To commit to scouring the bottomless stacks of music performed by athletes is to renegotiate the bounds of what constitutes quality. If you're lucky, you'll be rewarded with surprising competence but more often than not you're dealing with Brett Myers and his Chivecore country record. Finding something legitimately entertaining for the right reasons is the equivalent of unearthing a previously unheard Velvet Underground acetate at a garage sale. This might be why it's taken me so long to figure out the easiest answer for the question "Who's the greatest ballplayer-slash-recording artist of all time?" Every response needs to be prefaced with, "Well, for somebody who's supernaturally good at tossing a ball around…"
If this whole ridiculous endeavor has produced any definitive finding, it's this: Roosevelt Grier is the King of Sportscore.
The legendary defensive tackle's track to renaissance-man fame was endearingly goofy, sure: jabbing at the parameters of masculinity by authoring how-to books on macramé and needlepoint; reassuring kids that "It's All Right to Cry" on Free to Be… You and Me; bickering with the transplanted noggin of Ray Milland in the "Defiant Ones gone batshit" Z-movie The Thing with Two Heads. (The latter credit makes Grier an unwitting player in the history of hip-hop's greatest drum break: for the soundtrack, record producer Michael Viner formed the Incredible Bongo Band, of "Apache" fame.)
But Grier is also the man who, while pulling bodyguard duty, wrenched the gun out of Sirhan Sirhan's hands after he shot Bobby Kennedy. To call his life "eventful" is an understatement. Having done all that he did, if he fell short as a recording artist, it'd be forgivable.
Here's the thing, though: he was great. In hindsight, and from the perspective of someone who came of age in the 90s, Grier was the 70s equivalent of the "lovable galoot" sports celebrity role played by Shaq. It's not so surprising, by those lights, that Grier shone doing fun, showbizzy stuff, including kid-friendly performances on Free to Be… and Sesame Street. But his music career, while not his most lucrative side gig, is definitely his most illuminating. After an Achilles' tear in 1967 ended his football career, Grier put out a string of good-to-excellent singles on labels like United Artists and A&M, peaking in every way but chart success with 1974's gutsy-smooth "You're the Violin." The track was written by Songwriting Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Barry, who also wrote "Then He Kissed Me," "Be My Baby," "River Deep - Mountain High," and a grip of other classics in the Scorsese-pop canon. "Violin" was later covered by none other than Nazareth.
Some of Grier's other post-football offerings are almost as good, including his Marvin Gaye-inflected orchestral soul plead "Beautiful People," from 1973, and 1975's disarmingly sweet "Take the Time to Love Somebody."
But Grier was cutting records on a regular basis throughout his playing career, with a string of singles that starting in the 1960s. The music biz, like American pop culture more generally, was reorienting itself from New York to Los Angeles, and that fortuitous move is reflected in Grier's songs. As a New York Giant, he cut doo-wop-ified versions of standards like "Moonlight in Vermont." By the time he joined the then Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome. he went through a more pop-friendly itinerary that touched on the Twist craze, pre-Beatles rock 'n' soul crossover, and a more shoulderblock-heavy take on the Ben E. King school of R&B belting.
His 1964 album Soul City is his Otis Blue / Otis Redding Sings Soul, a Jaguar with a Cadillac engine that features powerful versions of pop standards like "Up on the Roof" and "Spanish Harlem," plus the best recording and arranging personnel L.A. could throw at him. Phil Spector's Wall of Sound orchestrator Jack Nitzsche handled the arrangements, session players included the likes of Plas Johnson (sax on Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme) and Tommy Tedesco (as heard on a loop in every baby boomer's subconscious), and the production credit is one of the only ones in Bobby Darin's discography that was for an artist other than himself. If nothing else, Grier knew how to intersect with history.
Then there's 1968's "People Make the World," written by Bobby Womack and co-produced by legendary Memphis figures Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill, who were concurrently working on some of the greatest records in the careers of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. It'd be fine enough if some of Southern soul's key architects touched up some delirious vanity project to make it shine, but this isn't one of those situations: Womack wrote it and Grier sang it in tribute to the Presidential candidate whose death he witnessed. Tender without schmaltz, heartfelt without being maudlin, "People Make the World" has Grier soaring through the melodies with a raw intensity that does Womack's composition justice.
The fact that such a nuanced, skilled voice comes from a towering 300-plus-pounder might be part of the surface-level appeal—think the tragically short-lived career of Chicago icon James "Baby Huey" Ramey, and add "part of an all-time great defensive line" to the mix. In an era where it's possible to look up and listen to everything from Numero-unearthed one-off singles to long-lost outtakes of Motown's earliest hits, an unidentified Grier could be any number of talented yet underrated singers who should've caught a break. He sings with a refinement that sounds like it came from anywhere but the gridiron. I can think of unlikelier matches of voice and vocation, but not many.