Musician and songwriter Bill Withers, best known for his records, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me” and “Just the Two of Us,” penned a beautiful tribute to his friend, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Withers and Ali became companions after Ali was stripped of his boxing title in April, 1967, after refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. In 1974, Withers was asked to perform in Zaire 74, a three-day music festival that took place in Kinshasa, Zaire. The festival came before the “Rumble In The Jungle” boxing match between Ali and George Foreman.
In his tribute, Withers recalls his time in Zaire with Ali.
“I became involved in Zaire 74 when Gary Stromberg, who had a PR firm, asked me if I wanted to go to Africa for the fight. It was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. In the Kinshasa Hilton were people like [author] Norman Mailer, [journalist] George Plimpton, B.B. King and James Brown — you don’t get those kinds of people in the same space too often. It really showed the magic about Ali. The people in Zaire loved him; they followed him around, and he was running his mouth and going on.”
Further into the written tribute, Withers recalls the effortless magic that Ali possessed when interacting with others, even those that differed from his own personal ideologies:
“Ali would talk to anybody. I’ve never seen anyone with the energy to talk that much. He talked all the time. From the guy who parked the cars to Fidel Castro, everybody had some kind of moment with Muhammad Ali. I would see old-time bigots who obviously had issues with his political stance. But after five minutes with Ali, they were fans. You know how you call friends up on the phone? You couldn’t harness Ali. He always was in perpetual motion. It would be like trying to catch a hummingbird in your hands.”