The Bizarre Story Of Michel, Muhammad Ali’s ‘Court Musician’

This feature was originally printed in NME magazine in November 2013. It is republished, unchanged, following Muhammad Ali’s death

“Have you heard of pronoia?” asks the man now known as Robert Williams, but formerly as Michel – “no middle name, no last name, just Michel”. “It’s the opposite of paranoia – a sneaking suspicion that people are working behind your back to help you.” For a time, you could forgive Michel for being a sufferer. As a penniless busker in 1976, he hit on the idea of getting Muhammad Ali to sponsor his faltering music career. A year later, he was in the inner circle of the world’s most famous man, filming a very charming TV special, recording a very strange album and mixing with the world’s most powerful people. Then he lost the lot, in spectacular style. Now a kindly-eyed 63-year-old, though very much of the ‘age ain’t nothing but a number’ school of thought, we meet Michel wearing the neon bibbed uniform of his charity, The Kindness Offensive, at their brightly coloured London HQ. A sturdy cup of coffee is poured: Michel has a long story to tell, and he’s telling it for the first time.

Born in Windsor, Ontario, Michel moved to London in the early ‘70s with dreams of Carnaby Street, Beatlemania and pop stardom. He signed a deal with The Beatles’ former label, EMI, and cut a single at Abbey Road in 1974, where a familiar figure was the first to hear the mix floating into the hallowed hallways. “I heard someone saying, ‘Oh, rubbish, rubbish,’” says Michel. It was Paul McCartney, arriving to work on Wings’ ‘Venus And Mars’. When the record, ‘In My Mind’/’Just A Part Of The Sky’ was released, the British public agreed with McCartney’s jokey review: it missed the Radio 1 playlist, the single tanked, EMI lost interest and Michel moved back to Canada, this time settling in Vancouver. He persisted with music, busking to earn his crust and hitting Number 11 in the local charts with a novelty track about a local brewery strike, ‘Mama We Ain’t Got No Beer’, recorded under the pseudonym Rhodatodeous. He had his sights set on something much bigger. “I realised that it’s a bit of a lottery, the whole music business thing,” says Michel. “I started cooking the idea that if I could get someone to bring me to the attention of the public, I might be able to make a success of it. I figured I’d start at the top and work my way down. I thought about Paul McCartney, but then I thought, no, I’m his competition. And then it occurred to me: Muhammad Ali. He’s heavyweight champion of the world.”

The problem, as any other person might have seen it, was this: Michel had no link whatsoever to Ali. He had no idea if Ali even liked music, let alone his music. And in Vancouver, he was 2,200 miles away from Ali’s Chicago home. But he was doggedly persistent, and for a whole year targeted Ali’s office with a campaign of phone calls and letters. “It got to the point where they recognised me. ‘Oh, it’s Michel! Yes, we received the videotapes. Yes, we sent it to the house.’ But they were just playing along.” Undeterred, he decided a grand gesture was in order. “I thought, I’ve got to go and plant myself on his doorstep.” In those days, passage to the States from Canada required the traveller to present a sum of money at the border, which Michel borrowed from a friend in San Francisco and returned on entering the country. From there, he called Ali’s office to inform them of his plan, only to be told that Ali was not, in fact, in Chicago, but in Natchez, Mississippi, recording the TV epic Freedom Road. Michel did what any good stalker would do: he called every four and five-star hotel in the Natchez area until one slipped up and told him Ali wasn’t there – “at the moment.” Michel left instructions for Ali to call back. Half an hour later, he did. “I said, ‘Please don’t hang up, I’ve been trying to get hold of you for a year.’ Ali says, ‘I’m out of boxing, I’m not doing any more boxing.’ I said, ‘It’s not about boxing – I want to play you some songs. I’m in San Francisco, I’m going to have to travel three days on a greyhound bus to get to you, will you listen to me or not?’ He said, ‘You startin’ to sound crazy to me.’ And I said, ‘Well, Muhammad, they said that about you, but you did what you had to do and I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.’” And that did the trick.

Three days later, unwashed, groggy and starving hungry having spent his last $100 on the bus ticket, Michel arrived in the deep south city. He showered, changed into the ludicrous red ringmaster jacket he’d had made on Carnaby Street and sat on the lawn outside the hotel, tuning his 12-string guitar. By a stroke of good fortune, he caught the attention of the film’s crew, who duly drove him to the set in a Rolls Royce. “I get to a caravan with the name ‘Ali’ written on a little thing in felt tip pen, very tiny, very low key,” he remembers. “So I tap on the door, I walk in and Ali’s sitting there, surrounded by people. He says, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m the nut who’s travelled halfway across the country to come and play you some music.’ He looked at me for a second and said, ‘Well? What you waiting for?’” Michel began playing ‘Child Of The Wilderness’, a hippy-dippy number that does not, instantly, seem like the kind of thing that might get a champion boxer fired up. “Before I even got through the first verse, he starts hitting his fist on the desk going, ‘That is FAN-tastic! That is GURRR-eat!’ And every time he was banging his fist down, the whole caravan was shaking, because he’s built to be champion of the world – his hands are twice the size of mine. He’s going, ‘I’ve discovered me a star! This guy is great!’ And all the people in the caravan agreed, whether they really did or not, because Ali was loving it.”

Ali slipped a hundred dollar bill into Michel’s top pocket and told him he was to come and stay with him. Michel had, in an instant, been hired as the boxer’s court musician. “I went straight into his inner circle,” says Michel. “But I had a definite role, and that was to play music. Ali always had people visiting him, African royalty in their robes and finery, the mayor of Jackson, the Vice President of the USA, and he’d say, Well, hold on a minute, I’ve got something for you. And that something would be me. He was shaking hands with these people everyday, and I realised after a while that he was tired of the role. If I could play them a song for five minutes, it let him relax in peace. And he would hear ‘Child Of The Wilderness’ again, which he never grew tired of.” Michel has a theory why the song struck Ali so deeply: “He’s a highly philosophical person and I think he liked what I had to say,” he says. “I’ve always felt like my musical career wasn’t just about making people dance but about making people think too.”

Michel lived with Ali for months, enjoying an A-list lifestyle and even travelling by Concorde to London when Ali was to appear on This Is Your Life. He was just one of a cast of characters who circled around the bored boxer, who at this point was in and out of retirement. There was a magician who would teach Ali tricks, remembers Michel, “But he didn’t get as much mileage as me.” The singer was acutely aware he might be seen as a parasite. “Every now and then I saw Ali talking to hangers on, putting a few dollars in their pocket and saying, ‘That’s enough now,’” he recalls. “They were being told to leave. I determined that I was never going to be one of them.” Michel decided there was only one thing he could offer Ali, and that was the chance to show the side of him beyond the self-aggrandising boxer. It’s something Ali had revealed to Michel during their frequent late-night chats by the fireside at his Chicago mansion. “A lot of people are nervous in his presence, shaking while talking to him, but I just saw him as a really nice person,” says Michel. “I’d play him songs and he’d tell me a little story about something in his life related to the music, like his first kiss. I said to him one time, ‘If we had a camera right here, this would have made a good TV show.’ So he says, ‘Well, could you set it up?’ I said, ‘Sure’, even though I had no idea how.” The pair came up with a plan to promote Michel’s music via an album and an accompanying TV special, in which Michel would play and Ali would have a chance to share his philosophy – and not have to face the same old questions about Joe Frazier, who almost took him down in 1975’s ‘Thrilla in Manila’. Ali lavished money on the project – around $100,000 by Michel’s estimation. Everything was larger than life with Ali, so he hired two backing bands – a disco band named Magnafunk and a rock band formed of crack session musicians – plus Stax producer Vernon Weakley and guests including Veretta Shankle, better known as 1979’s Miss Black America. Ali revelled in his generosity, revealing to Michel that he’d hired the Jackson City Orchestra by listing the players one by one: “How would you feel if I told you I got you a violin? And another violin? And a cello…”

Before long, they had the two elements complete: a TV special, in which Ali and Michel recreated those fireside chats and the latter performed to a bemused, Top Of The Pops-style audience, and an album, the quite preposterously named ‘Muhammad Ali Introduces Michel (First Flight Of The Gizzelda Dragon)’. A launch campaign was planned: the record was to be released first in the UK, where it would become a hit simply because Ali said so, and be promoted back to the USA alongside the TV special. A vastly expensive promotional campaign was launched, featuring hourly radio spots on Capital FM and posters in every Tube station. They show Ali – broad and tall and beaming – holding Michel’s scrawny hand aloft, as if he’d just won the world’s most unlikely boxing match. But there was a major problem: no one told the distributors that the record was due out, and there wasn’t a single copy in the shops. If anyone was curious enough to follow Ali’s advice and pick up a copy of this funky looking album, they wouldn’t have been able to find one anywhere.

Back in the USA, with questions being asked about why there hadn’t been a single sale, Michel travelled to London to firefight. He took with him the master tapes of the album, the video reels containing the TV special and as much money as he could scrape together. Though Ali would frequently stick bills in his pocket, the budget for the Michel project was separate and he was not on a salary. Old friends hooked him up with a room in a squat to use as a base as he attempted to sort out the mess. One day, he went out busking to earn some money and returned to find a wrecking ball where the squat had been. “They’d torn the house down,” says Michel, sombrely, “And somewhere, under 20 foot of rubble, was my life’s work. I spent ages and ages digging through bricks and debris trying to find the tapes, but the people there threw me off the site. They said, ‘You’ve no right to be here, you’ve got to find somewhere else.’” But Michel didn’t have anywhere else, so that night – and for the next few nights – he slept rough on Hampstead Heath. He had his guitar, the clothes he was standing up in, and nothing else. In a twist of bitter poetry, the squat had been located mere minutes from Abbey Road, on the block where Paul McCartney had his London residence. There would be no second flight of the Gizzelda Dragon.

Ashamed by what had happened, convinced that the failure was due to his bad business sense, Michel couldn’t face returning to Ali. He wrote a sombre letter thanking the boxer for everything he’d done and apologising for failing to come good on Ali’s prediction that he would be recognised as “the greatest singer of all times.” He never received a response, and has had no contact with Ali since. There followed a long period that Michel still finds difficult to talk about, and he shifts uncomfortably as he does so. It was 15 years of homelessness, squatting, frustration and depression, during which he half-heartedly tried to reignite his music career by forming a band named Rock Circus and busking for change. He stopped telling people the Ali story. Nobody would believe him and the proof was buried under rubble. When rare copies of the album appeared they were too dear for him to afford.

From afar, Ali helped Michel out of the mire. During his time with him, Michel had been impressed by the generosity the boxer had shown to everyone he met. “Ali was paying peoples’ rent, putting ten dollar bills in babies’ buggies to help their mother. He’d look at me and go, ‘Shhh,’” he says, pressing a finger to his lips. Partly inspired by this, Michel set up a charity called Starting Out in 1997, and in 2008 co-founded The Kindness Offensive, which feeds the homeless, gives presents to underprivileged children and distributes free books to the local community from the Holloway hub where we meet. Michel’s role is described as ‘phone whispering’: he convinces companies to part with goods for free, just as he convinced Ali to take a chance on him. He’s negotiated his way to £4m worth of goods in the last five years.

In 2012, Michel’s pronoia kicked back into action. Hoping to find a copy of ‘First Flight Of The Gizzelda Dragon’, one of his colleagues dug around on the internet and came across a short clip on YouTube, which he instantly forwarded to Michel. On Christmas Eve that year, Michel was watching a younger, skinnier version of himself, in his special red jacket, holding court with Muhammad Ali by the fireside. It was a tiny clip from the long-lost TV special. “You know when you’re walking down stairs and you think you’ve reached the bottom step but you haven’t, and for a moment there you’re floating and almost falling over?” asks Michel. “That’s how it felt.” The clip had been posted by Tim Telfair, guitarist in the band Michel was putting together to tour ‘…The Gizzelda Dragon’ before everything unravelled. It came with a message for Michel to get in touch immediately. Unknown to Michel, who was convinced he had the only copies, Telfair had for 30 years been storing tapes of the TV special, all the rushes and the masters of the album. They are all now in Michel’s possession – and kept somewhere very, very safe. Michel is now in talks about creating a documentary using footage from the TV special, he’s put the album on iTunes and he wants to tour. But there’s an altruistic aim too: he wants to make enough money from the project to do a kindness offensive in Ali’s honour and reconnect with the 71 year-old, who suffers from the neurodegenerative Parkinson’s syndrome. “If he knew that we were giving all the children in Britain toys for xmas in his name, he’d love it,” he says, smiling. “I’d love to take him that as a present and say, Look, this is happening for you. I’ve heard he still responds to music. I can’t help but wonder how he’d react if he heard ‘Child Of The Wilderness’. That’d be something, alright.”