Four months after defeating Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century, Joe Frazier landed in Belfast for a music tour and declared with unwanted prescience that "“I don’t expect to be a worldwide success as a singer but I love it. It’s hard work, much harder than boxing".
Six days later, Frazier left having had more turmoil and humiliation visited upon him than could ever be inflicted in the ring by Ali. The tour was a farce: Frazier played to near-empty venues, flounced out of others, snubbed various dignitaries along with most of the Irish press corps, had his Rolls-Royce damaged and ultimately had to be rescued by Gardaí from an "unruly Roscommon mob".
This is the story of Joe Frazier's ill-fated 1971 singing tour of Ireland.
Frazier tinkered in the music industry at the height of his boxing career, and in the late '60s fronted a soul-funk band entitled Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. Most of the songs the band performed were cover versions, with a boxing twist. Below is his interpretation of Sinatra's "My Way", with a few stiff metaphors to go along with "I took the blows":
Frazier's profile proved amenable to carving out a few spots in Billboard, and the band performed in Vegas as negotiations were underway for the Ali fight. After that fight, as the heavyweight champion of the world, Frazier agreed to a European Tour of sorts. It encompassed parts of Britain, Germany, Spain....and Ireland, meaning that Frazier would become the first reigning heavyweight world champion to appear in Ireland since Tommy Burns fought Jem Roche in 1908.
Ireland's heaving showbands scene, along with a link with a Cork-born agent called Pat O'Brien were presumably factors which pulled Frazier and co. to Ireland. It would feature ten performances in six nights: Derry, Donegal, Belfast, Castlebar, Castlerea, Dublin, Limerick, Tralee, Youghal, and Cork.
The Irish Independent described Frazier arriving in Belfast on June 8th, 1971 as "carrying a small golden saxophone and wearing bright red trousers and wet-look shoes", and immediately cornered him for a comment on the Troubles.
What trouble? I know nothing about that. I’m here to do a good show, and that’s what I’m going to do.
Presumably as part of an added PR push, Pat O'Brien gave a secondary reason for Frazier's visit to Ireland. "Joe is going to talk to a lot of people in the hope of finding a big, strong, young man whom he could take back to the States with him. He knows America is crying out for a young Irishman to challenge for the heavyweight title, and Joe is trying to find that man", printing his address in the Herald to welcome submissions.
That this was a false address merely accentuates the main purpose of Frazier's tour: to make money. At between £1,000 and £4,000 per show, Frazier became the best-paid performer ever to grace these shores.
The gleaming optimism with which Frazier stepped off the plane with, however, was to be met with a harsh and curious reality by the end of the first night.
The tour hit an early, and considerable snag: nobody turned up to see him. The Derry Journal tallied the attendance at The Lilac Ballroom in Carndonagh, Donegal at just 52 people. This is the lesser part of the night's tragedy: that crowd was twice the attendance at The Golden Slipper Ballroom in Magilligan, Derry earlier that night.
The issue, it seems, was the price of the ticket. To cover Frazier's £2,000 appearance fee in Donegal, promoter Oliver Simpson priced admission at £1.50 (that's about €23 in today's money). Later, Simpson would admit to flinging the doors open to allow people in for free:
The Lilac was only open about six months when I booked Frazier. I thought the place would be packed out.
I had to charge three times the usual 10 shillings to make up the cost but I lost a fortune on that gig. What else could you do? I listened to the whole set. I enjoyed the gig but not losing all that money. £2,000 was a lot of money at the time. I had just bought a new Audi car for £1,900.
History has been kinder to the third gig in Belfast on the following night in the sense that it has barely been recorded. We couldn't find any extant material on it, bar a tale of his planned meeting with the Lord Mayor falling through owing to a delay leaving his Newry hotel.
In contrast, the next calamity is perhaps the best-recorded incident of all: incontrovertible proof that there is nothing the press like to write about more than the press themselves. On the third day, Frazier and his entourage had agreed to conduct a host of media interviews in the Montrose Hotel in Dublin, planning to travel down from his hotel in Newry.
The interviews were slated to begin at 11am, with the media juggernaut at least equal in size to the paying crowd in Derry. Writing in The Irish Press, Sean Diffley set the scene:
There I was in the plush lounge of the Montrose Hotel, surrounded by vacationing transatlantic accents, my right hand freshly washed and manicured, ready to shake the hand of the man who shook the world.
A goodly group of us had assembled at high noon. There were lady journalists there to ask the intimate questions that lady jounalists ask.
There were a couple of political correspondents thirsting after Joe’s impressions of the Northern political scene. Sports writers abounded, ready to trade verbal jabs and hooks with the champ. There were a few who were only along for the beer.
Frazier was late. The interviews were re-fixed for noon, and then 1pm, and then 2.30pm. By 3pm, Frazier still hadn't surfaced, and the entire enterprise was abandoned. Not that this seemed to trouble the assembled press, although it did send Diffley digging for a few too many adjectives to fill his word count:
So we sipped our mint juleps as the lazy summer afternoon drifted along, the trees around the Montrose waving gently in the breeze and the holidaying visitors lolling silently in their arm chairs.
The Fourth Estate conversed casually. There was some conjecture about the poorish response to our hurrying heavyweight’s musical offerings. 'It’s hardly surprising”, says someone, 'After all, you would not expect large audiences if Frank Sinatra turned up to give boxing exhibitions'.
Tom Hennigan of the Irish Independent was another forced to write of his snubbing at the hands of Frazier, ending a column by saying "as a host, he’s a ghost. And that’s the non-story of a non-event".
So where was Frazier? The answer is found in the Longford Leader, in the Local Notes for the town of Ballymahon. Sandwiched between notices for a trip to Lourdes and an incipient Pig Fair, is this:
Whilst the sports journalists were patiently waiting in the lobby of the Montrose Hotel in Dublin to interview the heavyweight champion of the world, Smokin’ Joe Frazier was relaxing in his limousine on the main street of Ballymahon, surrounded by a bunch of eager residents with whom he conversed for some time.
Hordes of teenagers descended on him and for over half an hour he was busy signing autographs for all and sundry. After a stop of about an hour, the visitors departed for Castlebar.
Frazier had elected to swerve his media engagements to head to Castlebar for night three.
Surely Mayo was excited to see the heavyweight champ?
Once again, Frazier was humbled before a pitiful crowd. The Herald estimated the turnout at 150 people in a venue of 4,000 capacity, with grumblings once again about the £1 entry fee.
By this stage, the calamity had been whispered all the way to the capital. Night four - a Friday - was to be Frazier's Dublin appearance, fixed for the National Stadium. Rumours abounded that the Dublin gig would be cancelled, but strangely, not as a result of the disastrous start to the tour. Instead, there appeared to have been a complete breakdown in communication between Frazier's camp and Jack Fitzgerald of Tara Records, who had taken charge of advertising and ticket sales for the Dublin gig.
Frazier's camp went dark on Fitzgerald, to the extent that Fitzgerald told the press that "for days I have heard nothing and neither stewarding, lighting nor amplification are arranged". Having already sold a couple of hundred pounds worth of tickets, Fitzgerald stopped selling anymore the day of the gig, assuming that it wouldn't go ahead.
Pat O'Brien, however, said that he "knew nothing" about the Dublin gig potentially being cancelled when asked about it, and that they were fulfilling all commitments. Well, normal in the circumstances. By this stage, nerves were frayed, and O'Brien lost his cool claiming that Frazier now held Ireland in contempt:
He never wants to see the place again. The press have been very unfair to him. He is quite willing to sit down and talk facts with anyone but he has not had a chance. We have been dogged with bad luck, been arrested, held up at gunpoint and misrepresented.
Being held at gunpoint is an eye-popping assertion, but O'Brien may have been exaggerating: having trawled newspaper archives, we can't find any other mention of Frazier being held at gunpoint, or of him being arrested.
The night before heading to Dublin, however, Frazier did find himself in the back of a Garda car.
Frazier left Castlebar for Castlerea and was presumably heartened to see a large crowd gathered outside the Casino Ballroom ahead of the night's second performance. If he was, he was swiftly disabused of such hope.
According to a report in the Western People, there were around 500 people waiting outside the venue, and they descended on Smokin Joe's Rolls-Royce when it pulled up. Then, things turned ugly. Here's how the paper reported it.
Frazier...arrived outside the hall about 1am in a Rolls-Royce limousine.
At this time about 500 had paid their admission to the dance and there was an estimated similar number outside, waiting no doubt to get a glimpse of the conqueror of Cassius Clay.
The crowd swooped down on the car and a section turned nasty. The car was given a small buffeting and following some difficulty the members of the Gardai were successful in getting Frazier into the hall. While Frazier was in the hall tempers of those remaining outside became enflamed due to the encouragement of some troublemakers.
A charge was made at the door by a section of the crowd causing the timber to crack while glass in the pay-office was also broken.
Others clambered onto the roof of the hall and onto the windows, while others climbed onto the roofs of no less than seven cars, badly damaging some of them, while Frazier’s Rolls Royce was also badly damaged by the crowd.
One Guard had to be taken away having been hit by a flying rock, and the roiling atmosphere outside remained so throughout Frazier's performance. It did so because those in charge in Castlerea took the opposite tack to Simpson in Donegal: when they noticed the demand outside, they bumped up the admission price. Even when Frazier brought a crowd, he couldn't win.
We return to the Western People:
When his act finished, Gardai succeeded in sprinting Frazier through a dressing room and out a side door, where he was driven away in a patrol car, thus escaping the attention of the majority of the crowd, which, according to an onlooker, could best be described as an unruly mob.
No arrests were made but great credit is due to the small force of Gardaí for the masterful manner in which they handled the explosive situation.
The paper describes Frazier as being "visibly terrified" as he was whisked away in the car. Six years ago, the son of one of the Gardaí who drove away with Frazier recalled the story with the Roscommon People, and spoke of how he has come to understand that Frazier was "shivering with fear".
In spite of the absurd confusion, the Dublin gig went ahead at the National Stadium. Perhaps understandably, the crowd was low, reverting to the depths of Castlebar after a brief dalliance with capacity in Roscommon. In a boxing arena capable of fitting 2,360, the heavyweight champion of the world played to a crowd of 150. Ticket prices were even slashed from £1.25 to 50p half an hour before showtime.
Lamentably, the Herald saw fit to describe this as a "mild success".
I went along expecting to see about 40 or 50 people there. After all, the concert was on-again and off-again more times than a woman trying on a new hat.
The Irish Press even went to the trouble of reviewing it all:
Thousands of Dubliners missed a brilliant performance by the world champ in the Stadium…those few who were there were treated to some first-class music and singing by a highly professional team and they were obviously enjoying every minute of it.
The following night, Frazier and the Knockouts tackled Munster, beginning with an appearance at the City Theatre in Limerick. It began inauspiciously: a planned greeting with the Lord Mayor was cancelled as Frazier ignored it. That the Mayor hung around a hotel lobby for three hours portended the malcontent Frazier would leave in Limerick.
Once again, the crowd was pathetic: 60 people turned up, with room enough left for another 940. Again, it was a pricey entrance fee: £1.50. Frazier snapped, and waltzed out of the venue before going on stage. It fell on theatre manager Joe Bourke to walk out to tell the few hardy souls that their evening's entertainment had ended before it began.
Having already angered the present Mayor, Frazier left a bitter taste with a future one, too. Bourke would later become the Lord Mayor of Limerick, and upon hearing of Frazier's death in 2011, told the Limerick Leader that the boxer had threatened to "give me a dig". He threw in a magnificently dismissive summary of who should accept the blame:
You find that with performers. They blame everybody and everything else but their own lack of appeal. Joe Frazier was a great boxer but I assume people didn’t want to see him sing because his vocal chords would have been battered in the ring.
Frazier scarpered for Tralee, for a gig that may well have been the most successful of the full tour, in the sense that the venue may have been the only one to have covered its costs. The Kerryman estimated that around 500 people turned up at the Mount Brandon Ballroom. The hotel manager Denis Foley allegedly managed to haggle Frazier's fee down to £500, and told the Kerryman after that gate and bar receipts meant they just about broke even.
The tour ended on Sunday night with performances in Youghal and Cork City, the latter fittingly drawing a crowd of 50. In reviewing the gig in Cork, The Southern Star excoriated Frazier, saying he had "sullied his name in Ireland" following the shenanigans in Limerick and at the Montrose Hotel.
It is estimated that the entire tour cost Frazier's various promoters around £30,000 - just over €450,000 in today's money.
The reaction among some of Frazier's retinue to the trundling farce was predictably furious. His European entertainments manager, Don Arden, moaned about the lack of promotion and protection for his heavyweight champ.
The only promoting they did was what they got into the papers…that sells trees but it doesn’t sell seats.
And when you have someone as big as Joe is in the United States, you don’t get near him – but here there were three or four policemen and they were swept away by the crowd.
So why did it fail?
A man by the name of Billy Clifford gave his confusing hypothesis of the tour's failure to the Kerryman, hinting perhaps at a fickle Irish audience:
You have men up there in space at the moment performing fantastic feats and we don’t even know they are there. How can people expect to turn up to hear a mere heavyweight champ?
In truth, it was probably attributable to money.
Frazier was met by an Irish public remarkably certain of the price they put on meeting him: he was frequently swarmed in public, but as soon as he disappeared behind a £1 admission fee, the vast majority of the Irish public decided they could afford not to catch a glimpse of the man who shook the world. The bitter irony is that the shows themselves were deemed successful and were generally well-reviewed.
And what of Smokin' Joe?
He left Ireland to continue his tour of Europe, and was met with equal apathy.
Frazier, to his credit, managed a diplomatic and quite philosophical response upon his leaving of Ireland.
As for the singing tour, the bad press we received on the continent affected the tour. Everybody had a go at us. I know there are lots of other things going on besides my show and I can’t expect people to leave everything and storm the box office and listen to me.
But I’m happy with the whole thing. You see, the big aim with us has been to give a good show,to entertain the people who pay to see us. I’m not concerned with the problems. I’m only concerned with giving the customers good value.
I must say I enjoyed my stay in Ireland and the people have been very helpful and friendly.
Joe Frazier and the Knockouts continued to perform, and seven years after leaving Ireland, he found his receptive audience: Corporate America.