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John Lennon Said Photo Shoot With Muhammad Ali Was A “Mistake”

Photo Credit: Vinnie Zuffante / Getty Images and Stanley Weston / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Vinnie Zuffante / Getty Images and Stanley Weston / Getty Images

An iconic photo shoot took place in 1964 between the legendary rock band, The Beatles, and the legendary heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali. The photos from the shoot make it seem like they all had a blast, but the reality is that things didn’t go so smoothly during their meeting. In fact, John Lennon went on to call the whole thing a “mistake.” Harry Benson, the band’s photographer during that trip, recalled the meeting to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

The shoot with Ali didn’t go that well

The Beatles lay on the ground in front of Muhammad Ali.
The Beatles lay on the floor in front of Muhammad Ali, 1964. (Photo Credit: Bettman / Getty Images)

Harry Benson was the photographer for The Beatles during their inaugural American tour in 1964. During that tour, the band was scheduled to meet with the boxing heavyweight champion at the time, Muhammad Ali. Their meeting came before The Beatles were to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and Ali was preparing to go up against Sonny Liston.

When they met, Ali was quick to tell the band how he felt about their music. “When you photograph Muhammad Ali, you always get something interesting,” Benson explained. “Ali told them, ‘Your music is not that good.’ Let’s just say they didn’t particularly like that. And then the Beatles said, ‘We hear you’re not that good as a boxer.'” Ali then made sure to continuously remind the members of the band how small they were in comparison to his large stature, calling them “tiny, small, little men.”

“They still laughed about it, but it wasn’t a match made in heaven,” Benson said.

Ali was a great subject

Muhammad Ali pretending to punch The Beatles.
During a visit to the training room of the boxer in Miami, The Beatles were acting as if they were knocked out by the American boxer Muhammad Ali. (Photo Credit: Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images)

Despite their obvious clashing, Ali was a good sport during the photo shoot. “What was good about Ali was that he did everything I wanted him to do,” Benson explained. “I wanted to line up the Beatles that way, and he was happy to comply. He made them make faces as if he was knocking them all out. He just did everything for a great shot.” Alternatively, The Beatles were a little more hesitant. “The Beatles were a bit reluctant to do all this stuff. And Ali completely dwarfed them. He was aware. He was the heavyweight champion of the world, and he was good-looking.”

That was another point Ali made sure to really drive home to the band members – how good-looking he was. “Ali told them, ‘I’m much better looking than the four of you all together! Look at me!'” Benson explained. Benson said that Ali knew the reputation The Beatles had for being “smart a**es,” but set the tone early that they weren’t going to be that way with him.

Lennon called the shoot a “mistake”

The Beatles raising fists pretending to punch Muhammad Ali.
The Beatles and boxer Muhammad Ali pretended to fight each other in a boxing ring, 1964. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

While The Beatles were reluctantly compliant during the shoot, they made sure to let Benson have it after it wrapped up. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were particularly unimpressed with how things went down. “John Lennon said to me, ‘It was a mistake going to see Ali,'” Benson said. “He felt [Ali] made them all look stupid. Ali did everything he wanted to do and strutted all around demanding them to look at him. And then he pretended to punch them, and they all had to act as if they were being knocked out with funny faces. They didn’t appreciate being dwarfed over Ali.”

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“John Lennon just said, ‘This was a big mistake we made. We shouldn’t have gone here. And it’s your fault, Benson!'” Still, Benson said that he had achieved the vision he had for the shoot, that it had come to life. However, he also said that The Beatles have never forgiven him for it.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!