The cover of the July 13, 1998 issue of Sports Illustrated features a photo of two smiling men, one as famous as any man in the world, and asks the question: “Who’s That Guy with Howard Bingham?”
A subhead answers the question: “You don’t know Muhammad Ali until you know his best friend.”
A better question today: Just who was Howard Bingham? And the first thing you need to know is that he was a native Mississippian, born in Jackson, the son of a railroad porter who doubled as a preacher. He was one of eight children in his family.
Howard Bingham, who died Dec. 15 in Los Angeles at the age of 77, was known to the world not only as Ali’s best friend but also as his personal photographer. Bingham was much more than that. He was an accomplished free lance photographer, self-taught, whose work appeared not only in Sports Illustrated but in Ebony, Look, Newsweek, People and Playboy magazines and in his own books.
“Howard was a big family guy who never met a stranger,” says Kevin Bingham, a a 55-year-old Ridgeland investment adviser, and Howard’s first cousin. “He was from a big family and he loved his family. He loved Muhammad Ali, too. They really were as close as brothers.”
“I think Ali loved Howard so much because he shot straight with him and never asked him for anything like so many people did.”
One of Kevin Bingham’s favorite childhood memories is of a big family gathering at his grandmother’s house on Florence Street near Jackson State. Howard Bingham brought along his best friend, who happened to be the heavyweight champion of the world.
“I was 16 and here was Muhammad Ali, and he started kind of sparring with me and then he started spewing this poetry, his own poems,” Kevin Bingham says. “He had poems on any number of subjects and he had them memorized. I was awestruck. Another subject would come up and he’d just make up a poem and it would be in perfect cadence. He really had that gift.”
Howard Bingham’s family moved from Jackson to Los Angeles when he was 4. Bingham attended Compton Junior College in Los Angeles, where he took – and flunked – a course in photography. Still, he managed to get a job as a photographer for the Los Angeles Sentinel. That’s where he was working in 1962 when he was assigned to cover a boxing match featuring a young, up-and-coming fighter from Louisville named Cassius Clay.
“I covered him at a news conference,” Howard Bingham told The Washington Post in 1991. “Then I was driving by the corner of 5th and Broadway and his brother and him were just watching the girls go by. I asked them if they wanted a ride.”
In his Dodge Dart, Bingham took them to a bowling alley, to his photo dark room and then for a meal at his mother’s house. Thus began a friendship that lasted 54 years until Ali’s death this past June. Howard Bingham covered Ali’s rise to boxing prominence in the 1960s, his conversion to Islam and his refusal to serve in the Army during the Viet Nam War. He covered Ali’s return to the ring, all his fights around the world, his charitable missions, his visits with world leaders. He snapped literally hundreds of thousands of photos of his friend.
The two were friends through Ali’s four marriages and throughout Ali’s battle with Parkinson’s. Howard Bingham considered his best photos of Ali to be the personal, behind-the-scenes images, rather than action shots in the ring.
“At the fights, I don’t think I took the right pictures at the right moment,” Bingham said in 2002. “When he got hit pretty hard, I couldn’t just keep on taking pictures, because I felt for him. When he got hit, I got hit.”
Such was their friendship.
Howard Bingham, you should know, was a stutterer as a child and into adulthood. Ali, as we all know, was the loquacious, smooth talking one, the one who never met a microphone he didn’t like. Yet, later in life, Howard Bingham became almost Ali’s spokesperson.
“Their relationship is transcendental, almost metaphysical,” George Jackson, once a chief executive of Motown Records, told Sports Illustrated. “But the evolution of these two men’s lives is really a remarkable story in itself. Now it’s Howard moving into the sun, and Ali can’t be understood so well, but there is Howard, his great friend, who couldn’t speak well, able to speak for him.”
“I think we became friends because I didn’t want nothing from him,” Bingham told the Boston Globe in 2004. “We just became friends, and we stayed friends.”
Howard Bingham coordinated Ali’s amazingly poignant appearance at the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996, when Ali, trembling, lifted a torch to light the Olympic flame. Bingham was a producer of the 2001 movie “Ali,” featuring Will Smith, and was portrayed in that movie by actor Jeffrey Wright.
Alhough his work has always been most closely associated with Ali, Bingham’s photography credits are as wide-ranging as they are widely acclaimed. In 1969, he spent weeks documenting the lives of people in Mound Bayou and the resulting spread in Life is considered a classic.
Howard Bingham was the opposite of paparazzi, who intrude on the lives of stars. The stars, including Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Madonna, Richard Pryor, Robert Redford, and so many others desired for Bingham to take their photos.
Nevertheless, the preacher’s son from Jackson will be most remembered for his lasting bond with Ali, which is quite the legacy in itself. That is, to be remembered for being a good and trusted friend.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at email@example.com.