I’ve met a lot of famous people. But there’s only been one brain-jolting, stomach-turns to-jelly, honest to goodness melting moment, and that was the day I met Muhammad Ali.
As a journalist in the music industry, a&r man, pop singer and producer, and editor and publisher of film and tv magazines, it’s hardly surprising that I would meet famous people.
I wouldn’t say I was blasé, but I have to admit that, from day one, I’ve rarely been overwhelmed.
The day I started at Music Week, for instance, in August 1967, I was sent to London Airport. The Mamas & The Papas were coming into town and there would be a press conference.
An 18-year-old boy, barely a year out of Wolverhampton, hob-nobbing with the world’s press and one of the best-selling acts around – I should have been excited. But, honestly? No.
Every now and then, there’d be a frisson, like the time I got a phone call from George Martin, but that’s a whole other story.
And then there was the day I met Muhammad Ali. It was in a big room, a community centre on a north London council estate. There were maybe 200 people already there. At the very moment Ali came through the door I was on the opposite side, a good 40 feet away, with my back to the door, deep in conversation.
And yet, my stomach did turn to jelly, and I knew he was there. Maybe it was a change in atmosphere caused by those who saw him immediately.
But I have never, ever in my life felt someone change the energy in a room so utterly.
I turned around, and there he was: the Parkinson’s-stricken hero of my boyhood, still picking out the closest child, mock-boxing him, making him feel the centre of the universe.
Undeniably in his prime the most beautiful man in the world, he was now a shuffling relic of himself, and yet still possessed of the charisma that had made him the most famous man on the planet, a charisma that could literally be felt.
I watched in awe as he made his way through the room, confronted by, surrounded by and followed by love.
At the same time, the journalist in me picked up on the reactions of two other quite well-known guys also present: former (and soon to be again) world heavyweight champion George Foreman; and former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.
Foreman regarded the only man who had ever knocked him out with clear affection. Frazier, on the other hand, just looked irritated. Frazier’s relationship with Ali was very complex, with some serious – and, to be fair, quite justified – bitterness thrown in.
Watching George Foreman with Muhammad Ali was touching in the extreme. He looked after Muhammad like an attentive brother. I talked to George and he encouraged me to talk to ‘The Champ’. “He’s still all there, inside,” he told me.
So I did, and I told Ali that, as a child, I had been allowed to get up at 3am in the morning to listen to the live BBC broadcasts of Floyd Patterson’s three fights against Ingemar Johansson. The thrill of being awake in the early hours of the morning, and the noise of the crowd and the excitement of the commentary turned me into a lifelong boxing fan.
Then, one Saturday lunchtime, I caught Fight Of The Week on BBC television’s Grandstand, and there was this boy-man, just seven years older than me, and utterly mesmerising. I was hooked. Apart from his first fight with Sonny Liston, when I – along with every boxing expert in the world – thought he was going to be killed, I never lost faith.
I told him I was 15 when he beat Liston. He said something I could barely hear, so I put my ear close to his mouth, and he repeated, in his whisper: “I know. I can’t believe Muhammad Ali is 50.”
Even Muhammad Ali talks about ‘Muhammad Ali’.
Growing up in the era of Ali, The Beatles, American Civil Rights, John F. Kennedy and Bob Dylan, gave millions of us belief that the future was bright and golden; just……better.
It didn’t quite work out that way, did it? I’d rather live in the ‘now’ than the ‘then’, but you have to admit that a world where Donald Trump is targeting The White House is not such a bright, glittering world as one where JFK, Muhammad Ali and The Beatles are just starting out.