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Joe Frazier's Forgotten R&B Career

The first installment of our column on the musical sidelines and misadventures of notable athletes uncovers heavyweight legend Joe Frazier's back catalog of soul sides.

by Nate Patrin
Apr 10 2015, 2:06pm

Image via Presse Sports-USA TODAY Sports

Some aspiring athletes become musicians early enough in life to emerge as superstars in their second-choice career: think Real Madrid Castilla goalie Julio Iglesias, or high school basketball teammates Cam'ron and Ma$e. Others try their hand at pop stardom long after they've established their bonafides in the sports world. Sportscore is a column dedicated to that latter category of athletic dabblers, and the weird things that happen once they enter the recording studio.

If you want to win over a music dork, just tell him or her that there exists a series of scarcely heard, even more scarcely remembered 7" singles put out by a 70s soul singer that haven't been widely reissued. Now watch their brow furrow when you tell them that this singer released some of these singles on Capitol Records—as in "that one label with that famous building in Los Angeles, they put out Songs for Swingin' Lovers and Pet Sounds"—and has a number in the Motown catalogue to boot. For the coup de grace, tell this person that some of these singles came out the same year the performer won a 15-round unanimous decision against a previously undefeated Muhammad Ali in one of the biggest sports events in postwar American history.

There is a great deal of strangeness, here, but nothing stranger than Joe Frazier concocting the idea that he'd make a good R&B singer.

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He picked a hell of a time for it, though. Like '67 for psychedelia, '77 for punk, and '88 for hip-hop, 1971 was the kind of year that sent aftershocks through an entire genre of music. Sly & the Family Stone went through soul's greatest reinvention with There's a Riot Goin' On. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder pushed back against Motown's restrictions to start the auteurist genius phases of their careers. Isaac Hayes released the film score to Shaft that would win him an Oscar and start a dam-bursting flood of funk-infused soundtracks and Al Green released a priceless album (Al Green Gets Next to You) and an even more staggering single ("Let's Stay Together"). Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway recorded astounding live albums, Gamble and Huff orchestrated the releases of the first singles on their new label Philadelphia International Records, James Brown had an all-time great lightning-in-a-bottle performance in Paris immortalized as Love Power Peace, and everybody from Rufus Thomas to the Stylistics to Ann Peebles to Funkadelic released singles and LPs that were being mooned over and mined by hip-hop producers two full decades later. In a zeitgeist like this, what chance would you give an awkwardly sung novelty single comparing love to being punched so hard your legs stop working?

There are only so many hours in the day to do what you can to get better at the thing you do. Frazier spent those hours on boxing, and became one of the most accomplished heavyweights of all time, an Olympic gold medal-winner whose only defeats came against the immortal Ali and the powerhouse George Foreman. He did not spend nearly as much time on singing, so it only makes sense that his singing voice is almost grotesquely flat.

Check out his early single "Knock Out Drop:" his opening line—"Baby my lovin' is like TNT"—starts out half-sung and rapidly deflates into a terse exclamation, as though he's trying to conserve some melismatic energy he doesn't even really have. By the time he tries to pull off that mid-to-low octave tweak in the very next line—"If you don't belieeeve mee#*^~?//@~eee"—the rest of the song's pretty much a sunk cost fallacy exercise that a game-but-shaky backing band can't salvage, no matter how decently they approximate the Memphis Horns. B-side "Gonna Spend My Life" is at least a little more tolerable, in the sense that from anyone else it sounds like would be one of the less-remarkable deep cuts on your average Numero Group compilation.

The funny thing is that "Knock Out Drop" and "If You Go Stay Gone," another single Frazier put out that year, is that they weren't originally released in 1971. Both were reissues of cuts from 1969 that failed to chart that were given new pushes behind Frazier's victory over Ali—some sleeves touted him as "The Singing World Champion"—and released across Europe behind the champ's singing tour of the continent.

Frazier had actually done a few nightclub engagements around that time, but contemporary information about his tour on the other side of the Atlantic with his band The Knockouts seems both scarce and unflattering. Here is a terse update, in its entirety, from the June 26, 1971 issue of Billboard: "Joe Frazier, world heavyweight boxing champion, opened a two-day engagement on June 1 at the Cine Monumental of Madrid. Attendances at both performances were poor." If that doesn't sound enough like a boxing-showbiz mishap, keep in mind Frazier also released a single on De-Lite Records' one-and-done vanity imprint label Knockout—the man had a way with branding—and it is, not kidding, a cover of "My Way" rewritten to be about being a pugilist.

At this point, Frazier seems sufficiently aware enough of his vocal limitations to take the lounge-schmooze talk-singing approach, and when he goes all out he doesn't Sid Vicious it up or anything. It's still a goofball novelty of an idea, and as far as people who transitioned from an interest in clobbering people to an affinity for singing, he's not exactly a teenage southpaw slugger James Brown. But it's enough to fool you into thinking the worst of Frazier's musical experimentations were behind him, with not much else to follow beyond the occasional attempt to go all Bobby Womack on us.

But the second half of the '70s didn't do Frazier any favors on wax. The Van McCoy-written Motown 45 "First Round Knock-Out" went to his usual thematic well, and its clavinet-heavy uptempo groove made it a cult hit on the UK's Northern Soul dancefloors. (It is telling how thoroughly David Ruffin's lavish disco version of it absolutely flattens the original.) The song also happened to be released some two weeks before the Thrilla in Manila, one of the hardest fights of both Ali's and Frazier's lives, so it couldn't help but be overshadowed by history.

If that effort could generously be called a draw, 1976 was when Frazier's fortunes really went south both in the ring and in the recording booth. Two months before George Foreman TKO'd him out in five rounds to send him into retirement, Frazier released a song that is one of the worst and likely the weirdest single to come out under the auspices of Motown.

Quietly shoveled out on Motown's D-list Prodigal sub-label, "Little Dog Heaven" is a goopy, maudlin lite-funk goof that opens on a piss joke—"There's got to be a little dog heaven/With golden fire hydrants on every cloud." Frazier goes on to praise his dog for not killing anyone or engaging in international conflicts, which is probably the least we should ask of our canine friends.

Smokin' Joe's back catalog is a strange footnote to an all-time legendary career, and mostly a forgotten one—it was skipped over in his lengthy New York Times obituary and omitted from his own website's bio. But while Frazier didn't release any records after 1976, he still sang in public here and there. Here he is not-quite Carl Lewising himself while singing the National Anthem before Ali-Spinks II, an ironic gesture if you consider the racially loaded enmity and divided-nation proxy politics between Ali and Frazier. And here he is, that same year, on the Jerry Lewis Telethon singing Bill Withers' "Paint Your Pretty Picture." It's not exactly the Hippest Trip in America, but you can't fault the sentiment.