Sonny Liston’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

By Robert Ecksel on December 31, 2016
Sonny Liston’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Dylan made the cut, as did Sonny Liston, on loan from Madame Tussauds wax museum.

“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…”

“Someday they’ll write a blues song just for fighters. It’ll be for slow guitar, soft trumpet, and a bell.”—Sonny Liston

One of the touchstones of the Sixties was the Beatles.

What does that have to do with boxing?

Alas very little.

There was heavyweight contender Oscar Bonavena, whose nickname was “Ringo.” He died young at Mustang Ranch 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 of course 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 Sonny Liston, not “that loudmouth who’s going to lose,” in the words of John Lennon, but Liston wasn’t interested. He took one look at them and said, “I ain’t posing with them sissies.” Their music was no better. Liston said, “My dog can play better drums than that kid with the big nose.”

So 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.

It was a publicity stunt, but it mattered.

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 like 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 really 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 alive, 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 Mae West on the cover of Sgt. Pepper (Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Diana Dors, Tom Mix, Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Tony Curtis, and Johnny Weissmuller). There were comedians (W.C. Fields, Lenny Bruce, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy). 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 poets (H.G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, William Burroughs, Aleister Crowley, and Lewis Carroll).

Bob Dylan made the cut, as did Sonny Liston, on loan from Madame Tussauds wax museum, standing stage right in the front row in a white robe with copper trim next to wax likenesses of the Beatles.

Addenda: Madame Tussauds gave the waxwork Liston to Peter Blake in exchange for graphic design work he had done. They were going 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.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Muhammad Ali training for Liston and meeting the Beatles

Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston - 1964 Boxen

Sonny Liston the Night Train

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  1. Tex Hassler 02:12pm, 12/16/2017

    Liston was and is one of my all time favorite fighters.

  2. Koolz 05:18pm, 01/04/2017

    Lucas McCain
    I believe all the Heavy Weights at that time wouldn’t have made it past
    the fourth round in that fight with Liston.  Ali though had this sick sense of distance, he could just move his head or shoulder little this way or that way and be out of the range of someones attack.

    Joe Louis(boxer) used basic Kung Fu move where your arm motion disrupts the persons attack(like fencing) Only other fighter I have seen use that is Golovkin.)
    and stop the person from hitting you this way, canceling out there energy.

    Ali though would just move little bit and be out of range as he danced around the ring.  And no one taught Ali that trick either.  There was no trainer that taught him how to that, that I know.  It’s like jump roping but fighting at the same time.  Pretty damn awesome to watch and the reason Bruce Lee copied it(As he loved Boxing)  Your movement is your offense and defense.  You adapt to the flows of the person you are fighting.(move like water)

  3. Lucas McCain 08:30am, 01/03/2017

    Sonny on Ringo’s drumming—as the third clip shows, he made a gym-show out of skipping rope to Night Train, the funky James Brown version (the brooding, Jimmy Forest version of Duke Ellington’s song was too slow) and Sonny knew a great beat when he heard it.  But Ringo had his own sound, as Paul and the others realized; he was not only more solid than (decent but limited Pete Best), but also—because of his left-handedness—an appealing, personal style.  Ringo himself knew his limitations—he cringed when he met the great Buddy Rich, knowing he wasn’t in the same league. But the foul-mouthed Buddy was for once generous:  keep doing what you do, kid, is what I recall he told him.

  4. Lucas McCain 08:06am, 01/03/2017

    Koolz,  Yes, Ali was a marvel to behold.  But for all his stumbling, Liston showed real skills as well, rolling with and slipping lots of punches—unfortunately for him, not enough!  It is amusing that at the time, the fight was called a fix, a disgrace, a black eye to boxing, but now looks like the classic it was!  (As for fight 2. . .enough has been said and too little known!)

  5. Koolz 07:51pm, 01/02/2017

    Lucas McCain
    no body can get tired of watching the Clay vs Liston fight!
    Fight of the Ages! 
    Ali moves like water!

  6. Lucas McCain 03:20pm, 01/02/2017

    For those who skipped over the Clay-Liston link because they’d seen it before (I’ve seen the fight at least 100 times in the last 53 years!) I highly recommend you go back and watch it.  It’s the English commentator, and the sound is unusually good.  The blows are clear, and the long pre- and post-coverage really put you there!!

  7. Koolz 12:14pm, 01/01/2017

    Ronda has to learn boxing from a professional trainer.
    then she can work on some Thai boxing and throw in her Judo, jitsu etc.
    other then that she will need to talk to her Boyfriend and see what is in her heart.  Should she continue?  She has a lot of options as a women in the entertainment industry.  Film industry always wants to use her.
    How big is her pride?
    wish her the best!

  8. Day Trippin' 06:37am, 01/01/2017

    Koolz….It isn’t the fact that Ronda only has two losses, it is the fact that she was destroyed in a quick fashion in her last two bouts. In addition, she can’t handle defeat, and is very fragile psychologically. I wish her the best. She had a helluva run while it lasted, and she should be set financially at a young age unless she was stupid enuff to blow all her money. For the amount of fights she had, she earned mega-bucks.

  9. Koolz 04:33pm, 12/31/2016

    Yukinoir Oguni vs Jonathan Guzman

    Ronda has only lost twice she can keep competing if she wants too.  Or she could go into acting full time.  Sky is the limit for that women.
    Porn industry died years ago.

  10. Koolz 12:36pm, 12/31/2016

    Lucas McCain 11:53am, 12/31/2016

    I forgot the link.  Of course

    some of these are rather surprising.

  11. Day Trippin' 12:19pm, 12/31/2016

    @Lucas McCain…Great link. Damn, 2016 was a tough year. Looks like I see my boy, Leon Russell, in that bunch. Good riddance to Leonard Cohen. How anyone can not listen to his music, and not see the writing on the wall is beyond me. I invite anyone to check out the lyrics of the songs, “The Future,” and “First We Take Manhattan.” @Irish…Ronda is through. Maybe she can make a reality show now. Lets just hope she doesn’t go into porn.

  12. Koolz 12:06pm, 12/31/2016

    Kosei Tanaka vs Moises Fuentes

  13. Lucas McCain 11:55am, 12/31/2016

    Pardon the typos.  This “never” rather than “ever.”  And a few others.  Garry

  14. Lucas McCain 11:53am, 12/31/2016

    I forgot the link.  Of course

  15. Lucas McCain 11:52am, 12/31/2016

    Thought some might enjoy this sombre up-dating of the Beatles cover with this years’ music, sports, etc. passings. Ali now appropriately replaces Liston in the group.  I ever liked David Bowie much, and I could have done without him at the front, but at least Dion DiMucci who was on the 1966 album, did not make it to this one.  He’s still going.  Long me he sing!

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:21am, 12/31/2016

    Not a peep on here about “Help me Ronda….Help… Help me Ronda” who got mugged by that cranky, ill tempered tranny last night! Still have a yen for Ronda but no way Nunes who would probably show up with a humungous strap on.

  17. Day Trippin' 10:22am, 12/31/2016

    Irish…Always figured “Rocky” Balboa sounded an awful like “Rocky” Barbella. The character, “Rocky,” even though a heavyweight, was more Graziano-like than Marciano-like. Maybe the real Rock should have hit Stallone up for some moolah ala Wepner.

  18. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:06am, 12/31/2016

    @Day Trippin’-This was of course before Stallone had that “negative rhinoplasty” done to give his nose the appearance of retired Rocky’s schnoz. The original Rocky was phony as shit when he portrayed face first fighter Rocky with that thin bridged beak of his.

  19. Day Trippin' 09:29am, 12/31/2016

    Irish…Speakin’ of crazy, and the Beetles, take a listen to Crazy Charlie spittin’ out a tune. Do a search for “Look At Your Game Girl,” by Manson. The little guy did have some talent. While, he’s no Elvis, he certainly was better than Lady Gag Gag, Miley Virus, and Justin Dweeber.

  20. Day Trippin' 09:14am, 12/31/2016

    I don’t get the reference of Monzon being able to be a stand-in for one of the “Fab Four.”  I’ve heard Monzon’s facial features described as a cross between Charles Bronson & Jack Palance back in the day,  and that seems like a pretty good call. Now a young Sly Stallone looked like a young Paul McCartney on a steroid cycle. I know the Beetles always had coded messages in some of their tunes after they went from their bubblegum stage to a more PSYCHOdelic genre. The original version of the song, “Get Back,” before changing the lyrics, was about “Pakis” flooding England. Whoa, didn’t know that was a problem way back then. Get back to where you once belonged.

  21. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:38am, 12/31/2016

    No names….but a couple on this thread are off their meds like myself and I love it! Which reminds me….. Nurse Ratched is gonna’ run again in ‘20!

  22. Lucas McCain 07:22am, 12/31/2016

    Great link to Ali and Beatles; haven’t seen footage in a long time.  Most surprising is how physically mature Ali (still Clay) looks in Feb 1964.  It’s less than a year since the Doug Jones fight at MSG, when he looked like a speedy, still boyish light-heavy.

  23. Lucas McCain 07:14am, 12/31/2016

    Koolz—there’s a problem of age-reversal in your analogy.  And, more important, of reflexes and speed!

  24. Koolz 06:56pm, 12/30/2016

    The way Ali fights Liston is the way Wlad will fight Joshua.
    Actually I have seen Wlad fight that way before I think it was the Pulev fight.

  25. Koolz 04:31pm, 12/30/2016

    Ryota Murata vs Bruno Sandoval
    Good one!

  26. Lucas McCain 04:21pm, 12/30/2016

    Giants roamed the earth in those daysI

    I bet Leo Gorcey kicked himself for playing hardball and getting bounced from the cover

  27. Koolz 04:12pm, 12/30/2016
    sorry it misses the first round.

    Akira Yaegashi vs Samartlek Kokeitgym

  28. Koolz 03:50pm, 12/30/2016

    as much as I want to discuss martial arts with Day tripper(did you read “food for the Gods” go read that)

    I would instead like to post this fight that well it’s Naoya Inoue! vs Kohei Kono.  The whole Card was good!  I’ll post all the fights but Inoue first!

  29. Paul R Gallender 12:47pm, 12/30/2016

    Thanks, Robert. I hadn’t heard of the Peter Blake story, nor had I heard Ed Sullivan’s comment about the first fight. It’s not the first time I’ve learned something about Sonny from your articles.

  30. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:19am, 12/30/2016

    Biggest loss of 2016 by far…..“Big Ang” Raiola….Man! would I have loved to have a shot at that honey bun, if you get my drift….God rest her soul!

  31. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:48am, 12/30/2016

    Actually the NCBA has thirty schools that participate out of thousands in the country. The military schools win the Championships every year it seems. Looks like the only school participating in the state of New York is West Point.

  32. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:37am, 12/30/2016

    Higher Education….Coach Jim Harbaugh at Michigan $10 Million per year, Krzyzewzki at Duke $7 Million, Calipari at Kentucky $7 Million. Saban at Alabama $7 Million and I read somewhere that one of his assistants gets $600,000 per year for Christ’s sake! Which reminds me… there’s only a couple of colleges in the country that have any kind of a boxing program like Ted Sares has written about in the past.

  33. Day Tripper 09:23am, 12/30/2016

    Irish…I think that Conor is playin’ Floyd. Conor has no intention of boxing Floyd, he can’t be that stupid. I think Floyd is stupid enuff to smell a big easy payday, and Conor is gettin’ a big laugh at his expense. Conor is no boxer, but he knows how to $ell a story. He’s playing Floyd like a violin.

  34. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:13am, 12/30/2016

    @Day Tripper- Maybe you can help with this McGregor/Mayweather scam. Are they talking about a boxing match or what? If it’s straight up boxing Conor has a snowball’s chance in hell!

  35. Day Tripper 08:33am, 12/30/2016

    Koolz..Not only would Joe Lewis kick the 5’7” 135lb Bruce Lee’s arse in REAL life, but so would have Chuck Norris. Hell, Benny Urquidez was about the same exact size as Lee, and Benny The Jet would have destroyed Lee in an actual fight, be it competition or just a street brawl.  A 6’3” 215lb Ali against a guy the size of the average 12 year old boy? Come on man, Lee would only beat Ali in REEL life. Hmmmm, “the World is Mad,” totally agree with you there, brother, but I would add brainwashed as well. I get the whole Sun and Mithra thingie as well. Aleister Crowley? Nuffin more than a opium addicted freak, that sought attention. Howard Levey aka Anton LaVey? Another attention seeker who adopted the I like Satan thingie to attack Western values, Christianity, and also get a chance to see naked women that he otherwise would have never been able to see. John Lennon might have been the original “snowflake.” And you forgot Blue Beetle, and the Volkswagon Beetle. Speaking of FAKE REEL life tough guy martial artists. Didn’t old and crusty, Judo Gene LeBell choke out Steven Segal a few years back?  BTW, lets see if Ronda Rousey can comeback tonight. I’m actually rooting for her. Her loss seems to have made her more humble and definitely more likeable.

  36. peter 07:29am, 12/30/2016

    The incongruity of a mean, baleful, Sonny Liston being included on that album cover is what makes that photo special.

  37. Koolz 04:28am, 12/30/2016

    Day Tripper
    I did take a Magic Mystery tour in Martial Arts. 
    Didn’t Lennon say, there calling us Crazy when they are the Crazy ones.

    I am speaking in codes see if you guys can find what is hidden.

  38. Day Tripper 07:20pm, 12/29/2016

    Sonny was right. Ringo sucked. Koolz….Damn it. Sounds like you are off on your own Magical Mystery Tour. Is you crazy?

  39. Koolz 06:16pm, 12/29/2016

    Lennon always knew about Paul.
    Lennon Said “They call us the Psychos when they are the Psychos, the World is Mad”

    oh the Beetles I know everything about the Esoteric Beetles.
    Scarab Beetles and Horned Beetles.

    Here Comes the Sun.  I mean here comes Mithra…
    Some how Alistair Crowley always pops up in Politics and Art, where’s Lavey?

    Joe Louis the kick boxer who always rants “about Bruce Lee beating him didn’t really beat him because it was an exercise(Bruce beat him)” took Ali Down before a fight.
    Ali asked him if he could take him down and Louis did by the legs(not boxing or kick boxing)  To bad that wasn’t promoted some where.

    Bruce Lee was asked if he could beat someone like Ali.

  40. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:57pm, 12/29/2016

    Sonny was probably comparing “that kid with the big nose” to someone like Art Blakey, clearly not a fair comparison.

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