Champion Sound: When Muhammad Ali (And A Bunch Of Kids) Knocked Out Tooth Decay, Drug Dealers
In the 1970's, Muhammad Ali was the biggest and most polarizing sports star in the world. Naturally, he leveraged this fame into two baffling children's albums.
It's hard to nail down the exact moment kids' entertainment became grown-up hip. For argument's sake, let's just place that somewhere in the vicinity of the day Jim Henson figured he'd be better off with the Children's Television Workshop than hustling for Frito-Lay commercials. But it's a given that the 1970s were rife with all-star efforts and celebrity crossovers from the with-it world of adult cool, or at least what constituted adult cool for Boomer parents skeptical that their youngins might otherwise be sold on something empty and inane. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it was empty and inane anyways. It's just surprising when the empty inanity involves Muhammad Ali.
Ali might have still been one of the world's more polarizing athletes in the mid '70s, even as the assorted Rumbles and Thrillas that defined his comeback era also made him one of the most popular. He might not have really needed the kind of public-eye rehab stint that was awkwardly handed to Mike Tyson, but refusing to serve in the Vietnam War due to religious objections was still something of a sore point with the nation's Not Fonda Jane set. It's hard to know if that's what Ali had in mind when he decided to record a kiddie record about healthy eating and dental care. It's hard to know a lot of things about this.
Perhaps to placate red-blooded types ambivalent about having a conscientious objector and Nation of Islam member telling their offspring that regular toothbrush usage was a bolo punch to gum disease, the opening song goes out of its way to shore up Ali's patriotic bonafides. Full apologies for the pitch-black YouTube clip, but it's probably for the best that there's no visuals to accompany this:
Who knocked the crack in the Liberty Bell? (Ali! Ali!)
Who really gave that bell a smack? (Ali!)
Who punched it so hard that the bell did crack?
Hit it so hard with an awful whack? (Ali! Muhammad Ali!)
Except not, because the chorus clarifies that "Ali's always getting blamed for things he didn't do," which makes it one of those weird songs built around the idea that the song's entire premise is actually total bullshit. This is, of course, pretty ridiculous, at least if your definition of "ridiculous" is a synonym for "totally fucking amazing." (It definitely is for one of Ali's latter-day namesakes.)
All this Bicentennial-year Spirit-of-'76 hoo-ha is all well and good for recasting a man who had a (putting it mildly) contentious relationship with the strict-constitutionalist conservative notion of What America Means. But as a musical performance, it ain't much. Ali's "historical theme song" is flat lite-pop that took four musicians to arrange, possibly by telegram. If you're wondering whether there's an ill subliminal somewhere in this song, check the hook: Ali's Cosby cadence is flimsy, but given what he had to work with, "People wanna blame the man although he wasn't there/Maybe we should take a look, the blame could well be shared."
This is where I admit I'm bending-not-breaking the Sportscore category's parameters to enshrine The Adventures of Ali and His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay into the pantheon despite its musical content being so sorely lacking. This album is, in fact, a narrative—an "audio play," if you will, not unlike other similar read-along storybooks later parodied by the skits on De La Soul Is Dead. (On a personal note, I own one of these storybooks. It is about Kojak. As someone who was a year old when the show was cancelled, I will just assume that this was a kid-friendly spin on the old murder-of-the-week show format.)
Howard Cosell gives the plot of The Adventures of Ali and His Gang, such as it is, expositional life. Ali, who is in a line of work that requires a special apparatus to keep one's teeth from being violently dislodged, is training for his next big fight against... tooth decay. Since beating up a medical condition is something that requires actual anthropomorphism and not just an abstract metaphor, this means fighting the personification of tooth decay itself, given a "Mr." prefix, a vaguely Slavic accent, and a possibly racist/definitely twerpy toady named Sugar Cuba.
On his way to fight night, Ali has to rescue a bunch of kids from buying ice cream from a kindly yet naive shopkeeper voiced by Frank Sinatra—who does not sing at any point—and then takes them to an organic farm, ostensibly the producer/label's "St. John's Fruit and Vegetable Co.," where they all learn to enjoy the benefits of raw milk and good oral hygiene from kindly farmer Ossie Davis. This is absolutely a real record. It exists.
Even if his performance on "Ali's Bicentennial Freedom Song" wasn't his best promo work, Ali himself is pretty low on the list of what makes vs. Mr. Tooth Decay so preposterous. The champ thankfully sounds pretty game for everything, even when he's turning in a greatest-hits catchphrase rundown that turns his most badass proclamations—"I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick, I'm so mean I make medicine sick"—into a stilted call-and-response with kids so bored they might as well be comatose. Fans of abysmal kid voice acting—including lots of opposite-of-spontaneous shouting things in unison as a substitute for actual emoting—will sink right into this record like a luxurious champagne bath. Honest to god, there's a kid at one point who croaks "wait 'til the gang hears about this!" like some kind of frog-raven monster. I had to check the credits to see if they weren't a featured celebrity a la "special guest: The Voice of Possessed Regan from The Exorcist."
With Mr. Tooth Decay and his crew proving to be a bunch of weaksauce tomato cans, Ali would move on to a more formidable opponent the following year: The Dope King's Last Stand. And going from sugar to narcotics is the PSA-record equivalent of moving up about six weight classes. Ali isn't the marquee attraction on this one—not when none other than President Jimmy Carter himself is front and center on the cover, ready to smack the malaise out of the pusherman. The Greatest is not even the sole athlete on the LP, with Billie Jean King joining the cameo ranks somewhere in what turns into a massive celebrity pileup. The armada of Actual Musicians—including Hoyt "Goddamn The Pusher Man" Axton, Arlo "Comin' Into Los Angeles Bringin' In A Couple Keys" Guthrie, and Pat "Insert Little Richard Lyric Here" Boone—mean that none of the sports types are shortlisted to perform any of the doofy songs about 13-year-old freckle-faced Bobby Blue and his dalliances with party pills.
Ali has a ton of dialogue on The Dope King's Last Stand. But there's nothing about Ali's appearance that seems to pull from his Charismatic Boxer With A Master's In Poetic Shit-Talking personality, and his role almost entirely consists of bland line-readings of even blander lines; his as-salamu alaykum greeting are the only words that wouldn't make just as much sense coming out of the mouth of Pat Boone instead.
The fact that Ali was one of the most famous people on Earth at the time this record was recorded is mostly a non-factor, too. The "gang" of kids think it's a big deal to know him, but somehow he's still able to pull off an undercover drug sting without being recognized. Then the album ends with Carter thanking him for his work, and with future Metrodome namesake Hubert H. Humphrey raising a War on Drugs call-to-arms over the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
It is probably worth noting that this record is the first Sportscore entry that was nominated for a Grammy, under the Best Recording for Children category, 1978. It lost to a Sesame Street LP.