July 18, 2012
Richard Wright had always liked boxing, but what intrigued him most of all was probably the personality of Joe Louis – “King Joe” – the world heavyweight boxing champion for more than 11 years, defending his title a record 25 times. In the 1930s Louis got more inches of newspaper columns than FDR did.
Wright covered the Sept. 24, 1935 match in Yankee Stadium, thrilled that the victory over Max Baer was so unequivocal, after Louis had been barred for so long from fighting the big name boxers. He also covered the second Louis/Schmeling match on June 22, 1938, billed internationally as a fight between German Nazism and American democracy. Wright’s article for the Daily Worker speaks for itself: “How he did it and oh – Where Were Hitler’s Pagan Gods?”
In 1941 Wright wrote a 13-stanza song about Louis and teamed up with Count Basie and Paul Robeson to produce the album. “King Joe” came out on Okeh Records in 1942 and sold 40,000 copies in a few months.
Could there have been another collaboration? A song at the 1955 Bandung Conference of Asian-African Non-aligned Nations would have been great. Count Basie wasn’t there, but Adam Clayton Powell was, and mentioned Basie with pride as embodying the spirit of the conference. Richard Wright was there as well, and in turn reported on the words of Congressman Powell. Paul Robeson was also planning to be there, but he had been denied a passport, and could only send a statement greeting delegates from “the shores of the Ganges and the Nile, the Yangtze and the Niger,” meanwhile regretting that the State Department had restricted his movements to the continental U.S.
It’s good there was at least that earlier song.