This is a playlist put together to accompany my recent Rough Trade Books publication The Last Night of the Leamington Licker, a fictionalized account of the final hours of one time middleweight champion of the world Randolph Turpin. In 1951, Turpin was responsible for probably the greatest upset in boxing history by defeating Sugar Ray Robinson. After losing the rematch 64 days later he was unable to regain the title and began a slow decline that eventually found him broke, suffering from mental health issues and committing suicide above a failing transport cafe back in his home town. Tragically that’s a typical boxing story and a common theme in a few of the tracks on this playlist: It’s hard as hell to reach the top and there’s a long way to fall when you get there.
Other than the bell, Liston’s recipe for a fighter’s blues is right there in Miles Davis’ - Right Off from his Jack Johnson album. This is an out-take from the original sessions that Davis was asked to compose for a documentary being put together by boxing historian and promoter (and future Mike Tyson manager) Bill Cayton. There’s a beautiful series of photographs by Glenn Craig of Davis working out at Gleason’s Gym in New York in 1970. The photographer recalls Davis’ use of boxing training to aid his playing: “Miles used the boxing to gain strength and discipline and, more importantly, wind and diaphragm control. He executed, coming up to do a solo, and then bringing the trumpet down in very orchestrated ballet type of moves. People would take it as ballet, but it was coming from all the boxing training.”
Novelist Richard Wright, most famous for his memoir Black Boy, had covered the legendary Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling fight of 1938 for the newspaper the Daily Worker. A huge fight fan and admirer of the stoicism of Louis in the face of discrimination and prejudice Wright wrote the song King Joe which was sung by Paul Robeson with Count Basie and his band backing him and released in 1942.
I can find no information regarding the two appearances of Sugar Ray Robinson with the Earl Hines orchestra included here other than that they are live and date from 1953. I’m guessing Robinson, a superstar at the time, would’ve guested at various events and this one just happened to have been recorded. Any further information most welcome.
Up next is a trio of 1970s reggae tributes to fighters and fights. Back in 2004 there was a great compilation album called Sucker Punch put out by Trojan which is worth tracking down. Surprisingly there have probably been as many reggae songs written for Joe Frazier and George Foreman as there have been for Ali.
Ali himself up next. I’m The Greatest (Ali’s Bicentennial Freedom Song) was released as a single in 1976 and also appeared on an educational album The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay a record endorsed by the American Dental Association. I’m not certain how effective Ali was in getting children to clean their teeth but on the album his “gang” included Frank Sinatra and the story of Ali vs Mr Tooth Decay was narrated by sportscasting legend
Howard Cosell. The other Ali track on the playlist (I’ve saved you from his painful versions of Stand By Me and High Hopes) is the rather weird Ali’s Elusive Dream a kind of motivational speech with funk guitar.
More guitars upfront on the next two. Who Killed Davey Moore? is a cover of the Dylan song about the tragedy of the boxer’s death after the 1963 world featherweight title fight with Sugar Ramos and the questions about the morality of boxing that it raised. Mark Kozelek’s band Sun Kil Moon (named after Korean fighter Sung-Kil Moon) have frequently referenced boxers and boxing and this is their song Salvador Sanchez about another featherweight whose life was cut short.
Hip-hop and boxing has some history with many rappers taking inspiration from the freestyling braggadocio and trash talk of Ali and his hype man Bundini Brown. Chuck D on Ali: “His boldness is hip-hop. It’s like he was saying, ‘First and foremost, I’m gonna overshadow everything in my path so that you won’t forget me ever. And I’m gonna throw some rhyme on top of it.’ It’s total hip-hop.” My favourite rap/boxing crossover remains LL Cool J’s awesome Mama Said Knock You Out (rhyming “Cassius” with “Bash this” is a high point). If you get the chance check out his MTV Unplugged performance of the song which I’d say is one of the greatest moments of music television period. Some twelve years before his Oscar nominated performance as Ali, Will Smith (as The Fresh Prince) paid tribute to the terrifying power of peak Tyson with I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson. This must come close to putting into rhyme the way Spinks and others thought when facing off in the ring against Iron Mike and suddenly wishing they were anywhere else instead. Not included on the playlist (as it’s not on Spotify) is R.A. The Rugged Man’s freestyle boxing history lesson in which he disses everybody from Lennox Lewis to Prince Naseem Hamed to, unsurprisingly, Don King. It’s worth a listen...
A pair of fictionalized boxing stories up next from country folk band The Felice Brothers and The Boss. Boxing as metaphor. Hard lives, hard times, hope and despair.
Though not strictly a boxing song Body and Soul is included here as it’s referenced in my story, though in a version by Anne Shelton rather than Billie Holiday. Randy bought his wife this record and she would play it whenever he went away to fight praying that he’d come back safely.
When Liston was thinking about his blues he probably didn’t have someone like Chuck Prophet in mind to be playing it. Better Chuck’s Sonny Liston’s Blues though than the much more famous Liston song by Mark Knopfler.
Warren Zevon’s tribute to Ray Mancini uses as a chorus the familiar anticipatory excitement that comes with a big fight night. Here it’s the 1984 title fight versus Chacon. The verses chart the highs and lows of Mancini’s career. There’s a great snatch of audio online from a radio show where Mancini talks about how touched he was that Zevon had written a song about him and how he’d hung out with Zevon, George Clinton and Paula Abdul one afternoon on a video shoot.
To my mind Fat City by Leonard Gardner is the greatest work of boxing fiction and the John Huston film version is right up there with the best fight films. This long improvised song by Alan Vega, Alex Chilton and Ben Vaughan might not be strictly about the book or the film (in fact Vega’s spur of the moment lyrics are hard to decipher at all) but in my mind the striving beat and the repeated reference of heading for Fat City (slang for a place, often somewhere just out of reach, where the good life can be found) resonates with the idea of working hard, aiming high and showing guts in the face of adversity. Like I said at the beginning it’s hard as hell to reach the top, and it’s hard as hell getting to Fat City but if you do finally make it, look out. There are some dangerous neighbourhoods.