By 1976, Muhammad Ali had pummeled his way to top of the world. Two years earlier in Zaire, he’d regained his world heavyweight title by beating George Foreman in the historic Rumble in the Jungle. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, any lingering animosity toward him for being a conscientious objector – an issue that went all the way to the Supreme Court – was gone. Ali was a household name, a superstar, an icon. He’d knocked out Foreman. He’d been victorious before SCOTUS. What viable foes could he possibly have left? As it turns out: cavities.
The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay, a children’s album starring the voice talents of Ali, was released in 1976. Along for the ride were Frank Sinatra, Howard Cosell and Ossie Davis. The title pretty much sums it up: In a storyline combining music, narration and PSA preachiness – and that takes place, according to Cosell, “On a warm, sunny day in a neighborhood a lot like yours …” – Ali and his gang of kiddie friends team up to clobber tooth decay right in the kisser. Literally. Mr. Tooth Decay is the villain of this epic melodrama, an anthropomorphized force of dental destruction who lures children into his web of rottenness by plastering posters of cake, ice cream and candy all over town. In fact, that’s pretty much the extent of his nefarious activities, making Mr. Tooth Decay no more evil than, say, your average grocer.
But wait, there is an average grocer in Ali and His Gang. His name is Ol’ Blue Eyes, and yes, it is safe to assume Sinatra fills that role. During Ali’s quest to defeat Mr. Tooth Decay and educate his gang about the dangers of sweets – Ali may sting like a bee, but he holds no love for honey – the champ runs across a panoply of characters, including Sinatra’s. Ol’ Blue Eyes tries to push ice cream on the kids, saying in his defense, “Whaddaya mean, you gonna deny these kids ice cream on a hot day like this? Hey man, that’s like taking candy from a baby.” He even namedrops his Rat Pack pal Sammy Davis Jr. (However, the record misses a golden opportunity to give Davis’ Candy Man a cameo.) “This is a different kind of battle,” Ali warns his posse, “and I have to train just as hard, eat the right kind of food, and good, healthy exercise won’t hurt either.”
Mr. Tooth Decay isn’t the only baddie lining up to pulverize the teeth of America’s children. His sniveling sidekick is Sugar Cuber (which sounds like “Sugar Cuba” when delivered in Mr. Tooth Decay’s Yiddish-meets-Transylvanian accent), and they’re joined later in the story by Willie Plaque. “Sugar paves the way to the valley of the tender nerve,” Mr. Tooth Decay tells them, adding a little poetry to his villainy. Not that Ali and crew don’t have an ally of their own: Brother St. John, portrayed with gravelly suaveness by Ossie Davis, is a former dentist who has moved to the country to grow organic food. And, of course, help guide kids toward better oral hygiene. By the time the anticlimactic final bout takes place – an actual boxing match between Ali and Tooth Decay – a tedious commercial for fluoride and flossing has been delivered, along with cheery slogans from Ali such as “The family that brushes together stays together.”
Ali and His Gang is a story record, but there’s plenty of music. Maybe a little too much. At one point, the score sounds like a marching band whose horns have been replaced with glitching analog synths. Elsewhere, some misplaced, Shaft-style blaxploitation funk underlines the narration. At one point, Mr. Tooth Decay’s entrance is signaled by a dissonant track that sounds like “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” as interpreted by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse. The most successful song on the album is Ali’s own theme, a brassy, fist-pumping anthem that vaguely parallels the theme from Rocky, also released in 1976.
As bombastic as the music is, though, it can’t compare with Ali’s lyrics. Delivering some of his trademark boasts in a syrupy flow, he brags, “I’m so bad, I eat for breakfast railroad spikes/Yesterday I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick/I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.” Moments like this amply demonstrate Ali’s penchant for “poetic flights of whimsy,” as Rolling Stone called his proto-rap stream of braggadocio. The fighter had always had an eye on music, starting as early as his 1963 album (under the name Cassius Clay) I Am the Greatest!, which contained a shaky yet earnest cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” In 1976, the lesser-known album I’m the Greatest was released, featuring a bizarre funk rendition of Sinatra’s “High Hopes” – making it a companion LP, of sorts, to Ali and His Gang.
Nineteen-seventy-six was a big year for the fine art of bluster in general, with America’s bicentennial celebration in full swing. That also helps account for some historical references in Ali’s theme song – “Who knocked the crack in the Liberty Bell?/Ali! Ali!,” not to mention a shout-out to Paul Revere – which seem head-scratchingly out of place today. For all its corniness and clunkiness, though, there’s plenty of charm to Ali and His Gang. Someone must have loved it at the time, because not only did it receive the stamp of approval from the American Dental Association, it was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Recording for Children category. Most importantly, though, the album’s heart is in the right and noble place, something that could always be said of the late champ himself.