Monday, June 6, 2016

Before Bobby B. Whitney Loved Ali

As the saying goes, you learn something every day.

On June 4, only hours after hearing news of Muhammad Ali's death, I also learned a nugget of music, sports and film trivia that blew my mind a little.

For 30 years, millions of fans including this writer found inspiration in the hit song "Greatest Love of All" performed by Whitney Houston.

But few seem to know or remember the tune's direct ties to the legendary Olympic and professional boxer. 

According to a video shared via the late singer's Facebook page, a teenage Houston saw the critically-panned Ali feature film "The Greatest" at a theatre in 1977, and she walked away feeling Ali was "the most marvelous man" she had ever seen.

"In that movie, there was a song, a song as inspirational as you are," Houston said to Ali, on stage at his 50th birthday celebration aired in 1992. "I love the song, as I love Muhammad Ali, and a few years later I had the opportunity to record it."

The birthday telecast brought Houston the first opportunity to sing "The Greatest Love of All" for the man who inspired the lyrics all those years earlier.

Those lyrics, penned by Linda Creed and set to music by hit maker Michael Masser -- later revealed to be based on a section of "If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot -- created a top five R&B hit for George Benson in 1977 and later Houston's recording became her third-largest career smash hit.

Not sure about folks reading this, but for me the song's inspirational words now have entirely new and richly expressive meanings tied to Ali's lonely struggles as a black man in the U.S. South, a war protester and a prize fighter in pursuit or defense of his heavyweight title.

Mind blown.

It's moving to see/hear the "new to my ears" version of "Greatest Love of All" performed by Houston at the first of two Ali tribute events in which she participated (the latter, from 1998, is here, and it also features Houston telling the back story of the song).

Also love it that James Earl Jones, who appeared with Ali in "The Greatest" on the eve of recording Darth Vader's voice, was in the audience at this GQ award presentation, a testament to the relationships Ali formed and maintained for decades.

The Greatest, indeed.

Images via YouTube, IMDB, AP and

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