It was February 18, 1964. The Beatles had arrived in America just eleven days earlier and had taken the nation by storm. They already had the number one record on the charts and several others quickly catching up.
They had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show before 73 million awestruck and curious fans. It was the highest rated television broadcast in history. They had partied briefly in the Big Apple, done a quick concert in Washington, DC, and two more special concerts at the legendary Carnegie Hall.
Now they were in Miami Beach, Florida, soaking up the sun and relaxing after a second Ed Sullivan Show appearance. The boys requested to meet the world heavyweight champ- the surly, misanthropic Sonny Liston. But Liston quickly replied that he had no desire to meet "those bums."
Interestingly, Liston was in the crowd watching their second Ed Sullivan appearance on February 16th. He was not exactly a "fan,” calling them "sissies" and saying “My dog can play drums better than that guy!” -referring to Ringo.
And so it was, the Beatles had to settle for "second best" and meet Liston's challenger for the title, a brash 22-year-old named Cassius Clay. Clay and Liston were scheduled to meet for the heavyweight championship in a week on February. 25th (coincidentally, George Harrison's 21st birthday).
Clay was training at the fifth street gym and the Beatles casually marched in saying "Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Clay replied “No, no, no!"
Clay was cordial at first, calling them "the greatest" and saying they "shook up the world.” He called Paul McCartney "the prettiest, but not as pretty as me!" But soon the general tone changed and it was clear who the real "star" of the show was.
The Fab Four and Clay posed for several photos, Clay brusquely ordering them around. “Sit down!" “Lie down!" etc. Clay barked at the boys. The Beatles obeyed and seemed to take it all in good humor.
Clay posed over them as the Beatles lie flat on the ground (John Lennon comically praying in the photo).
It got slightly uncomfortable as Clay barked “Squirm, you worms!" to the surprised quartet. Finally, as the boys were getting ready to leave, Clay picked up Ringo and tossed him two feet in the air, catching him.
Clay wished Ringo and the others good luck. He even recited a trademark poem: “When Liston reads about the Beatles visiting me, he'll get so mad I’ll knock him out in three!" All seemed well and routine on the surface, but it wasn't quite so perfect below it.
According to the Beatles' photographer, Harry Benson, who set up the meeting, the boys did not enjoy the meeting as much as it appeared. “They were expecting to meet a dumb boxer,” he explained, and were caught off guard by Clay's glibness. They were stunned when they left, according to Benson, “It was the first time someone else had taken over.”
Although it was early in the Beatles' success, their four clear and distinct personalities had already formed.
John Lennon wanted desperately to be a millionaire rock star. But he hated the trappings of success, almost from the word go. Lennon scorned the cheesy photo ops, the small-talk questions, the meeting the local dignitaries and playing the "lovable mop top.” But John had agreed early on to "play the game" in his quest for success.
Paul, always the yin to John's yang, enjoyed the posing, the interviews, the meetings and all the rest. Paul was always the amiable, cordial "show must go on" guy. Ringo was always the easy-going one, while George, at this early stage, was usually fairly quiet and cooperative.
As with all of life's group endeavors, a pecking order of clout was already formed and firmly set. John and Paul were clearly the group leaders, while George and Ringo were important, but secondary players in the mix.
According to Benson, the Beatles were so mad about the session with Clay, they didn't speak to him for several days. (Referring to Clay) Lennon said angrily, “He made a fool out of us!" But as one looks at the old black-and-white newsreel and photos of the legendary encounter, one sees nothing but big beaming smiles all around.
It was the early days of Beatlemania- none had even smoked marijuana yet at this innocent time. The event was quickly over and the Fab Four soon moved on the conquer the entire world with their incredible, brilliant music and wit.
Clay, a 7-to-1 underdog, was to knock out Sonny Liston (in seven rounds, not three) and become the most famous boxer of all-time. Immediately after the victory, Clay would inform a shocked world that he now a Black Muslim and his new name was "Muhammad Ali."
Both Ali and John Lennon were to later have a profound impact on the anti-Vietnam War movement. Ironically, both Ali and Lennon, by the late sixties, were to be cast, by millions, as "villains," after originally being known as lovable, harmless guys. These five incredibly talented young men were to give the sixties a face and a clear identity.
All this seemed light years away on this warm February day in Miami Beach. But even on that innocent February day in 1964, a bit of the real John Lennon came to the surface.
During the photo op, as Clay's open mockery continued, he chided the quartet and said “You're not as dumb as you look!"
"No, but you are!" Lennon snapped back.