Beatles and Ali – 20 April 2023


Another classic Harry Benson photograph is the Beatles with Muhammad Ali. Early in 1964 Harry was on location in Miami with the band and it coincided with the heavyweight championship bout between Sonny Liston and Ali then in his original incarnation Cassius Clay.

Wanting a picture of the band with the world champion he phoned Liston who was disparaging. Whether age or just attitude Liston rejected it and so he made contact with Ali. The young challenger for the crown was willing and obliging, something that Harry found him to be throughout his life. Always polite and content to provide the shots photographers needed. In many ways it was fortuitous as the then relatively unknown Ali won the fight.

Harry took the Fab Four down to meet Ali where he was training. The boxer taking time out from his session to meet and mingle, providing the camera call. The band had heard of Ali but only vaguely. They assumed just another rather plodding and not very bright contender. As it was they met a man was razor sharp in wit and repartee, as well as being a supreme athlete. The photographs show Ali lining them up and having a gloved fist pointing at them. Similarly there’s another where he towers over them as they lie at his feet.

Now if Ali said jump I’d simply say how high and so it was with the Beatles. Never threatening but he barked and sparred with them, and they did as he commanded.  His size and physique were intimidating enough. Telling them what to do and saying that Paul may be the pretty one of them but he was the prettiest. Classic Ali but all new to the band who’d been used to and no doubt expecting adulation.

The photos show the Beatles smiling, some of it through gritted teeth. When they returned to the Hotel, John Lennon accusing Harry of having set them up and not speaking to him for several days. It had of course been nothing of the sort and the lifelong friendship with all of the band remained. But Ali surprised the world when he won the contest days later and a new hero was born, one who could talk as well as he boxed.

At the American bicentennial he was commissioned to take Ali’s photograph with him dressed as George Washington. Contemporary US stars being taken in the image of revolutionary hero’s. But when he arrived in Chicago to take it Ali realising that Washington had been a slave owner declined. Seeking to avoid a fruitless journey Harry enquired if he could take Ali dressed as a slave which he agreed to but only if properly got up.

A hardware store and theatrical shop providing chains and a coarse linen outfit. Ali refused to do it in the hotel room though instead going to a South Chicago park, then as now a poor black area. Walking through it Ali using the “N” word saying the white man had him enslaved. Heads looked up and liquor bottles in brown bags lowered. A tense moment and Harry considered fleeing but it ended when Ali burst out laughing. All was well and the photo shows what a good looking and physically impressive man Ali was.