When Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016 at the age of 74, his immortality had already been long guaranteed. President Barack Obama summed up the feelings of many when he proclaimed, “Muhammad Ali was America. He will always be America. What a man. What a spirit. What a joyous, mighty champion.” It was no accident that history’s only three-time lineal heavyweight champion, the man born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., was nicknamed “The Greatest.” That moniker also was used for the title of the champ’s 1975 memoir and its 1977 Columbia Pictures film adaptation starring Ali himself. Now, the late Michael Masser’s soundtrack to that biopic, featuring George Benson and Mandrill, has returned to CD in a newly remastered and expanded edition from Varese Vintage.
Ali was no stranger to performing outside of the ring when he starred alongside veterans Ernest Borgnine, John Marley and Lloyd Haynes in The Greatest; he had played the title role in the short-lived 1969 Broadway musical Buck White and even recorded an album of his famous poetry for Columbia Records. (Alas, the Buck White cast album scheduled to be recorded by the Buddah label never materialized.) For the score to the movie directed by Tom Gries (best known for helming episodes of television shows like Batman and Mission: Impossible, and telefilms like Helter Skelter), composer Michael Masser was enlisted.
Masser, a onetime stockbroker mentored by the great Johnny Mercer as his entrée into the world of pop songwriting, was well-known for numerous hit records including Diana Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning” and “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To).” The latter, Oscar-nominated tune was penned for Mahogany, the Motown-produced film starring Ross which gave Masser his first film score assignment. For The Greatest, Masser would write two compelling ballads, one of which would endure beyond even his wildest expectations.
That song was “The Greatest Love of All,” written by Masser with Thom Bell’s frequent lyrical collaborator Linda Creed (“Betcha by Golly Wow,” “You Are Everything,” “Life is a Song Worth Singing”). Whitney Houston took it to No. 1 in multiple countries via her 1985 cover produced by Masser, but it was introduced in The Greatest by jazz guitarist-turned-soulful vocalist George Benson. His low-key yet deeply felt rendition of the empowering anthem, which opens the soundtrack, was a No. 2 R&B hit itself, and also reached No. 24 Pop and No. 22 AC. It’s also presented once more in an instrumental version, and once as a bonus track, in its single edit.
Benson also contributed a vocal to a second composition, “I Always Knew I Had It in Me.” Featuring a lyric by Masser’s Mahogany partner Gerry Goffin, it quoted “Greatest Love” within its own inspirational framework, not to mention a certain similarity to Charles Fox’s melody to “Killing Me Softly.” The song is heard twice on the soundtrack – once in a lengthy jam session featuring Benson on his distinctive guitar and once in a more traditional, stately ballad version.
Mandrill, the Panamanian/American band then signed to Arista, is heard on two versions of “Ali Bombaye,” incorporating the “Zaire Chant.” Mandrill’s funky, upbeat and brassy African big-band fusion sound was married to Masser’s melodic theme to underscore the film’s powerful fight sequences (derived from original, real-life footage of Ali). So pulsating was Mandrill’s performance that “Ali Bombaye (Zaire Chant)” was issued as an extended Disco Single, also included among the bonus tracks.
The soundtrack to The Greatest is light on unique dramatic cues, though it does make room for the instrumental “Ali’s Theme” (reprised as the B-side of Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All”) and a pair of variations on it, alternately elegant and haunting. “Ali’s Theme” draws on both “Greatest Love” and “I Always Knew I Had It in Me,” and showcases Masser’s easy gift for memorable, emotional balladry. In addition to the previously mentioned extended version of “Ali Bombaye” and single of “Greatest Love,” Varese’s edition adds both sides of Ali’s 1964 Columbia single of “Stand by Me” b/w “I Am the Greatest,” arranged by Broadway vet Peter Matz. The former is a straightforward cover of the Leiber/Stoller classic, while the former melds tongue-in-cheek spoken-word poetry with a groovy instrumental backing.
Chas Ferry and Daren Chadwick have remastered The Greatest, and A. Scott Galloway has provided a detailed new essay offering background on both the film and the star at its center. Art director Bill Pitzonka has happily decked out the CD in an original period Arista label. To celebrate what would have been the champ’s 75th birthday last week, we want YOU to WIN ONE OF TEN COPIES of The Greatest soundtrack!
To enter, simply LIKE our Facebook page, and head over to Varese Sarabande’s FB page and do the same! Just leave us a comment on THE GREATEST post on our FB page. Let us know: What’s your favorite Ali moment or memory? Once you like both pages and comment anything you’d like to share about the late Muhammad Ali, you’ll automatically be entered to win!
If you’ve entered our previous giveaways and have already liked BOTH The Second Disc and Varese’s Facebook page, you can still win: simply enter a comment on our thread to be entered! Only one entry per person. Remember, BOTH FB pages must be “LIKED” and a comment left on our page in order to win!
Don’t have Facebook? We’re not leaving you out in the cold! Just send an e-mail to theseconddisc AT gmail DOT com with the subject line “THE GREATEST” plus your name and mailing address, and you’ll also be entered to win!
The contest ends at 11:59 p.m. EST on the evening of Sunday, February 5, at which time 10 random winners will be selected. Contest open to all. Only one entry per person either via Facebook or email. All winners at sole discretion of The Second Disc. U.S. residents only, please. This contest is NOT affiliated with or endorsed by Facebook. Winner will be notified the week of Monday, February 6 via Facebook and The Second Disc, so remember to check back! Good luck!
- The Greatest Love of All – George Benson
- I Always Knew I Had It In Me – George Benson
- Ali’s Theme – Michael Masser
- Ali Bombaye I (Zaire Chant) – Michael Masser & Mandrill
- Ali Bombaye II (Zaire Chant) – Michael Masser & Mandrill
- The Greatest Love of All – Michael Masser
- Variations on Theme
- I Always Knew I Had It In Me (Ballad Version) – George Benson
- Stand by Me – Cassius Clay (Columbia single 43007-A, 1964)
- I Am the Greatest – Cassius Clay (Columbia single 43007-B, 1964)
- The Greatest Love of All – George Benson (Single Version) (Arista single 0251, 1977)
- Ali Bombaye (Zaire Chant) (Disco Version) – Michael Masser & Mandrill (Arista 12-inch single SP-8, 1977)