While listening to an old BBC interview I heard Muhammed Ali tell David Frost how he started with his boastful, trash talking poetry. Ali’s words led me down a rabbit hole of memories and investigation on the subject of showmanship. Here it is:
When I was a student, I had a friend called Clive, who, other than that we both attended the same educational establishment, had nothing in common with me. We didn’t attend any of the same classes and we hailed from very different parts of the country (he was from London and, I …wasn’t) but somehow Clive and I discovered we both had an interest in music and spoken-word performance. We accompanied one another to a variety of shows. Once, while drinking pints of ‘clout’ (a half-half cockney mix of dry cider and stout), Clive and I watched John Cooper Clarke perform his poetry in a Liverpool pub where we were the only ones caring to listen to his performance.
One day Clive showed up with an album called Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me! Narrative Poetry from the Black Oral Tradition. The album came out in 1974 as a funny and raw collection of poems and “toasts” (teasing put-downs) and it’s not for the easily offended. Themes of crime, prostitution, sexual prowess and trash talking monkeys reveal a clear lineage between these home-grown entertainments and, what later became known as, hip-hop and rap.
When hip-hop emerged, I immediately recognised the rhythms, style and subject matter as having derived from the album I’d first listened to with Clive. So, I was surprised to learn in the Frost interview that actual credit for the earliest rap album is more widely acknowledged to be the 1963 release, I am the Greatest! by Cassius Clay (who later became Muhammed Ali.)
With his oft repeated phrases such as, “I am the Greatest”, “I am so pretty”, “I am so fast…” and all his other poetic trash-talk did you ever wonder how the boxer Muhammed Ali got to be so boastful? He was still only in his late teens when he discovered what rich rewards could be reaped by being deliberately unpopular. The idea that you can gain far more fame and fortune by being hated than by being loved came after seeing the ultra-successful wrestler George Raymond Wagner – known professionally as Gorgeous George – who had harnessed the immense power of sass and spectacle as a means of raising his (perfectly coiffed) head and shoulders far above the competition.
Gorgeous George was a talented wrestler who, even without the tricks of showmanship, was able to win matches. However he rose to the top, not by wrestling well, but by turning his presence in the arena into an artform. Wearing a sequined cape and, with Jeffries his valet carrying a silver mirror while spreading rose petals at his feet, Wagner approached the ring lit by a purple spotlight as Pomp and Circumstance blasted through the speakers. His performances formed the stylistic prototype that professional wrestlers have been using ever since.
His long golden hair was held in place with gold-plated bobby pins, that he called georgie pins, often handing these out to the audience. After spraying the stage with disinfectant (ostensibly Chanel No 5) he announced that he was actually using Chanel No 10. “Why be only half safe?”, he’d declare.
And, when the referee went to check George for illegally hidden objects Wagner would cry out, “Get your filthy hands off me!” before giving the referee’s hands the spray treatment. Once the match finally got under way Wagner would bring the crowd to a state of fury by cheating in every way possible. His motto, “Win if you can, lose if you must – but always cheat!”
The lesson that Muhammed Ali took from Gorgeous George is that, as in wrestling, a boxer is paid according to ticket sales and by getting the audience to hate him, through melodrama and boastfulness, he found people would pay to come and see him lose. Ali remembers a guy at one of his matches taunting him from the audience and Ali thinking to himself, “I don’t mind whatever you call me because you’re sitting in a one-hundred-dollar seat right there.”
When Gorgeous George came to TV in 1947 the networks found his flamboyant style of wrestling both popular and very cheap to broadcast. As a result, he made more money for the network than any other programming available at the time. Wagner was quickly on the same level of fame as Lucille Ball and Bob Hope (indeed Bob Hope gifted Wagner many luxurious wrestling robes.) It’s said that Wagner was responsible for selling more television sets in the 1950s than top TV comedian Milton Berle.
But you may be asking yourself, where did Wagner get his idea to enrage fans by bringing his exaggerated feminine behaviour into the wrestling ring? Well, guess what, he copied it. In the late 1930’s Wagner read a feature article in Vanity Fair magazine about a wrestler known as Lord Patrick Lansdowne who wore a velvet robe and would be accompanied into the ring by two valets. Wagner realised he could take this idea and develop it much further. Another innovation happened around the same time when Wagner married his sweetheart Elizabeth “Betty” Hanson inside the wrestling ring in a ceremony that proved to be such a draw that he repeated the wedding again and again in different arenas.
It’s highly likely this was the inspiration for the public wedding of famous ukulele showman: Tiny Tim. Tiny (or Herbert to give him his real name) worked tirelessly to get into the public eye and tried numerous gimmicks (different looks, voices and name changes) until he finally hit on the combination that struck gold for him on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Tiny Tim’s televised wedding to Miss Vicki in 1969 was watched by over 40 million viewers. The producers of the show, and indeed Tiny Tim himself, would have been well aware of Gorgeous George and his tried and tested ways of tapping public appeal.
Whether you’re an Ali or a Tim, when it comes to bagging the zeitgeist, it seems that if you copy brazenly and well enough you will be remembered long after the original is forgotten.