BE PART OF THE TEAM

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 11 May 2021
Advertisement

Empty venues, held at gunpoint and caught in an 'unruly Roscommon mob' - Joe Frazier's nightmare music tour of Ireland

Months after beating Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier fronted a band that toured 10 venues in Ireland. It could hardly have gone worse.

50 YEARS AGO, Joe Frazier went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali and razed The Greatest.

Three months later he toured Ireland with his band The Knockouts and was humbled himself, having played to empty ballrooms, flounced out of another, been held at gunpoint in Belfast and had his Rolls-Royce damaged in the middle of a scrap in Roscommon. 

Six days in Ireland left Joe Frazier with the kind of accumulated tumult even Ali could not inflict. 

**********

“Music goes back to his childhood in Beaufort, South Carolina”, says Mark Kram Junior, author of Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier. “He came from a big family, and at the end of the day, they would convene in quartets and sing a capella under the tree. It was their way of unwinding, they didn’t have TV back then.” 

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

There was musical talent in the family but these were traits that sidestepped Joe: his elder brother Rubin Junior was a church deacon who sang in the choir and later with a group called Gullah Kinfolk.

Frazier committed himself to music with the same assiduous zeal as he did his fighting career, but his was a name and fortune made by punching heavyweights rather than hitting high notes.

Source: Ruslan Naqshtalt/YouTube

“I’m the one who put the Knockouts together for Joe Frazier”, Lester Freeman tells The42 from his Florida home. Once Lester Pelemon, he was part of a soul group called the Soul Brother Six, best known for a Billboard hit called Some Kind of Wonderful.

Among their fans was one Joe Frazier, and when the group was dropped by Atlantic record towards the end of the 1960s, Lester left the band and put together The Knockouts for Frazier. 

“He loved entertainment and he loved the entertainment world”, says Lester of Frazier. “He wanted to sing, and he tried his best. His name would open doors for us.”

They rehearsed upstairs in the same gym as Frazier trained out of in Philadelphia, with Lester getting work on the ground floor too: working as assistant trainer, he was in Frazier’s corner for a host of fights including the first meeting with Ali. 

Frazier and the Knockouts largely sang soul and funk – often cover versions but occasionally their own releases – and their famous frontman drenched the stage in as much energy as he did the canvas. 

“Sometimes he moved like he moved in the boxing ring”, attests Lester. Frazier is recorded as having split his trousers on stage, and he fractured an ankle during a two-week residency in Lake Tahoe. He was back two days later, foot in plaster and singing from a stool. The comedian Norm Crosby was also on the bill, and quipped “I have worked with some great casts in my time but this is ridiculous.” 

Frazier and the Knockouts made their official debut on 7 September 1968 at the annual Hero Thrill Show fundraiser in Philadelphia, in front of 90,000 people. Not that those kinds of crowds held. 

boxing-joe-frazier-and-the-knockouts-rehearsals-granada-cinema-tooting Joe Frazier rehearses with The Knockouts in 1971. Source: PA

Kram’s biography quotes a review from a later performance in South Carolina, that “a guy could get snow-blind staring at the empty tablecloths…which is too bad, because Frazier the singer is like Frazier the fighter, busy all the time and holding nothing back.”

Other reviews were far harsher, august sports columnist Red Smith writing that Frazier “sounded like kitchenware falling down the stairs.”

Frazier was unbowed by meagre crowds, and his biographer records a quote given to the Philadelphia Inquirer in which he accentuated his commitment to showbusiness by raising the possibility of launching his own record label and disabusing the sceptics, saying he wasn’t just another “gimmick to bring people out and disappoint them.”

“Who knows, I might not put the gloves on again. I mean that.”

Although…

“But then the chance to fight Clay might come along and I would say, Yeah.”

*********

Muhammad Ali had several walk-on roles in Frazier’s music career, principally using it as an outlet to needle Frazier and lay the groundwork for their meeting as soon as Ali was returned his licence having been suspended for refusing the draft to Vietnam. 

In 1968, Frazier was performing in Atlantic City when he heard a familiar voice heckling him from the back. Ali was in the area promoting the Nation of Islam, and arrived with around 100 others at the Jet Set Bar and Lounge where Frazier was performing. He ended up on stage, declaring, “I’m going to jail. I’d rather be in jail than in Vietnam dead.” Frazier and Ali took off their jackets and playfully sparred before Ali took his leave, shouting, “This is my man!” 

Things took an uglier turn on a telethon fundraiser hosted by comedian Joey Bishop on which Frazier performed. Ali also turned up, taunting Frazier on air by rebranding the “Ali shuffle” as the “Uncle Tom shuffle.” 

The next day, Frazier was unloading equipment from his Cadillac with Lester when Ali appeared with a crowd behind them, taunting, “Joe Frazier! Joe Frazier! Joe Frazier!” 

According to Lester, Frazier reached for the tyre iron in the boot and growled, “I’m gonna put an end to this sucker right now.” 

The enmity between Ali and Frazier ran deep, perhaps deeper than Ali believed. His taunts of Frazier turned particularly ugly, mocking him as “ugly” and a “gorilla” but it was the “Uncle Tom” label that cut Frazier particularly deep.

(In his biography of Frazier, Kram notes that, like Frazier, Sammy Davis Junior and Louis Armstrong were also labelled with the word.) Frazier left Jim Crow South Carolina for New York as a 15-year-old, later saying, “Big things, little things: Beaufort never stopped letting you know you were a n****r.”

Ali later said he didn’t truly believe the taunt, but it was a reliable chisel in shaping the narrative – and bottom line – of his return fight after his suspension ended. An anti-establishment figure like Ali, after all, needed an establishment figure to fight. 

“Joe didn’t like Ali”, says Lester. “Joe said, ‘The money’s already in the bank, why have you got to keep bad-mouthing me? We don’t have to talk any more, just fight.’” 

boxing-muhammad-ali-v-joe-frazier Joe Frazier lands a blow on Muhammad Ali during their first meeting in 1971. Source: DPA

They fought on 8 March, 1971, and Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali by unanimous decision after 15 rounds at Madison Square Garden. Hunter S. Thompson laboured the fight’s place in the counter-culture, claiming it marked the “proper end of the Sixties” and writing of Ali being “belted incredibly off his pedestal by a human hamburger, a man on the verge of death. Joe Frazier, like Nixon, had prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand.” 

Bernadette Devlin was there, cheering Ali having taken two tickets on offer from the legendary sportswriter Jimmy Breslin. Told by Breslin afterward that she was acting like she had lost the fight, she replied, “I did.”

********** 

Three months later, Joe Frazier landed in Belfast. The Irish Independent cornered him for his impression of the world into which he had just stepped. 

“What trouble? I know nothing about that. I’m here to do a good show, and that’s what I’m going to do.” 

After he recovered from his bout with Ali, Frazier went on the road, and Ireland was the latest leg of a European tour with the Knockouts. It was to feature 10 performances across six nights: Derry, Donegal, Belfast, Castlebar, Castlerea, Dublin, Limerick, Tralee, Youghal, and Cork.

To that point, the tour had flopped. As Kram records in his biography, fewer than a thousand people turned up to see him in a 7,000-seater venue in Amsterdam; he missed press duties in Austria; a poor turnout of 500 people in Berlin led a promoter to force him to turn up; and a Copenhagen gig was cancelled after all of 28 tickets were sold. 

Things quickly got worse in Ireland. Records of the gigs are largely scattered across newspaper archives, but the Derry Journal reported the crowd at The Lilac Ballroom in Carndonagh, Donegal at just 52 people…which was twice the attendance of the opening gig at the The Golden Slipper Ballroom in Magilligan, Derry earlier that night. 

It seems the price was a sticking point: Donegal promoter Oliver Simpson later admitted he tripled the usual 10-shilling entrance fee for Frazier. 

Next up was Belfast, where Frazier was three hours late for a scheduled meeting with the Lord Mayor. As Lester explains, Frazier and his band ran into some trouble in the city earlier that day, when a couple of British troops pulled over Frazier’s Rolls-Royce. 

“We were driving on the road, and the police pulled us over and asked, ‘What’s going on?’ 

“I guess they wanted to check everyone so told us to get out of the car. Joe said, ‘I ain’t getting out of no car, man, I ain’t getting out of no car.’ Then he saw their guns and Joe jumped out with both hands in the air.” 

Frazier was then supposed to turn up for a round of media duties at the Montrose Hotel in Dublin, but didn’t show, leaving the following day’s papers were filled with sportswriters doing their best Beckett impressions in describing nothing. “As a host, he’s a ghost”, wrote Tom Hennigan in the Irish Independent. “And that’s the non-story of a non-event”.

Frazier had instead turned up in Longford on his way to the next gig in Castlebar, stopping to sign autographs in Ballymahon.

Said Castlebar gig was another debacle: The Herald put the attendance at 150 out of a possible 1,000 in the context of much grumbling about the £1 entrance fee.

And it got worse still. 

The next stop was Castlerea in Roscommon, and per the Western People, Frazier arrived to find a few hundred people waiting outside. Let the newspaper report take it from here….

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

Screenshot 2021-04-08 at 18.17.19 A headline from the Western People, 13 June 1971.

“At this time about 500 had paid their admission to the dance and there was an estimated similar number outside, waiting no doubt to get a glimpse of the conqueror of Cassius Clay.

“The crowd swooped down on the car and a section turned nasty. The car was given a small buffeting and following some difficulty the members of the Gardai were successful in getting Frazier into the hall. While Frazier was in the hall tempers of those remaining outside became enflamed due to the encouragement of some troublemakers.

A charge was made at the door by a section of the crowd causing the timber to crack while glass in the pay-office was also broken. Others clambered onto the roof of the hall and onto the windows, while others climbed onto the roofs of no less than seven cars, badly damaging some of them, while Frazier’s Rolls Royce was also badly damaged by the crowd. When his act finished, Gardai succeeded in sprinting Frazier through a dressing room and out a side door, where he was driven away in a patrol car, thus escaping the attention of the majority of the crowd, which, according to an onlooker, could best be described as an unruly mob. No arrests were made but great credit is due to the small force of Gardaí for the masterful manner in which they handled the explosive situation.” 

Frazier’s next venue was the National Stadium in Dublin, a gig that had become shrouded in doubt. Jack Fitzgerald of Tara Records had taken charge of advertising and ticket sales for the Dublin gig, but Frazier’s camp reportedly cut contact with him ahead of the gig, to the point Fitzgerald assumed they weren’t going to show and stopped selling tickets. 

They intended to do no such thing, however, and the gig went ahead in front of 150 people in a 2,300-capacity venue. Among the handful people there was a reviewer for the Irish Press. “Thousands of Dubliners missed a brilliant performance by the world champ in the Stadium. Those few who were there were treated to some first-class music and singing by a highly professional team and they were obviously enjoying every minute of it.” 

The good review didn’t trigger a grandstand finish.

Next stop Limerick for a meeting with the Lord Mayor – Frazier didn’t show up – and then a gig at the City Theatre. 40 people turned up in a venue suited to 1,000, and Frazier left before going on stage. Joe Bourke was the venue director and he had to tell the few flinty souls in front of him that the champ wouldn’t be turning up as planned. He himself later became Lord Mayor of Limerick, making him the second man in the role to have been spurned by Joe Frazier. 

Screenshot 2021-04-08 at 18.12.26 A headline from the Limerick Leader, 14 June 1971.

Upon Frazier’s death in 2011, Bourke remembered the night with the Limerick Leader, claiming the heavyweight champion of the world threatened to “give him a dig.”

“You find that with performers. They blame everybody and everything else but their own lack of appeal. Joe Frazier was a great boxer but I assume people didn’t want to see him sing because his vocal chords would have been battered in the ring.” 

From there, Frazier and the Knockouts went to Tralee – 500 people turned up, distinguishing that night as a monstrous success – and then rounded out in Youghal and finally Cork city, where attendance returned to the more familiar sight of 50 people. 

Ultimately, the price seems to have been the biggest deterrent for Irish crowds – Tralee was the most successful gig of all, and the owner of the Mount Bandon Ballroom later told The Kerryman that he haggled down Frazier’s fee. 

“There’s a lot of reasons a tour could go wrong”, says Kram. “Obviously they were putting him in big arenas and they had the expectation he would draw big crowds. So if the word gets around that only 700 people show up to see him in this cavernous arena, then it gives the impression that the tour is failing. However, if they booked him into a smaller theatre then it gives the impression that it’s a sought-after ticket. The economics of putting 30 people on the road in Europe demanded they sell a lot of tickets, and they simply didn’t do that.

“Once word got around that the tour was struggling, it went wrong early and it stayed on that the wrong road.” 

Kram has one other theory as to why Frazier struggled to draw crowds in Ireland and across Europe. 

“You’ve got to factor it in also, I think there was a great a disappointment among many people that he had beaten Ali. As many people as hated Ali in the United States, a lot of people were just crestfallen when he was beaten. But bad music is hard to sell.” 

Could Frazier’s marketability have taken a hit by dint of being the guy who beat the icon Ali? 

“It could be”, says Lester when I float the possibility. “A lot of people loved Ali, and we were doing a good show.” 

Frazier later said the bad press from the earlier European performances affected the turn-out in Ireland, also saying on his return to the US, “Man, you can’t club people over the head to make them come out.” 

**********

Joe Frazier and the Knockouts continued to perform, and Frazier threw himself even deeper into show business after his first retirement from boxing, training his voice two hours a day with Eddie Jones, the jazz double bassist who played with the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1950s. 

They landed a Miller Lite ad and earned $25,000 for a day’s work, but Frazier ultimately never found the same kind of success he found in the ring. 

“He was trying hard at it, he really was”, says Lester. “But some people are cut to be a fighter and some are cut to be a singer. Sometimes it is hard to have your cake and ice cream and eat it too.”

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

  

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

Read next:

COMMENTS (11)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel