It’s the Muhammad Ali line, you know. I couldn’t sing it, but it was perfect for Ringo. He could say ‘I’m the greatest’ and people wouldn’t get upset. Whereas if I said ‘I’m the greatest,’ they’d all take it so seriously.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Lennon recorded a home demo containing two takes of ‘I’m The Greatest’ in late 1970, following the completion of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. It’s possible that he considered including the song on the Imagine album, although it was never tackled in the studio at the time.
The 1970 recordings showed how Lennon originally conceived the song with a jazz-style piano backing. At this stage the lyrics were largely unwritten, and lacked much of the final version’s self-deprecating humour. It is feasible that he wanted it to be a confessional song about his childhood, judging by the original lyrics: “Long time ago, way back home in Liverpool, my mama told be I’d be great…”
In February 1971, during the session for ‘Power To The People’, Lennon tried out the song in the studio for the first time. This time his band included Klaus Voormann on bass guitar and Jim Gordon on drums. Although he later claimed he’d never considered recording his own version, this studio attempt featured a telling line: “Yoko told me I was great.”
Early in 1973 Lennon was invited by Starr to go to Sunset Sound Recorders in Los Angeles to help contribute to Ringo, his third studio album. Starr had sent requests to each of the former Beatles for new material, and Lennon revived ‘I’m The Greatest’. He rewrote several of the lines to make them relevant to Starr, and helped arranged the recording.
George Harrison was also in Los Angeles, and had arranged a meeting with Lennon to discuss the 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 Beatles compilations. Lennon invited him into the studio, making perhaps the closest there ever came to a Beatles reunion.
From behind the piano Lennon led a version with Starr on drums, Harrison on electric guitar and Voormann on bass. They recorded 12 takes, four of which were complete, with Lennon singing guide vocals. One of these studio outtakes was released in slightly edited form in the John Lennon Anthology collection.
The best attempt formed the basis for the album version, which had lead and backing vocals, lead guitar by Harrison and an organ part by Billy Preston overdubbed at a later date. The album was produced by Richard Perry, who also added Sgt Pepper-style crowd effects around the line “Yes my name is Billy Shears”.