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Here’s What Really Happened When The Beatles Met Muhammad Ali

An iconic photograph of The Beatles and Muhammad Ali is up for sale at Swann Auction Galleries this week.
The image is part of a portfolio by British photographer Harry Benson, who travelled with the band as they invaded America in 1964 and captured the hysteria that followed them across the country.

The Fab Four met the Louisville Lip on February 18, 1964, during a remarkable period for both parties.

The Beatles were in the midst of their first U.S tour, and just a few days earlier had made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, to an audience of more than 70 million viewers.

"Obviously we were having an effect, because all these people were clamouring to meet us – like Muhammad Ali, for instance," said George Harrison in the Beatles Anthology.

"We were taken to meet him on that first trip. It was a big publicity thing. It was all part of being a Beatle, really – just getting lugged around and thrust into rooms full of press men taking pictures and asking questions. Muhammad Ali was quite cute. He had a fight coming up in a couple of days with Sonny Liston. There is a famous picture of him holding two of us under each arm."

Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay) was preparing for his title fight against Sonny Liston, which would see him crowned Heavyweight Champion in one of boxing’s greatest upsets and elevate him to international fame.

Although the meeting produced a series of now-iconic photographs, it seems both the band and Ali were a little less than thrilled by the publicity stunt at the time.

The Beatles had originally wanted to meet the current champion Liston, who was the overwhelming favourite to win the fight, but he had no interest in meeting a pop group from England.

So photographer Benson arranged for them to meet Ali instead, despite Lennon reportedly calling him "that loudmouth who’s going to lose".

Ali was late, and the Beatles were ready to walk out, until he arrived and proclaimed loudly "Hello there, Beatles! We oughta do some roadshows together. We’ll get rich!"

Together they clowned around in the ring, surrounded by reporters and photographers, and Ali ad-libbed a quick rhyme for the occasion: "When Liston reads about the Beatles visiting me / He’ll get so mad I’ll knock him out in three!"

But when the shoot was over, the band was allegedly furious with Benson, feeling he’d made them look like fools. And after they left, Ali turned to boxing reporter Robert Lipsyte and asked "Who were those little sissies?"

Today that slightly cynical publicity stunt is regarded as a meeting between some of the biggest cultural icons of the 1960s.

Benson’s limited edition portfolio, entitled ‘The Beatles: 40th Anniversary’, contains 12 silver gelatin prints, and is expected to sell for $8,000-$12,000.

The Swann Auction Galleries Photographs and Photobooks sale takes place in New York on April 20.

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