It was 1971. I hadn't been back from Vietnam very long and I was involved in the antiwar movement with
other Vietnam veterans who shared my feelings. Around that time, a song came out about a poor devil
who had been an officer in Vietnam. Under enormous pressure, this man cracked and ordered his men
to kill everything that moved in this Vietnamese village. This one man polarized a lot of people's feelings
for and mostly against the war. The song was called the ballad of so and so and it glorified him ---
glorified him for blowing it.
At the same time, I had a hero who hadn't gone to war, he had conscientiously objected, and for that
was robbed of his ability to make a living as a prize fighter which is what he was. He was also sentenced
to five years hard labor and a half a million dollar fine. He didn't run, which was an option. He stayed
within the system and fought for his rights. That was Muhammad Ali.
Well, I got busy and wrote a song called the Ballad of Muhammad Ali. I’m going to try to put it up on
YouTube so all you fans of Houdini's Ghost can hear it. I'm not a songwriter and I think as a piece of
music it was pretty lightweight but people who heard it seemed to dig the philosophy.
A couple of months later, my future wife, an actress named Gerardine Arthur, found herself on the same
transatlantic flight as Muhammad and his wife Belinda. Gerardine sent a note up to first class asking if
she could have a word with Muhammad. He had the stewardess bring her up to first class and she sat
and chatted with him as Mrs. Ali slept with her head on her husband's chest. Gerardine thanked him for
seeing her and he said, "that's okay. I ain't going nowhere."
He asked her why she was going to England and she told him it was because her father was very ill,
possibly dying. She told him her dad had been a big fan of his, called him Cassius. Muhammad said,
"you tell your dad Muhammad Ali says get up out of that sickbed and I'm praying for him."
Then she told Muhammad, "listen, my boyfriend really loves you a lot and he's written a song about you
and you really should hear it." Muhammad wrote down his home address and phone number and gave
them to her. He told her how we should send the song on a cassette. They chatted for quite a while and
Muhammad told her, "you send me that song now and you tell your dad to get well."
How's that for approachable? I mean true, they were stuck on the same plane, on a transatlantic flight,
but Muhammad Ali could not have been nicer.
It actually took a couple of tries to get the song to him. We were supposed to call him to make sure he
received it. I dialed the number he had given us and an internationally recognized voice said, "city
morgue!" I told him who I was and he said he was going to go looking for the cassette and that I should
call him back in 15 minutes. I did and he said he couldn't find it. He said, "you see, I get about 500
pieces of mail a day and some of it doesn't get through to me. You're going to have to send it again.
This time send it to Belinda Ali."
Anyway, Ali got a cassette and we began playing phone tag. For some technical reason, my phone
wasn't working when Belinda told me Muhammad would call me so I gave her my parents’ phone
number. I then managed not to be there when he called. My mother spoke to him and my fiancée spoke
to him but they told him really that I was the guy he had to talk to. He said he would call back in an hour
and he did. My mother answered the phone, then said, "Patrick, Muhammad Ali is on the phone."
I got on the phone and Muhammad said, "okay, I've got this cassette. It's in a box with flowers on it."
"Yeah," I told him, "I wanted it to stand out."
He said, "I'm taking it out of the box, and putting it in my cassette player. Okay, here we go."
I heard this reedy voice singing, "what is a man if a man's not free, a man only has to be what he wants
to be, and if one man is enslaved, then no man is free, so I'm singing this song about Muhammad Ali."
Then, Muhammad and I listened to the chorus, "he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, go,
Muhammad, go, you've got to flight to stay free." So far, he seemed to be liking it. He gave these
agreeable mmmms as he heard the lyrics.
Then we got to the lines, "on February 26, 1964, he said don't you call me by my slave name no more."
He stopped the cassette and said, "I wasn't being so defiant. Where did you get these words?"
I said, "I took them from statements you've made."
Muhammad suggested we soften it a little and we settled on, "he said please don't call me by my slave
name no more." Then the song went on, "he'd taken a name to show the world he was free, and from
that day the man named Clay was known as Ali. The only man he is is who he wants to be. Why, he
doesn't even smoke or drink or use profanity. And all the power of the system couldn't keep him from
being free, that's why I sing the ballad of Muhammad Ali."
He stopped the cassette again. "That line all the power of the system couldn't keep him from being free
ain't exactly true cause the supreme court barely saved me."
We settled on, "and he was all prepared to go to prison for what he believed."
Then, we got to a line that said, "because he is a Muslim he opposes war, you don't have to be a Muslim
to do that anymore."
Muhammad said, "I don't want this song to say anything about my religion. I'm very enthusiastic about
my religion, but, in this country I'm free to be any religion I want so there's no need pushing it at
anybody. I have fans of every race and religion all over the world. And I don't want none of my Jewish
friends thinking I'm on this side or the other side of the Arab-Israeli thing. We should leave religion out of
I said, "you know, I was thinking of putting in something about your exploits in the ring, but, really, I wrote
this song about your moral stand. I mean, somebody had to stand up and say the war was wrong and
you did no matter what it cost you."
He said, "don't bother with the sports, it's the moral stand that means something." I think we actually
came up with a better line, "his conscience told him that the war was wrong, he said I've got nothing
against no Viet Cong."
He finished playing the song then said, "this song praise me too much. I'm king of my house, you see,
but, my little daughter doesn't know it, she runs around and does anything she wants and my wife has to
give her a whippin’ to keep her in her place. And that's what happens to people who don't know who
they are." Then he asked, "what do you want to do with this song?"
I said, "I'd like it to come out and kick some asses into giving you a title shot."
He said, "I've got some friends back here in the music business, let me see what they might want to do
I told him that would be great. I told him that the biggest thrill of all was the fact that he got to hear it and
I told him it was great getting to know him a little and that my fiancée thought he was a great guy. He
said, "call me in a week or so."
The next time I called, I got Belinda. Muhammad was away. She told me when to give it another try, then
added, "you know Muhammed loves your song. He's been playing it for everybody and he calls it his
official song. He's played it again and again." She told me she liked the song too. I told her to watch for
me on an episode of "Cannon" that was on CBS that night.
When I got Ali on the phone a few days later we chatted about the antiwar movement and I told him how
the Vietnam veterans I knew felt about him. He told me he was about to leave for training camp and he
gave me the number there. He told me he loved the song and said he'd call it his official song but hadn't
had any luck trying to get someone to record it.
I told Muhammad that Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire had taken it to a friend of his who wanted to
take a shot at it (they recorded a demo that was actually quite different from my song, but, it didn't go
Muhammad and I spoke a couple more times on the phone. He was a thoughtful, very nice guy, and I
have always treasured those conversations. It would be many years before I would speak with him again.
I was walking along Hollywood Boulevard with a girlfriend, Lauren Hathaway, and I was feeling kind of
down. I'd been up for a part that I really wanted to play that I didn't get. As we passed the Hollywood
Magic shop, I looked in to see Muhammad doing magic for a crowd of people. We went in and watched
Muhammad do some excellent mental magic and sleight-of-hand.
Then, Muhammad sat on a stool and signed autographs for everyone who wanted one. I waited for a
chance to say hello then asked him if he remembered "the Ballad of Muhammad Ali." Yes, he did. I
asked him what he'd been doing since his retirement from the ring and he told me, "I'm more into the
spiritual side of things now. I’m a Muslim and we believe you might get 60 or 70 years on this planet, but,
eternity in heaven if you earn it. And it's how you live your time on this planet whether you earn eternity
We talked philosophy a bit as we had on the phone in the old days. He asked me to introduce him to my
girlfriend, and when I did, he looked at me and said, "yeah, right! You cain’t do no better, she can do
better." When I tell people that, they think Muhammad was putting me down. Actually, and people who
know him know this, when he teases you that means he likes you.
I said, "Was your mother's maiden name O'Grady?" He said, "No 'O'--just Grady."
I said, "You're more Irish than I am!" Muhammad made a fist and made that "now you're gonna get it,
The interesting thing to me is this: Ali recently (2009) paid a visit to his Irish ancestor's hometown, Ennis.
Ali used to argue against marrying out of your race, but, if a freed slave and an Irish immigrant named
Abe Grady hadn't fallen in love and bucked the odds, there wouldn't have been a Muhammad Ali.
I ran into him a couple of other times. The most recent time, again at Hollywood Magic, I had difficulty
understanding him. I got my ears blown out in Vietnam and that last time I saw him, I was even worse off
than my usual half deaf. I missed what he was saying to me and I asked him to tell me again. He gave
me a look that said, "I can't."
I shook his hand and said, "I love you, Muhammad. Thanks for all you did to end that war. Thanks for
While I was in the magic shop, a woman came in with a baby. The kid couldn't know who Muhammad
was, he was about eight or nine months old. Muhammad started making faces for the kid who was
looking over his mom's shoulder. The woman finished her purchase and started to leave but the baby
protested vigorously, holding out his hands pleadingly toward Muhammad. The kid had experienced Ali
for two minutes and was ready to follow him anywhere.
I want to mention Muhammad's eyes. They are the eyes of a saint. And, alternately, the eyes of a class
clown. When he speaks, you believe him, but laughter is never far away. One guy in the crowd started
dancing and shadow-boxing and said, "hey, Muhammad. I think I can take you, Muhammad. Come on,
man, let's rumble." Muhammad looked up and said, "If you think that in your dreams, you better wake up
|How Muhammad Ali met Houdini's Ghost Patrick Culliton
|A five year old named Justine Dann is captured by the Ali charm.