Sonny Liston Meets the Beatles

By Robert Ecksel on August 30, 2021

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Bob Dylan made the cut, as did Sonny Liston, on loan from Madame Tussauds wax museum.

There are a few links between boxing and the Beatles. Heavyweight contender Oscar Bonavena, whose nickname was “Ringo,” was a free-swinging Latin lover who could more or less fight. He died young when shot in the heart at the Mustang Ranch brothel outside Reno. There was middleweight champion Carlos Monzon, who could have been a stand-in for one of the Fab Four, had he not thrown his wife off a balcony. And there was the photo op of the Beatles meeting 22-year-old Cassius Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali) on February 18, 1964, at the 5th Street Gym in Miami, Florida, where he was training to fight heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Center one week later.

 

The Beatles had been in the U.S. for 11 days. They were in town to film their second appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” at Miami’s Deauville Hotel.

 

(“I saw the Liston-Clay fight,” said Sullivan after the bout. “This was a stinker of all time. I swear the Beatles could beat the two of 'em! No kidding!”)

 

The Beatles wanted to meet heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, not “that loudmouth who’s going to lose,” in the words of John Lennon. Liston took one look and said, “I ain’t posing with them sissies.” Someone suggested he listen to their music. Liston said, “My dog can play better drums than that kid with the big nose.”

 

The Beatles settled on meeting the 7-1 underdog.

 

When Clay met the band at the gym, he said, “Hello there, Beatles! We oughta do some roadshows together. We’ll get rich!” and the five of them hammed it up. Clay pretended to punch George Harrison. He lifted Ringo Starr and cradled him in his arms. The Beatles made believe they were knocked out, while Cassius Clay loomed triumphant above them.

 

Clay looked at Lennon and said, “You’re not as stupid as you look,” one of his favorite lines, to which Lennon replied, “No, but you are.”

 

It was a meeting of minds. Cassius Clay never met a quip he didn’t like. The same was true of John Lennon.

 

Sonny Liston was done with the Beatles, but the Beatles weren’t done with Sonny Liston.

 

Three years later, while at work on their groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles hired British pop artist Peter Blake to co-design the album cover.

 

“The concept of the album had already evolved,” recalled Blake in “The Story Behind the Cover.” “It would be as though the Beatles were another band, performing a concert, perhaps in a park. I then thought that we could have a crowd standing behind them, and this developed into the collage idea.”

 

Peter Blake asked the Beatles for feedback.

 

“I asked them to make lists of people they'd most like to have in the audience at this imaginary concert. John's was interesting because it included Jesus and Gandhi and, more cynically, Hitler. But this was just a few months after the US furor about his ‘Jesus’ statement, so they were all left out. George's list was all gurus. Ringo said, ‘Whatever the others say is fine by me,’ because he didn't want to be bothered. Robert Fraser (Blake’s gallery dealer) and I also made lists. We then got all the photographs together and had life-size cut-outs made onto hardboard.”

 

Most of the cut-outs were of famous dead people. But some were still breathing, which was a problem.

 

“EMI realized that because many of the people we were depicting were still alive, we might be sued for not seeking their permission,” explained Blake. “So the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, who was very wary of all the complications in the first place, had his assistant write to everyone. Mae West replied, ‘No, I won't be in it. What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?’ So the Beatles wrote her a personal letter and she changed her mind.”

 

There were other movie stars beside pioneer sex siren Mae West on the cover of Sgt. Pepper (Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, Tom Mix, Marlene Dietrich, Tony Curtis, and Johnny Weissmuller). There were comedians (W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and Lenny Bruce). There were adventurers and missionaries (T.E. Lawrence and Dr. David Livingstone). There were scientists and philosophers (Carl Jung, Karl Marx, and Albert Einstein). There were writers and visionaries (H.G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde, William Burroughs, Aleister Crowley, and Lewis Carroll).

 

Bob Dylan made the cut, as did Sonny Liston, on loan from Madame Tussauds wax museum. He’s in the front row, wearing a gold robe with copper trim and a scowl on his face, standing next to wax likenesses of the Beatles.

 

Madame Tussauds gave the waxwork Liston to Peter Blake as a fee for graphic design work he had done. There were plans to melt old Sonny down. “Underneath his robe he's also rather fragile,” Blake told The Independent in 2011, while gently patting the champion’s shoulder in his west London studio, “so he doesn't go anywhere anymore. And he's my guardian here.”