SI Vault
Jack Olsen
April 18, 1966
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a man-child as prejudiced as the stiff-necked bigots he professes to detest, was unusual almost from the day he was born. Sensitive, troubled and inquisitive, he was dominated by a father who was a miniature volcano. But he was also influenced by a clan of hardworking, talented relatives
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April 18, 1966

Growing Up Scared In Louisville

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a man-child as prejudiced as the stiff-necked bigots he professes to detest, was unusual almost from the day he was born. Sensitive, troubled and inquisitive, he was dominated by a father who was a miniature volcano. But he was also influenced by a clan of hardworking, talented relatives

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Y'all like to have a little gin highball while we talk?" Odessa Grady Clay asked. "Well, I'll just sit here with you and have one. I'm on a diet." She sat on the sofa in the red-brick bungalow her son had bought in an all-Negro section of suburban Louisville called Mont Clair Villa, a sort of sepia Levittown laid out like a Monopoly board on flat, dreary farmland. Snow temporarily mantled the two Cadillacs in the driveway, "his" and "hers," hand-me-downs from Cassius Jr. If Mrs. Clay was aware of the racial clich� expressed by two big Cadillacs sitting in the driveway of a little $17,000 home in a Negro neighborhood, she did not let on. The radio was loud and unremitting at its permanent spot on the dial, WAKY Louisville. The background music consisted of an ear-splitting outfit called Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs, whose gal was red-hot and hit the spot, or something to that effect. Mrs. Clay did not seem to notice the din; it is constant, and the Clays adjust hearing and speech to it. She sat calmly, a fleshy lady with conspicuous rouge and lipstick, starkly penciled eyebrows and lightly pomaded black hair. She was wearing a pair of velvety pedal pushers and several layers of light material around her shoulders, like a Hindu princess. When she laughed, which was often, in rich and contagious tones, one could see the gold edges around the two front teeth that were replacements for the ones Cassius damaged when he was a baby.

Her husband, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., a miniature volcano of a man, strode into the room bearing documents. "Here's a picture of me when I was younger!" he said in his staccato, out-of-breath manner, words tumbling over one another, making him difficult to understand. "Don't I look like an Arabian? All my features are Arabian. I got an Arabian book here. My sister gave me this book 20 years ago. I study it to find out what's going on in the world. Here, looka this!" A picture of a flock of sheep was captioned: "These sheep follow their leader blindly. They do not know where they are going. They cannot choose a way for themselves."

"That's Cassius and all of Elijah Muhammad's followers right there!" the father said excitedly, gulping for breath. "Read it again! Ain't that Muhammad's followers?" He laughed uproariously.

Mrs. Clay said, "When their father showed that to the boys they got so mad? But then they have a good answer."

"Yeh," Cassius Sr. said. "They sound like a broken record. They say the white man wrote that." The Clays laughed together.

Cassius Clay Sr. is a quicksilvery little man, the leading player on any stage he visits, a man who does not mind telling you that he is the hippest, the wisest and the coolest. "I always wondered where the champion got his quick ad lib," Manager Angelo Dundee once said, "and then I ran into his father on the street, and I knew. His father looked like a young jitterbug himself, ageless, in the same shape as a young man and just as sharp." Cassius Sr. is several shades darker than his son, and almost as handsome. Unlike Cassius Jr., the father has a flat Negroid nose and wears a slightly lopsided mustache. His face is well-chiseled, his eyes deepset and black, his short dark hair receding only slightly and hardly graying despite his 53 years. But his most memorable characteristic is his manner of speech. He huffs and snorts and says "ummm" loudly. His arguments take the form of loud outbursts accompanied by agitated wavings of the arms. He stutters and swallows and backs up and repeats and runs into the bathroom to spit. He has no speech defect, except an uncontrollable urge to be heard right now. But just when you become convinced that he is about to lose all control of himself, Cassius Sr. breaks into a laugh, a big old rapscallion laugh and, like his namesake, makes you wonder which parts of his diatribe were real and which parts were not. There is a childlike quality to the man, and something of the bohemian artist laughing at reality. Much of his life has been spent on the brink of make-believe, but no one knows for sure whether he is kidding himself or kidding the people watching him.

"Old Cassius has claimed to be a sheik, a Mexican, a Hindu, always something way out," says an old friend. "At one time he wore a great big hat with tassels on it and a shawl across his shoulder. He was being a sheik then. He never was a Moslem, but he did say he was an Arab and an Indian from India or something. At noon he used to get down off his painting ladder, and in his little box he had a carpet and he'd put this carpet down and bow to the east and then bow to the west. When he was in his Mexican period he'd even lie down and pretend he was taking his siesta. Later on, he was a troubadour, singing in the streets. People'd be trying to sleep, one, 2 in the morning. They'd say, 'Here comes Cassius!' He used to sing at nightclubs if they'd let him, or in the streets if they wouldn't. Love to sing!"

Now, striding about his living room, mixing and remixing frequent infusions of gin and Squirt, Cassius Sr. looked more like a 20th century jazz musician. Lean and loose and light on his feet, the type of man who wears clothes well, he had on black slacks that hugged his body and a knitted sport shirt in broad vertical stripes of red, gray and black.

"I hate those kid singers," the father said, apropos the radio. "Now that guy that sings Cryin' Time—what's his name?—Ray Charles. He's something else! Dean Martin's my singer, man!" Then, with no trace of a warning, Cassius Sr. skipped onstage, front and center, and began to sing: "I'm looking for an croon my love songs to...."

His voice was warm and on key, with an oversized vibrato and a slight husky quality and trace elements of other Negro voices: Nat Cole, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine, Herb Jeffries. "But until the day that one comes along, I'll sing my song to you." He got the words mixed up, backed off and tried again, giggling once with nervousness but dead serious, and finished on a triumphant high note to polite applause. "Wait-a-minute-wait-a-minute-wait-a-minute!" he said, in about half a second, and launched into a whistling reprise full of double-stops, glissandi and grace notes.

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