you, for instance, it kind of strengthened the connection to him. Because there were so many young people who were alienated.

REMNICK: Later, later, later.

GROSS: That's true. Right.

REMNICK: Remember, this is us thinking backward. Also, I was a kid at the time. Certainly, if you were 19 years old and against the war, you thought that this was a pretty amazing thing; that this fighter would step away from the heavyweight championship, quite likely to never to fight again; to give up, probably, tens of millions of dollars; giving up the one thing he could do, fight -- because it's not as if he's then going to go off to law school.

And you saw this as bravery -- enormous bravery, at a time when the anti-war movement was still in its infancy. Remember, this is early 1967. The level of avoiding the draft was nothing like it would be two years later.

GROSS: You know, I think early on when Ali became a member of the Nation of Islam and then became anti-war, I think some people just saw that as a sign of his eccentricity, as opposed to a sign of his deep commitment to certain beliefs.

REMNICK: You know, what always saved Ali -- what always saved him from becoming alienated from certain public's -- whether it was the bragging, or the politics, or the religion, anything -- there was always a sense of humor about him. He was always funny, hilarious. And, finally, with time, he won over almost everybody.

I mean, a few racists here and there; a few people who really felt that his stand on Vietnam was deeply, deeply wrong. A few people who, you know, still yearned for the Joe Louis model of behavior, fine, but for the most part, he won over the world, so that at the 1996 Olympics he gets up and lights this torch in the most unexpected, dramatic and moving and beautiful way. And no one's presence on this globe doing that would have moved us more.

GROSS: David Remnick's new book about Muhammad Ali is called "King of the World." Remnick is the new editor of the "New Yorker." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


CLAY: For those of you who won't be able to see the Clay-Liston fight, here's the eighth round, exactly as it will happen.

"Clay comes out to meet Liston. And Liston starts to retreat. If Liston goes back to his corner, he'll end up with a ringside seat. Clay swings with his left. Clay swings with his right. Look at young Cassius carry the fight. Liston keeps backing, but there's not enough room. It's a matter of time, (unintelligible). Now, Liston gets a (unintelligible). The crowd is getting feisty, but Ali (unintelligible) is somewhere over the Atlantic."

GROSS: We are going to continue our talk with David Remnick about his new book "King of the World," which tells the story of Muhammad Ali in the '60s, when he became famous for his rhymes, won the world heavyweight title, joined the Nation of Islam, and abandoned the name Cassius Clay.

Let's look at his actual championship fights with Sonny Liston, and you keep coming back to this throughout the book. Ali almost ended the first championship fight with Liston, because his eyes were burning so much he couldn't even see. And I guess there's always been the rumor that Sonny Liston may have juiced his gloves, meaning he put some kind of substance on his gloves that would have ended up in Ali's eyes -- a chemical of some sort.

REMNICK: My reporting tells me that's beyond rumor; that that really was the case.

GROSS: That really was the case?

REMNICK: Well, what had happened was, he got into the ring -- Sonny Liston got into this ring, having trained for no more than a five round fight. He really thought -- in the way Mike Tyson dealing with Michael Spinks or some inferior fighter -- that he would dispatch with this loudmouth kid very quickly and go out to dinner.

First round happens and this kid is faster than Sugar Ray Robinson. And he's sticking a jab in his face, and welts are coming up. And he cannot touch him. Liston cannot touch him. He's missing by not three inches, but by two feet.

Round two, same thing. And on and on it goes. And all that is left of Sonny Liston as he gets more and more tired, as his hands begin to sink to his side -- boxing is an extraordinarily exhausting process -- especially if you haven't trained. But he decides to cheat, and with the help of one of his corner men, he puts some substance on his gloves. Now do we have this from Sonny Liston? No, Sonny is dead.

We don't have it from the cornerman, Joe Palino (ph), who is dead. But we haven't from a very, very close friend of both Liston and Joe Palino, Jack McKinney, a reporter for the "Philadelphia Daily News" at the time, and a close friend of both -- that he put some substances -- whether it was Munsel solution (ph) or some sort of liniment -- on the gloves; something he had done before, by the way.

And he gets it in Clay's eyes. And Clay sits down in the corner, and he tells Angelo Dundee: cut off the gloves. I can't see, I'm blind. Cut them off.

He wants to quit. It's the one thing that he didn't know how to deal with -- being blind. I mean, he knew he was beating Sonny Liston to the punch every single step of the way. And Angelo Dundee quickly gets as much water into his eyes as possible -- into his fighter's eyes -- and tells him, baby, you ain't quitting, this is for the big one. This is for the title.

No quitting now. Just go out, dance, yardstick him -- which means keep your left out as far as you can, keep your distance, you have a slight reach thing, you've got the speed, and wait till it flushes out.

Meanwhile, in the corner the Black Muslims are sitting there screaming and yelling that Angelo Dundee is a member of the mob, and he's juiced the gloves; that it's Angelo Dundee who is responsible for this, because, after all, he has an Italian name. And the mob is still all over boxing at the time. The mob controlled Sonny Liston.

So this is the drama going on in the space of 60 seconds. Angelo Dundee somehow convinces the referee not to come over to the corner and end the whole thing.

Ali goes back out. Eventually, the stuff washes out of his eyes, and he finishes the job. He continues to frustrate Liston, and Liston, finally, just will not get off his stool to come out and fight the seventh round; end of story.

GROSS: He becomes heavyweight champion there. And then there's a rematch. And the rematch is extraordinary, because Ali knocks him out so quickly.

REMNICK: Well, it's a bizarre fight. It's held in Lewiston, Maine, which is, you know, a textile town, a tiny town, with, you know, one strip joint and two restaurants, and a hotel in Poland Springs (ph). And all the sports writers are whining, why are we here? And all the rest.

At first it was scheduled for Boston, and Ali had some health problems. And it was delayed. They go into the ring, and the atmosphere -- everybody's fearing that the Muslims are going to shoot somebody, and that the mob is there, and that the fix is in, and so on and so forth.

They come out. Ali does his thing. He's dancing around in the ring, dancing around in the ring. Liston is struggling to keep up. All of a sudden, Liston -- Ali turns, pivots, hits Liston with the fastest punch that slow motion has ever recorded -- down goes Liston.

The timekeeper loses all sense of how to do his job. The referee is Jersey Joe Walcott, who really -- fine fighter, bad referee -- confusion. You know, it was a disaster in terms of organization.

End of fight. Probably the most ambiguous and strange heavyweight fight of all time, since the long count of Dempsey long ago.

GROSS: There were rumors that Liston was actually pressured to -- to fall; you know, that he was pressured to...

REMNICK: To take a dive.

GROSS: To take a dive, yeah. Any truth in that, do you think?

REMNICK: I don't think so. I don't think so.

GROSS: You watched this in slow motion and...

REMNICK: I've probably watched it as many times as I've seen "The Godfather," which is an embarrassing number as well. I've probably watched that fight 50 times, because it doesn't take too long. It takes an hour to watch it 50 times. And he hit him. He hit him with a perfectly timed short overhand right that hit him perfectly on the -- the side of the head. Kaboom.

And it was also in the first round when the fighters are cold. That punch probably would not have knocked him out in the seventh round. But in the first-round, when two fighters are cold, the likelihood is far greater that it can.

You know, my feeling is about Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, if they fought 10 times, Muhammad would win nine of them, at least. He'd beat him.

GROSS: David Remnick is my guest. And his new book "King of the World" is about Muhammad Ali. David Remnick is the new editor of the "New Yorker" magazine.

You got to talk with Ali in the research for your book. He's had Parkinson's Disease for some years now. What's it like to be with him now? How is his health? How able is he to talk?

REMNICK: Well, he talks far more hesitantly. I mean, we all talk far more hesitantly than Muhammad Ali did in the '70s. I mean, this was -- this was the great mouth of all time.

And, yes, there's irony or tragedy or whatever you want to call it in the fact that Parkinson's has robbed Muhammad Ali of what delighted him and us most, which is to say his enormous wit, his kind of a verbal symphony and alacrity.

He does speak -- you know, he's not very eager to speak in front of television cameras or on the radio. But with somebody he's sitting in a room with and comfortable with, or if he goes to a reception, he's not nearly as loquacious as before. I mean, Parkinson's does this. But he's perfectly happy to talk back and forth.

And what I did is I went up to Darien Springs with a stack of tapes, and most of what we did was watch these fights over a couple of times. And he reacted to them. And I think that the delighted him and inspired him to talk more than he might ordinarily do.

GROSS: You wonder if Ali maybe already had Parkinson's very early -- a mild form of it -- before his last fight, and that might have affected him in the ring.

REMNICK: It's unclear. I'm not a doctor. Ferdie Paccheco (ph), who was his -- who is a doctor and was in his corner -- left his corner, because he was deeply concerned that certainly by the time you got to the Larry Holmes fight something was deeply wrong.

It's quite clear that in the best of all possible worlds, at the very latest, Muhammad Ali should have quit the ring after his third fight, the so-called "Thrilla in Manila" with Joe Frazier in 1975. And he went on too long, and Ferdie Paccheco very wisely said that Muhammad Ali was "el unico" -- the unique one; except in the way -- and that he was not about boxing. He was about other things.

Boxing almost happened to be a component of him. But what was not unique about Muhammad Ali is the arc of his story was like so many great fighters: He went on way too long in an extremely dangerous, morally dubious, probably, enterprise.

And he -- the great curse of Muhammad Ali's later career is that he discovered he could take a punch. When he came back from exile, he realized that he couldn't dance away from everything the way he could as a kid. And so he learned a new way to fight, and part of it was absorbing punishment; absorbing punishment in the gym; absorbing punishment in the real fight itself.

And so while Muhammad may have won most of these fights in his second career, in almost all of them he absorbed enormous punishment. And from terrific fighters: Ernie Shavers, George Foreman, Joe Frazier -- three times, Jimmy Young, Larry Holmes, and then from second-rate fighters who began to hit him, as well. And this took its enormous toll.

And no one can finally decide whether punching or the genetics of neurology conspired and in what proportion to lead to the condition he's in now. But clearly fighting had taken its toll.

GROSS: My guest is David Remnick, and his new book about Muhammad Ali is called "King of the World." I want to change the subject a little bit and talk with you about the "New Yorker" magazine.

You're the new editor of the "New Yorker." You succeeded Tina Brown, and I understand that she recommended you as her replacement. Why did you want to be editor of the "New Yorker"? And I ask you that as someone who really has made his reputation as a writer. And I think editing and writing probably draw on similar, but different muscles.

REMNICK: I think mostly different muscles; and I think the enterprise of writing, even if it includes enormous amounts of reporting and being out in the world, is essentially a very solitary, private, and in the best sense, selfish enterprise.

You wake up in the morning, and you're thinking about "my piece of work." You're deeply -- if you're any good at all, you're concentrating on this in ways that are extremely annoying to everybody around you. But it's a necessity. I mean, you need some level of concentration day-to-day, especially if you're sustaining a longish thing.

And editing, I'm slowly discovering, or quickly discovering, is in many ways the complete opposite of that, in the sense that you are waking up in the morning with 50 things on your mind. And your primary goal, in many ways, is to get the best work out of someone else.

It's at its root, and should be, a more outward and generous way of being. So I can tell you that the adjustment is no small thing.

GROSS: Well, David Remnick, I want to wish you good luck at the "New Yorker."

REMNICK: Thank you so much.

GROSS: And I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

REMNICK: I appreciate it.

GROSS: David Remnick's new book about Muhammad Ali is called "King of the World." Remnick is the new editor of the "New Yorker."

Coming up, Ed Ward concludes his series on Black and White influences on country music.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: David Remnick
High: David Remnick is the author of the new book "King of the World," about heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Remnick was appointed editor of the "New Yorker" this year, and is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Lenin's Tomb."
Spec: David Remnick; Sports; Muhammad Ali; "King of the World"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: David Remnick

Date: OCTOBER 28, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102802NP.217
Head: The Black and White of Country II
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Although it may be pretty easy to say that a given musician belongs to one race or another, it's not so easy to say that about the music he or she might play. In the second part of a two-part series, Ed Ward shows how radio furthered a musical mix that gave birth to some of the most popular music of the post-war era.


ED WARD, ROCK HISTORIAN: For many years, the first sounds a listener tuning into the Grand Ole Opry heard were the voice of George Hay (ph), the announcer, and the music of Deford Bailey (ph), a Black harmonica player.

The Opry was a phenomenon. Each week it broadcast on a clear channel radio station that could be heard all over the South, and drew innumerable listeners to its patented mix of country music and corny humor.

Which explains this.


The girl that runs away from me
Dreams that just never let me be
Blues that keeps on bothering me
Chains that just won't set me free

Too far...

WARD: And this.


Your cheating heart
Will make you weak
You cry and cry
And try to sleep

But sleep won't come

WARD: And this.


I've warned you baby from time to time
But you just won't listen don't pay me no mind
So I walking on
I'm rolling on

You've broken your vow
And it's over now
So I'm moving on
That big (unintelligible) rolling down the track

Your true loving daddy ain't coming back
Cause I'm moving on
I'm rolling on
You're flying too high

For my low sky
So I'm moving on
Someday maybe...

WARD: At first it seems paradoxical, Solomon Burke, Fats Domino and Ray Charles would be singing songs recorded by Ferron Young (ph), Hank Williams and Hank Snow. But the Opry is the explanation. The radio was the first mass entertainment medium, and at first it featured nothing but live musicians.

Even when radio started playing records, hillbilly and Black music weren't part of the mix. And there was no Black equivalent to be Opry. But the radio was free. All over the South neighbors gathered to enjoy the weekly Opry broadcasts. And some of them were Black.

The fact that there was no Black Opry meant that White fans of rural Black music had a much harder time finding what they were interested in. Few blues fans dared the Southside clubs in Chicago, where Muddy Waters held forth, or the strip of clubs on Memphis' Beale Street; some, of course, did.


Well that's all right mama
That's all right for you
That's all right mama
Just any way you do

That's all right
That's all right
That's all right mama
Anyway you do

Well mama she done told me...

WARD: In the South, they were called "cats," people like Elvis Presley and his friends, whose enthusiasm and respect earned them entree to the Beale Street scene. In the north, they were the kids who listened to Alan Freed's pioneering rhythm and blues shows in Cleveland, and went to his mixed dances.

But as rock and roll gathered momentum, so did the American folk revival with its blended sense of the Black tradition, which denied that Chuck Berry, for instance, was a blues artist. It took the Rolling Stones and their heirs to remind Americans that Chicago blues existed. And by then it was almost too late.

It was in Memphis that another cross-pollination began to happen, five years after Elvis burst on the scene.


WARD: Stax Records was run by a former country fiddle champion, Jim Stewart, and his sister, Estelle Axton (ph). And at the heart of the label's inimitable sound was the house band Booker T and the MGs, two White guys and two Black guys who made impeccable soul music, the genre of the label virtually invented.

In fact, soul, for all that it symbolized Black pride in its heyday in the 1960s, was, at least in the studio, a completely integrated music. The singers may have been Black, but at least in the South the bands weren't.


Chain Chain Chain Chain
Chain Chain Chain Chain
Chain Chain Chain Chain
Chain Chain Chain Chain

Of fools

For five long years
Before you were my man
Everything that I love
I'm just a link in your chain

And everywhere you want me...

WARD: Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" is a perfect example. The songwriter was Black. One of the guitarists, Joe South, was White. The piano player was, too. And even one of the backup vocals is Ellie Greenwich (ph), a nice Jewish girl from the Brill Building. And that piano player, Spooner Alden (ph), wrote songs with another White guy, Dan Penn, that are among the most soulful ever.


At the (unintelligible) of the street
That's where we always meet
Hiding somewhere where we don't belong
Living indoors tired (unintelligible)

You and me had the door key
Of the street you and me
I know time...

WARD: But Charlie Pride notwithstanding, country music didn't really return the favor. And by the early 1970s, the music world was segregated again. It would take a least another decade before rap began to draw the strands together for yet another fusion.

GROSS: Ed Ward currently lives in Berlin.


What you want
Baby I got
What you need
You know I got it

All I'm asking
Is for a little respect
Hey baby

I ain't going to do you wrong
I ain't going to do you wrong
Cause I don't want to
All I'm asking

Is for a little respect
When I'm at home
I'm about to give you

All my money
And all I'm asking
Is to try (unintelligible)
So give me my (unintelligible)

When you get home
Yeah, baby
When you get home

GROSS: Coming up, a blues tribute to John Glenn.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Tomorrow's the big day for John Glenn. His first orbital space flight in 1962 inspired many tributes, including a song written and performed by the great blues singer and guitarist Lightnin' Hopkins.

Hopkins watched that first flight on his landlady's TV. Soon after, he was due at the recording studio, where he decided to write a song about Glenn.

The first take of his movie song was interrupted by a technical problem. As the repairs were being made, he read an article about John Glenn. And by the time Hopkins did the next take, he had changed the melody and the mood of the song. It had become "Happy Blues for John Glenn."

Here's that recording.


People always saying this morning
With this on their mind
Said there ain't no man alive
Who can go around the world three times

But John Glenn done it
Yes he did
He did it I'm talking about it
Only did it for fun

Half a million dollars made him feel so well
He got to eat his lunch and could hardly tell
He said I feel all right
John Glenn said it

Everybody was laughing
There were many prayers went up
Praying that he would land

I looked a schoolhouse full of them
And they didn't know what to say
But they said come back alive God
Please let him land

You know, that's the oldest man that ever did it
And you was helping him
I'm going to try to be one
I seen him when he left

But I didn't see him when he land
But I know he was doin all right
When they said it's OK to give him a real big hand
He'll be in a space ship

They say he's all (unintelligible)
His mother said I know my son
Is going to make it
It never been no mistake

You know I'm going to tell you something
This ain't lying
You know that man must have on his mind
It ain't nobody take that much time

Cause they gone on an airplane
And they going to go fly
They told him don't worry
This is true

You may miss me for a few minutes
But I'll be back to see about you
He did
Yes he did

Guess when he done it
Did you know where he was that
And the helicopter
You know that since they test is body

They test his heart they know these all right
When he started
I mean he made it
He went around a world three times

You know he would have got him an airplane
And he made it when he had it on his mind
That's what he had on his mind...

GROSS: Lightnin' Hopkins, recorded just after John Glenn's first space flight in 1962.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ed Ward
High: Rock historian Ed Ward continues his series on how country music was influenced by Black and White music traditions.
Spec: Music Industry; Minorities; Entertainment

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Black and White of Country II
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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