On Creating “THE GREATEST”

by Teddy Abrams

To compose music based on the lifetime of a complex man is not like turning a novel or story into an opera; Muhammad Ali’s life was so much bigger and encompassed so much more than any single biography or story about him. I became inspired by him after coming to Louisville and especially after meeting him. However, the modest tribute I initially had in mind became a more urgent priority to me after his death. My intention was to write a 15-minute portrait piece about Muhammad Ali.  However, it became clear to me that to condense a life of such incredible impact into a single work of art required a format on par with the scale of the man himself.

When I began this project, I realized that I wasn’t as familiar with Muhammad Ali’s life as I thought. I’ve always been interested in boxing and knew some of Ali’s basic information:  his birth and training in Louisville, the highlights of his career, and the apocryphal stories of his impact on social issues. I thought the piece would flow easily. Quickly, I realized that I needed to learn more and more about bigger and bigger subjects.

Ali is so much more than a boxer and even more than a man. Around the world, he has become a symbol – the embodiment of many potent issues. His story leads into much broader implications. To touch the life of Muhammad Ali, I found myself delving into important social issues including race, war, and African-American history; social issues that continue to resonate with us today.

With this in mind, I decided that I would not compose any music until I learned much more about Ali and the time period he lived in – no notes, not even themes.  Nothing. So I researched in a way that I haven’t done since college. I turned on my old research brain and “hit the books.”

The first book on my reading list was King of the World by David Remnick, who is editor of The New Yorker. This was a gateway book for me because of the great writing and because it helped to put many things into perspective for me. The book is as much about Ali and his life, career, and fights as it is about the journalism of the era. Remnick puts boxing into context so that he’s not so much describing the bouts but explaining who these fighters were and what they meant to people during that era. I know many people who will hear this piece have personal recollections of Muhammad Ali’s fight with Sonny Liston but it was a revelation to me to learn about Liston and his life. I couldn’t completely understand the importance of the bouts between Ali and Liston, or Liston and Patterson, until I learned about these men’s lives and, more importantly, how they were portrayed in the media and who they were in the context of the times.

From Remnick, I turned to other source material that helped me turn back the clock. Norman Mailer’s The Fight, as well as articles from Sports Illustrated, Time magazine, and even Playboy. Throughout my exploration, I encountered Muhammad Ali speaking about the lives of African-Americans, about black culture and about Vietnam and war culture. The more I discovered, the more I realized that I needed to learn. I read a biography of Malcolm X, works by Marcus Garvey, and the writing of a variety of authors, commentators, and poets who helped me understand the wider setting of the era. I read the works by anybody I could find that would put things into a bigger context of the ‘60s and ‘70s, plus anything I could find that referenced Ali. I dove into the poetry written about the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, and things just got bigger and bigger.

At one point, I had to decide that I would never know enough, but that I had what I needed to start writing my piece.

The composition process started with a script. I’ve written the lyrics to most of my own songs but I realized that I didn’t have to write key parts of this libretto because so much was already written. I found this heartbreaking poem about the 1965 riots and protests in Selma, Alabama, written by a 16-year-old black student who was trying to interpret what was going on around him. It was perfect and I knew that it was his voice that needed to be heard.

It became another profound learning experience for me to write music and create a libretto for a dramatic work using other people’s lyrics. I wrote the narrative thread that weaves throughout the work and chose what parts of Ali’s writings were going to be set to rap, and then I chose whose words to use for the songs. Some of the most powerful and moving words are well known, like Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise,” but there are also lesser-known writings that I used as I felt these were equally important as cultural commentary. So now, what was originally conceived as a 15-minute portrait has become 90-minute opera/rap/oratorio mash-up; I like to describe it as if the musical Hamilton was crossed with Handel’s Messiah.

Writing this piece has changed my life. I have a better understanding of the very high stakes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and for somebody like me born in the late ‘80s, reaching a deeper understanding of these times is imperative. This story is important to tell because Muhammad Ali’s life offers a vivid reflection of the best and some of the worst of our country. He didn’t have it all figured out. As he matured and learned, Ali changed and evolved in his thinking. In studying his life, you can see the progression from Cassius Clay, the 18-year-old boxer from Louisville, Kentucky who supported the country when he went to Rome for the Olympics; to Muhammad Ali, the activist who confronted the standards, even trying to break them down in a very dangerous way; and then growing into the internationally respected humanitarian – ultimately a symbol of peace and understanding. That’s what I loved – the incredible journey of his early career and life based on fighting that transformed into a life of celebrating and spreading peace and harmony. Through my study of Muhammad Ali and writing this piece, I have a better understanding of our world, am better informed about our history, and am inspired to seek unity in all I do.