It Seems Like Yesterday: Cassius Clay Meets The Beatles

 

AFTER THE BEATLES’ success on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York on February 9, 1964, they were booked for a second appearance to be broadcast from Miami the following week. When we got to the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, I turned on the television in my room and saw Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) shouting and bragging about how beautiful he was and how he was going to win the world heavyweight boxing title from the champ, Sonny Liston. I thought, well, that would make a good picture, so I suggested to the Beatles that we go to meet Clay. They all agreed, but then John said he didn’t want to meet the big mouth; he wanted to meet the reigning champ instead. So I went to Liston’s training gym. Liston was tying his shoes and didn’t even look up at me as he replied, “I don’t want to meet those bums.” Remember, at the time the Beatles were causing a sensation, but they were very different from any group that had come before (think Elvis), and some people were leery of Beatlemania, which was sweeping the country.

In any case, I hired a large car and picked up the Beatles, who thought they were going to meet Liston. Instead I took them to the Fifth Street Gym where Clay was training. For once, the Beatles encountered someone who was as quick-witted as they were. Clay had them walking around holding signs while he danced around the ring pointing to Paul and shouting, “He’s pretty, but I’m prettier.” He made the Beatles line up then lay down in the ring while he literally stole the show. They were taken aback and furious with me afterward, saying, “Clay made a fool of us, Benson, and it was your fault.” They wouldn’t speak to me then, but I didn’t mind, as I left the next day to photograph Ian Fleming at his home in Jamaica. The recently released film Dr. No, based on Fleming’s book of the same name and starring Sean Connery as James Bond, was causing a sensation of its own.

I returned to Miami to cover the Clay-Liston fight, in which Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. And when I saw the Beatles a few months later, they were fine—all was forgiven.