Sonny Liston in Scotland

sonnyscotBy Stuart Cosgrove

When Sonny Liston’s dead body was discovered in a Las Vegas bedroom it was already decomposing. His death has never been satisfactorily explained, was he a victim of a random attack, the wrong end of a mob hit or self-imposed drugs overdose. The mystery and Liston’s dark reputation has calcified with time. It is impossible to pick up a book on the history of boxing without Liston dominating the list of fearsome and lawless champions.

What is not in doubt was that Sonny Liston was the most feared heavyweight of a golden era. He was an unreformed street robber, a jailed felon and brute of man who only took up boxing in a penitentiary in Missouri. Liston came to personify the macabre criminality of the ghetto and in a now infamous quote, the Village Voice critic Joe Flaherty once described him as “a blatant mother in a fucker’s game.”

The history of boxing will always contest that Sonny Liston paved the way for Muhammad Ali when he threw a title fight against the then Cassius Clay to satisfy a mafia fix and deliver fast money to the mob. He is now seen as the summit of boxing corruption and the dark side of African-American street life, but what few have ever ruminated on is Sonny Liston’s thoughts on Scotland and his brief transformative experience in ‘Bella Caledonia’.

Liston came to Scotland briefly in 1963. It was a short but hugely memorable visit where he struck up many friendships and was pursued daily by the nascent paparazzi of the day, drinking in Glasgow bars, sampling whisky from distillery vats and most spectacularly of all taking to streets in a gigantic kilt requisitioned form a retired drum major. He had come as part of a boxing exhibition and fought on the under-card of a British title fight at Paisley Ice Rink where Scottish flyweight Walter McGowan defended his Commonwealth title against the diminutive Jamaican Killer Salomon. Liston stole the show by lifting both boxers aloft in either arm, still dressed outrageously in full highland dress and swearing allegiance to the McBeth clan tartan.

One moment that enthralled the Scottish media was when Liston, a rock-hard black man kissed the blonde majorette of the Braemar Girl Pipers, a kiss deemed illegal or immoral in the southern states of Liston’s childhood.

Liston fell in love with Scotland and described it as the friendliest place on earth comparing it unfavorably to his native America where he was reviled as a criminal and where he had been the victim of savage racism, as the child of a sharecropping family of thirteen children in Arkansas. “I am warm here,” he told the Scottish press-pack, “because I am among warm people and I feel that and react to it. When I return to the United States I will be cold again, for the people there are cold to me now and have treated me badly in the past.”

Liston’s hatred of America was in part stoked by the civil rights disputes of the era and the institutionalized racism of the deep south but it went beyond race. When he won the heavyweight championship of the world, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) the most powerful black organization of the era sided with the incumbent champion Floyd Patterson characterizing him as a gentle and articulate black man, and casting Liston as a charmless hoodlum and convicted robber. He had been rejected publicly by his own people.

Sonny Liston’s kilt was promotional schtick and his attempts to play the bagpipes in a Glasgow street were woeful but there is little doubt that Scotland connected with him in ways that his native America did not. He had grown up an obsessive fan of old school R&B music, trained to Jimmy Forrest’s ‘Night Train’ and liked to sip J&B whiskey listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Loch Lomond’, and arrived with a bizarre notion that Scotland was a land of wonder. Paradoxically, his family could trace its tangled and illiterate roots back to slavery and to a Scottish farmer Martin Liston who owned slaves in Choctaw County, Mississippi.

Liston love for Scotland was not short-lived. On his return to the USA he looked into gaining Scottish citizenship (although no such independent identity existed) and tried to adopt Peter (Petie) Keenan Jr. the son of the Scottish promoter, convincing the boy’s parents to allow the boy to travel to Las Vegas to spend Christmas with the childless Liston and his wife in Denver. The young Keenan to America to be treated like their own son, lavished with Christmas gifts and met the legendary Joe Louis who by then was a down and out heroin addict.

Liston arrived in a Scotland where ignorance and racism were just beneath the surface and to a city scarred by its own local pathologies. The Bible John murders were yet to happen but Ian Brady had just left Shawlands Academy and moved south to Manchester where he had committed the first of the Moors Murders. But darkness was easily outshone by a solidarity of well being and a willingness to be open to visitors. Although the myth of Scottish friendliness can be sentimentalized there is no question that Liston felt something special that he had not experienced before in a brutal life at the savage end of violent sport – it was a warmth and humanity.

We have precious few studies of how humanity works collectively but it was there again on the streets of Glasgow during the Commonwealth Games and in the aftermath of the horrendous tragedies at Clutha Vaults and George Square. We only casually understand this lived and welcoming common-weal a power that neither de-industrialization nor austerity has successfully chased away. Apart from fine words from agencies like VisitScotland there has never been a comprehensive audit of Scotland’s deeper values, those underlying characteristics which are not measurable by the price of oil, or by the board of Standard Life. They are the standards of life frequently forgotten when raw politics come into play.

For one week in 1963 the most dangerous and hated man in the world felt he had found his home. When he finally left Scotland, by his own admission he left a better person, determined to return. Sadly, Liston never returned and instead was dragged deeper into the heartless gangsterism of Las Vegas where he eventually died, alone.

Stuart Cosgrove is the author of ‘Detroit 67’ which will be published in March



Categories: Commentary

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23 replies

  1. Good to have you on board Stuart. Even if you do work for the BBC! Or should that be work at the BBC.

    You are the token Jock lol.

  2. Lovely piece and looking forward to Detroit 67

  3. Fascinating article.

  4. “agencies like VisitScotland …….or by the board of Standard Life”

    These types have different ‘values’ to us working class Scots. Rugby, private schools, ‘elite’ uni’s and 80-min patriots (‘proud Scots’) come to mind. Yet these Establishment Scots (aka ‘Better Together’) still own and run our nation, despite an SNP Gov. Liston clearly saw and met the real people. And liked what he saw.

  5. Fine piece Stuart. Didn’t know all that about Sonny Liston. Read Nick Tosches book Night Train coupla years ago which was a page turner to be sure, concentrating on the dark stuff.

    KW

  6. I remember my Mum talking excitedly about this when it happenned. It was as if Rabbie Burns had come back. I never knew he was a hoodlum, or hated. Mum never mentioned that, I don’t think she knew. To her he was a hero and a super-star, it was like Elvis arriving.

  7. ‘ “I am warm here,” he told the Scottish press-pack, “because I am among warm people and I feel that and react to it. When I return to the United States I will be cold again, for the people there are cold to me now and have treated me badly in the past.” ‘

    I read this after spending the past 48 hours working on the scale of ISIS violence, its stimulus in our violence (colonial, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya), and the question of nonviolence including people working with it inside Syria. The context of why I was working on this doesn’t matter, but some of it is galling stuff and leaves me with a slightly haunted, strung-out feeling.

    To read what Liston is reported here to have said about Scotland is a precious reminder of a quality that we hold here – only just, and not uniquely – but it’s still here, a sense of deep community, of fellow humanity, I would call it a form of spirituality, thought that would not be everybody’s choice of words.

    How can we in Scotland best affect the world? By being true to what, just possibly, we are and “coming yet, for a’ that.” Slender hope, but that shall be the straw to which I’ll cling tonight. Thank you for this unexpected article.

  8. Agreed A cracking stimulating piece

  9. A link to pictures of Sonny Liston playing bagpipes and kissing the young lady: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=d8EDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA32&dq=&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

  10. Boxing was a hard FN game at the time. The Jamaican Killer Salomon (Denzil Thomas) who fought McGowan had three other fights in UK in just 8 weeks coming back to Paisley Ice Rink to fight Jackie Brown in November (plus two fights inEngland).
    Walter had a pub in my Carluke but is now in care: a hard m f business.
    We could see ex champs fighting against all comers at the Links Market Kirkcaldy for drink money.
    And what happened to the wee man from Newmains… Murray? GOOD ARTICLE!

  11. I, with shipyard friends from “day release education”, had the privilege of seeing big Sonny Liston at Peter Keenan’s gym in Bridgton. He was huge in stature, but “……the harder they fall”. A very sad-for-some sport. Remember Jackie Patterson? Thanks for triggering the memories.

  12. Good article Stuart, I was at Paisley Ice Rink that night. 15 years old and one of the older guys I was with ran the Red Lion pub in Prestwick, knew a few people and managed to get us into the dressing room. Got Walter McGowan’s autograph, and the guy he was fighting, Kid Solomon for the British Empire title. Sonny Liston did a couple of rounds skipping and shadow boxing to the tune Night Train.
    I got Liston’s autograph as well and he stood up and shook my hand. He was an absolute giant to me, I was just a wee boy. I kept that programme for more than 40 years but sadly it was lost a few years ago. A night I will never forget.

  13. Liston’s reputation was further sullied, when Robert Townsend, a previously well regarded film maker (Hollywood Shuffle) curled out the excremental ‘Sucker Punch’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMl_s5RDOLI which had the then fifty year old Ving Rames play Liston from burly teen into fast approaching middle age.

    The film managed to turn a fascinating life into turgid made for tv that lost interest in itself after the opening titles.

    There seems to be a strange delusion that Glasgow is so welcoming, that every globally known athlete or performer of the past century, from Hopalong Cassidy to Ali, has at some point ended up knocking back whisky and chasing skirt through Glasgow, usually ending up with apocryphal tales of sleeping it off beside Puskas and Eusabio in someone’s Drumchapel bath.

    Saying all that, I’m looking forward to Stuart’s book and hope it’s as entertaining as ‘Hampden Babylon’ was.

    • There is no “strange delusion”. Glasgow has indeed warmly welcomed very many celebrated “stars” from sport, film, and other cultural areas and in a genuine manner. All provable. Having been around awhile, I have myself seen some of them on Glasgow’s streets. Sonny Liston yes, Cary Grant, Danny Kaye, and more. Don’t know about the Drumchapel bath scenario, but knowing Glasgow I wouldn’t write it off!

  14. A very good article.

    I only regret the inclusion of that photo where Liston is dressed in the music hall outfit, and is so reminiscent of the clown Harry Lauder, who shamed Scotland by dressing like this.

    • Thanks Kenny – the photo is what it is a snapshot of the time – a crude pastiche, its true, not one we were condoning by inclusion. We had requested rights for a different photograph which were approved and then withdrawn.

  15. I wasn’t criticising Bella – I thought it was the writer who included it. You are right to say this represents a snapshot of the time for I don’t think the clown outfit was questioned then – it still isn’t that I can see.

    I particularly detest the abysmal Harry Lauder image for Scotland – it’s cringemaking. When English friends speak of this I ask if they’d feel happy being characterised by Morris dancers, or if they think lederhosen clad, bum slapping Germans fit that ridiculous image.

    Voltaire said ”We look to Scotland for our ideas on civilisation” – except for the kilt and Harry Lauder.

    Fellow Scots usually resent my views on clown outfits and kilts, which I refer to as the skirt of shame. The kilt was only allowed by (non Highlanders) when they agreed to fight Britain’s wars on the continent. Or went overseas to oppress other poor peoples as they had been.

    Shame.

    Please continue to publish articles on Scots culture – whether it’s good or bad. It’s more enduring than politics and has maintained Scots identity enough to (nearly) grasp political power.

    Consider please, anything on Maxton, John MacLean, Sorley MacLean, Jimmy Reid, Carnegie, Ricardo, Adam Smith, David Hume and others. Or The Auld Alliance, or the Darien Sceme, Crofters’ Revolt , Scots ancient universities, syndicalism on the Clyde, Red Clydeside, Iona Community, New Lanark, Samye Ling, Findhorn. A mixed bag of course, as is Scotland.

  16. Gramsci is my guide, where he is known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how states use cultural institutions to maintain power.

    Scotland has always had a strong, vibrant culture(s), not least as resistance to a much larger neighbour. This has carried the day when politics was bleak for us.

    Bella has often carried comment on the BBC’s attitude to Scotland; the Beeb is hugely important as a cultural carrier. I’m uneasy about criticising the Beeb because it does so many things so fantastically well and I don’t want to stand with Murdoch and the English press in such attacks -they have their agenda.

    More, we all know the perceptions that others have of us, which are partly fuelled by ourselves, – the kilt, Highland Games, Loch Ness Monster, haggis as a joke rather than a sausage, pipers in military uniform as colourfully exotic as Red Indians used to be – Victorian perceptions of us which we do not object to strongly enough.

    Less is known of our historical links to the continent in medicine, learning, law, culture and language – your ashet pie is of course an ‘assiette’, ‘gardyloo’ is garde de l’eau except it wasn’t water, ‘tassie’ is tasse, ‘gigot’ is gigot (!) and so on. Scots law is continentally based. Our unis are ancient and world class but who’s aware of that in the face of OxBridge hegemony? Our unis regularly trounce in debate such southern unis but who knew? We are a thoroughly modern European nation and I get forking grumpy to see us presented as less than that. Therefore my thing about the importance of culture.

    Anecdotally I remember when Scots workers refused the delivery of a Yarrow’s frigate to Pinochet – I was in Fairfield’s at the time and saw the boat going upriver. This was the same Clyde of the Apprentice’s strike, of the Work-in ”There will be no bevvying”. My point is how did that world-consciousness diminish, though revived at the referendum in magnificent style. Does anyone remember the consciousness-raising ‘The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil”? Mammy Daddy, the emotions that aroused! Politics IS culture in these circumstances.

    I’ve droned on a bit here. I’d better get the tea on.

  17. Or/and

    *Scots support for Spain against the Falangists, disproportionately high in UK terms – but who knew?
    *The Scots mercenary tradition
    *Or Anglicised Scots, usually titled and landowning We knew.
    *The Scots judiciary – who are they? Speaking up for Scots law or what?
    *the Clydebank blitz – who knew?
    *the near total closure of Scots construction sites for offshore structures. Who knew?
    *Scots links to Baltic traders
    *Scots links to the Dutch herring fleets
    *an analysis of the provenance of BBC decision makers
    * Little Sparta

    I’d love it if others offered similar topics for discussion. Running an energetic website is not a dawdle like being a Westminster MP -who works for 7 months a year, 3 days a week, all expenses duck ponds, (Osborne didnt know it was wrong to claim 100,000 pounds for his horses) subsidised housing, travel, grub, booze and freebies thrown in. And if you fork up like wee ‘hauf and a hauf pint’ George Foulkes or Speaker (take the money and run) Martin, there’s a 400 pounds a day sinecure awaiting you in the Lords. ‘See yon birkie ca’d a laird’ .

    ”If Dougie was here he would tell you himself”!

    • I agree with you.The picture of Liston is demeaning to him.

      I never attended the Kailyard School, only open meetings in the kailyard, but I’m sure we both attended the university of Gorky.

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