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Midnight Special Pt. III

June 19th, 2009 3 comments

Sharp-dressed men: The Fabs sporting their treasured sequined jackets--decidedly flashier than my red silk-satin Fabs jacket.

Sharp-dressed men: The Fabs sporting their treasured sequined jackets--decidedly flashier than my red silk-satin Fabs jacket.

“In most every great tag team, there’s contrast.”
–Jim Cornette, manager of the Midnight Express

Just as the Midnight Express were peaking in Jim Crockett Promotions, Dennis Condrey disappeared without a trace following an MX loss to the Garvins on March 24, 1987, in Lincolnton, N.C. As manager Jim Cornette recalls in The Midnight Express and Jim Cornette 25th Anniversary Scrapbook, “…After calling his house and he wasn’t there, wasn’t rebooked on a later flight, didn’t show up at the arena that night, and nobody had heard from him, we knew something was up—we just didn’t know what.” And with the upcoming Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup tag tournament coming up, the grizzled veteran couldn’t have picked a worse time to pull that ol’ Houdini. Some speculate Condrey was miffed that Cornette and Eaton opted to remain with JCP instead of bolting for Vince McMahon, who had been courting the team. However, Cornette’s account in the book of the MX’s meeting with McMahon dispels that rumor, as the trio collectively agreed to stay put when it became apparent that Vince had never even seen them work, had no plans for them beyond “dolls” (action figures) based on the likenesses and was oddly ambiguous when talking money.

As much as I love Condrey’s work, his departure from the team was a blessing in disguise. Going with the storyline that Jim Cornette’s rich mother, the team’s benefactor, had dictated that her son shake up the team after a series of defeats, the evil manager introduced Stan Lane as the newest member of the Express. Cornette admits in the book that Tom Prichard was his first choice; however, JCP booker Dusty Rhodes, in one of his most inspired moves of that time, instructed his assistant J.J. Dillon to instead offer spot to the former Fabulous One, who was drifting aimlessly in what was left of Eddie Graham’s once-strong Florida territory after Lane’s longtime partner Steve Keirn was eyeing retirement and a career in real estate.

Cornette had photographed and later worked with Lane during a program in which The Dream Team (Bobby Eaton and Duke Myers) feuded with the Fabs over the Southern tag titles. Cornette didn’t need to be sold on Lane—he knew all about how the charismatic former protégé of Ric Flair had caught fire in Tennessee with the Fabs, a gimmick that clicked with fans of all ages. Women adored the Fabs for their looks and style, while the men backed them because they were cocky yet tough/intense enough to back it up. And early ’80s kids like me admired the team because Keirn and Lane were cool and funny—and we all loved doing the Fargo strut, which the duo emulated at the urging of their mentor. (My dad nearly swallowed his chewing tobacco when I performed the strut after blocking a penalty kick as a goalkeeper during one of my soccer games in 1982.) Really, the Fabs were like rock stars—and tales of their infamous exploits in Lane’s van seem to back that up.

Lane and Keirn were so over with me in 1983 that I wore a silk-satin red jacket with “The Fabulous Ones” stitched on the back to show my support. (Hey, I was only in 6th grade, so cut me some slack.) One of my most embarrassing moments as a young Memphis mark: I was in class wearing the jacket when I sneezed loudly one day. My teacher deadpanned: “Wow, class, Scott even sneezes like a Fabulous One.” The laughter of my classmates hit me like Keirn going after Moondog Spot with a 2’x 4’. The horror.

Although Lane would really shine later with Eaton as his partner in the Express, his bouts while tagged with Keirn were above average most of the time. The two didn’t have the timing made famous by the MX; however, the Fabs’ brawls with the Sheepherders (Luke Williams and Jonathan Boyd) and the Moondogs (Randy Colley and the late Larry Booker) were outstanding, with incredible psychology. Ricky Morton could sell, as could Bill Dundee. But Keirn wasn’t that far behind…a true master in getting the fans behind him. Besides, Keirn was a willing bleeder, which fit the Elder Double J’s booking philosophy just fine: young, good-looking babyfaces who bled buckets in putting the heat on the heels.

In one of the most memorable angles ever in Memphis, the ‘Dogs ripped apart the sacred sequined jackets bestowed upon the Fabs by Fargo. When Keirn and Lane tried to intervene, they were assaulted with the cosmic canines’ oversized bones—the two pretty boys bled all over the studio floor as girls in the WMC-TV5 studio cried around the Mid-South area…literally. (And no, smartasses, I didn’t shed a single tear…but recall I was pretty steamed.) Following the commercial break, seasoned-pro Keirn, bleeding, blurted out that the Fabs were “pissed”—definitely a no-no for the time. Still, it was tremendous television.

It’s true that the Road Warriors had a tremendous impact on the business in the ’80s, but the Fabs were just as influential, making it cool to be a young tag team and inspiring performers like the Fantastics, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and countless others—even Mike Rotondo and Barry Windham took to wearing top hats and gloves to the ring in Florida at one point. As huge as the Rock ‘n’ Rolls became on the national stage, fans in Memphis always viewed them as the B-team. More than anything, the Fabulous Ones took the image of the babyface idol to another level—almost like the James Deans of tag-team wrestling.

Ironically enough, promoter Jerry Jarrett’s original plan was to have Keirn and Lane turn heel on Fargo after about six months, take Cornette as their new manager, and then feud with Lawler and Dundee. This explains why Fargo issues the disclaimer before introducing the two prior to the Billy Squire MTV-style video to “Everybody Wants You” that helped get them over initially: “If they ever don’t do what I say, then I’ll have to let ‘em go.” But the Fabs got over so huge that the plan was aborted—and Cornette was stuck with Jesse Barr and Apocalypse (journeyman Mike Boyette saddled with a lame gimmick). That footage of Fargo was, of course, used against Stan and Steve when they eventually left Jarrett’s territory for Verne Gagne and the AWA, which led to the ill-fated introduction of the New Fabulous Ones, Tommy Rich and Eddie Gilbert.

Nine years after the initial plan was laid out, that same footage was again resurrected in 1991, when Cornette became finally became the manager of the Fabs after all those years and turned heel on Lawler in a desperate bid to spark dwindling attendance. Around this time in ’91, I made my debut in as a referee; I was only 19.

Nine years in the making: The Fabs eventually drifted to the dark side, with manager Jim Cornette leading the way.

The first bump I took in the business was at the hands of the heel Fabs. Before the televised bout at the WMC-TV Studio, I listened attentively with Brian Lawler and Tony Williams, the New Kids (and you thought the New Fabs gimmick was lame) as Cornette went over the finish: I’d catch Keirn piledriving Tony and call for the DQ. Keirn would then lay me out and they’d attempt to give Tony another dose of the near-lethal hold before Lawler made the save. Tony later told me that after I left the room, Keirn joked, “I’m gonna knock that yuppie on his ass.” (The boys always ribbed me for wearing a starched Polo button-down, my fraternity pledge pin and Timberland shoes when I refereed—but it paid off later when I shifted to the evil rich frat-boy from Germantown gimmick.) One of my proudest moments ever in the business was when Cornette insulted me on the air during the bout: “Who’s this referee … Beaver Cleaver?” I was so young and skinny back then I could have passed for 16. When Keirn hit me with a stiff forearm, I sold it huge—I could almost hear my Pike fraternity brothers at the nearby University of Memphis campus exploding with laughter. Even after Tony had made it his feet after the piledriver, I remained on the canvas until Lawler picked me up—I’d already seen a few greenhorns been abused for not selling properly.

Condrey and Eaton were very good—but Lane and Eaton were great. While Condrey and Eaton were superb ring technicians, they were pretty vanilla personality-wise, relying on Cornette as a mouthpiece to provide some flash. Lane added some much-needed pizzazz to the team, a good-looking playboy who fit the bill as “The Gangster of Love.” Lane and Eaton took teamwork to a new level, perfecting such finishing moves The Double Goozle, the Flapjack, the Veg-O-Matic and the MX classic finisher, the Rocket Launcher. More than anything, Lane provided a nice contrast to Eaton, who did his talking in the ring. And when Lane and Eaton faced off with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, it was the often the epitome of tag-team storytelling. No wonder they kept stealing the show on WCW cards as late as the early ’90s and continued to have 4-star bouts together in the mid-’90s as part of Cornette’s Smoky Mountain territory.

expresscover

Express delivery: Eaton and Lane delivered NWA World and U.S. tag title reigns to Mama Cornette.

Cornette’s must-read book covers the incarnations of the Midnight Express as only he could, with intriguing insight into the history of the team and their documented drawing power as an attraction in Mid-South and for Jim Crockett Promotions. I’m assuming Cornette will eventually produce a biography, which has the potential to be one of the best books ever on the business thanks to his record-keeping and apparently sharp memory. The MX scrapbook easily has more interesting info about the mid-’80s JCP period than just about any book I’ve read, even booker Dusty’s bio, although that’s not exactly shocking.

Cornette also chronicles his dealings with former WCW head honcho Jim Herd, arguably the most incompetent man ever to run the company—which is saying a lot. Reading about the ineptitude of Herd and others at WCW is almost enough to give me a headache. (Yes, Cornette confirms that Herd did in fact pitch the Hunchbacks gimmick—a tag-team whose shoulders couldn’t be pinned to the mat because of their humps.)

Other material in the book includes actual letters from irate fans, Apter magazine/program reprints and sections on MX ribs (pranks), and lawsuits filed against Cornette and the team. The book also highlights some of the manager’s classic one-liners, including “J.J. Dillon’s had so many facelifts, he’s got nipples on his chin; they had enough skin left over to make a midget. His Social Security Number is 1.” and “Louisiana reminds me of Darwin’s waiting room.” (One of my personal faves regarding Dusty’s younger sibling didn’t make the list: “They used to call Dusty’s sister ‘Federal Express’ ‘cause when she went to a guy’s house she absolutely, positively had to be there overnight.”)

All that said, the book badly needs an editor. If the stories and information weren’t so fascinating, I would have had a difficult time getting past the countless basic grammatical errors and the layout of the book. Really, the presentation reminds me of a local promotion’s attempts at a magazine or photo book in the ’80s—though in a way, I guess that fits Cornette just fine. (Yeah, yeah, I know—my KFR blog isn’t exactly state of the art, either.) I hate to quibble about that, as I’m such an admirer of Cornette’s, but I can only hope his eventual biography will be a more polished final product.

Pick it up today at www.cornettescollectibles.com. 

Midnight special Pt. II

June 12th, 2009 4 comments

Part II picks up from the end of Part I found at comics101.com.

From Memphis, Tennessee, Ricky and Robert, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express

Robert Gibson honed his tag-team craft during the late ’70s in Memphis and Southeastern territories with his brother, Rick, feuding with the likes of The Heartbreakers (managed by journeyman eternal Chick Donovan), Stan Lane and Sweet Brown Sugar (Koko Ware), and the Cuban Assassin and Sheik Ali Hassan. Rick came off as the tough-as-nails older brother, while Robert was the high-flying, leaner little brother. In fact, Ricky had some great singles brawls with upstart Jerry “the King” Lawler over the Southern title in the mid-’70s before forming a team with Robert.

Cover boys: Their good looks and flashy style made the Rock n Roll and the Fabs two gimmicks hard to Teen Beat.

Cover boys: Their good looks and flashy style made the Rock n Roll and the Fabs two gimmicks hard to Teen Beat.

 

Announcer Lance Russell often referred to Rick as “Ricky” and the Gibsons collectively as “Ricky and Robert” – shades of things to come for young Robert. The Gibson boys complemented each other extremely well: The heels would get the heat on little brother Robert, who would eventually make the tag to big brother, who’d come in and clean house. And I’m not taking away from Rick’s ability to sell, because they’d occasionally switch roles, and the team wouldn’t miss a beat – the elder Gibson had a unique way of selling like a prizefighter.

At the time, virtually every mid-to-top babyface working for Jarrett Promotions was involved in a feud with members of Jimmy Hart’s “First Family of Professional Rasslin.” Hart frequently zeroed in on the Gibsons’ use of sign language, which they learned to communicate more effectively with their deaf mother. I recall Hart making some brutal remarks about the Gibsons and their mother, making the feud very personal. (Gibson would later drive fans insane when incessantly signing “five-time World tag-team champions” during his later WCW promos.)

The team was cut short when Ricky was injured in a car accident; however, Robert helped get his older brother a job years later for Jim Crockett Promotions. (Ricky worked JCP prelims as “Ricky Lee Jones.”)

Ricky Morton, son of longtime Memphis referee Paul Morton, used to attend the matches in the territory as a kid – he even helped set up and tear down the ring, years before he would tear the house down at the Superdome. Ricky was a natural for the ring, working prelims for Jarrett, before eventually earning his first major program with veteran Sonny King, a former WWWF tag champion. King took Ricky under his wing, acting as his tag partner and mentor. Of course, the relationship soured when King turned heel and abused his young protégé.

Ricky then teamed with another blonde second-generation Memphis product: Eddie Gilbert. Although neither wrestler had yet to reach their 20th birthday, Morton and Gilbert got over, beginning with their upset win over the dreaded Japanese contingent of Mr. Onita and Masa Fuchi for the AWA Southern tag titles. In a rematch in Tupelo, Miss., the same arena which housed the infamous Concession Stand Brawl between the Blonde Bombers and Lawler and Dundee, the action escalated out of the ring … and into the concession stand. From a brutality standpoint, the 1981 brawl with Gilbert and Morton vs. the Japanese may have topped the original. Cornette points out that the feud didn’t pop the houses like the original angle did; however, it did accomplish one thing: Any notion that some male fans had about Morton and Gilbert being soft daddy’s boys was squashed with that angle. As I told Steve Johnson for his tremendous book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, “They went into the ring pretty boys – they left men, fighting for America against the evil Japanese who had invaded their backyard.”

Morton went to make a name for himself teaming with veteran Ken Lucas and feuding with the Grapplers (the eventual Dirty White Boys, Len Denton and Tony Anthony) and manager Don Carson for the Southwestern tag titles. (You had to love those old SW straps, complete with cowhide.) Morton also had a memorable one-hour Broadway with AWA World champ Nick Bockwinkel for the promotion, which was owned by ex-wrestler “Joltin’“ Joe Blanchard, father of Tully.

After breaking his leg, Morton returned home to mend, and was attacked by Hart and the Family to set up his eventual return. When Morton recovered, though, he found himself floundering in prelims, as Memphis was peaking as one of the hottest territories in the country in 1982. In addition to Lawler’s feud with Hart and the King’s chase of the AWA World title, Memphis was on fire with the debut of the Fabulous Ones. Jarrett had taken two marginal mid-card babyface draws, Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, paired them together with a snazzy gimmick complete with rock music, and reaped box-office rewards throughout the territory.

Because the company was doing such outstanding business in small Southern towns outside of Memphis, Nashville and Louisville, Jarrett was successfully splitting up crews on Friday and Saturday nights, with Lawler typically headlining one show, and the Fabs the other. To bolster the non-Fabs shows and give Lawler the occasional night off and more freedom to work AWA and Florida cities, Jarrett wanted a second babyface team with a similar rock-music gimmick to appeal to the young set.

Like the catchy “Stan and Steve” of the Fabs and “Ricky and Robert” of the Gibsons, Jarrett and Lawler decided to pair up Morton and Gibson as the R ‘n’ R, which evolved into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express. Jarrett, Hart and Lawler have all claimed credit for the gimmick, and in a way, all three are correct. I believe it was Jarrett’s idea for the second team, while Lawler had the most input on their appearance, and Hart came up with the name and helped produce the team’s first music video: Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Lawler told me he gave Ricky and Robert issues of CIRCUS and other rock magazines featuring David Lee Roth and other rockers in spandex and headbands, and instructed them to buy similar outfits. Initially, Lawler went on to tell me, Morton and Gibson hated the gimmick, saying they felt “ridiculous” in the rocker getup.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express had some initial success and great matches with two other area wrestlers reinventing themselves: the great team of Nightmare and Speed, Danny Davis and Ken Wayne, respectively, who were now known as the Alpha and Beta, the Galaxians, managed by B-show manager Jim Cornette. In his book, JC credits the experience gained with tag-specialists David and Wayne as solid groundwork for his eventual run with the MX.

Set phasers to stun: The timing of tag specialists Danny Davis and Ken Wayne was out of this world.

Set phasers to stun: The timing of tag specialists Danny Davis and Ken Wayne was out of this world.

 

Although Ricky and Robert quickly gelled, most fans recognized their B-team push, i.e.., the Rock ‘n’ Rolls only got a run with the Southern tag titles around the time the Fabs were busy with the CWA “World” tag champion Assassins (Roger Smith and Don Bass). Morton and Gibson got a shot at AWA World tag champs Ken Patera and Crusher Blackwell, while the Fabs worked higher on the card in the main event, winning a loser-leaves-town match with the Moondogs for the Southern titles. The natural match-up between the two teams was saved for the last night of the Fabs’ initial run—and even though Keirn and Lane were leaving, the Fabs went over.

Eventually, though, the “imitators” became the innovators. Morton and Gibson left Memphis for Mid-South later in 1984, shortly after the MX had done the same. Longtime Jarrett performer/sometime booker Bill Dundee pushed the Express as if they were the Fabs, making them the number-one heartthrob team in the Louisiana area. (The Fabs, meanwhile, went on to languish in the AWA, where they were booed out of the building in most arenas when booked against the Road Warriors in Chicago and Minneapolis.)

Mid-South owner Bill Watts initially had to be convinced by Dundee that the formula of young, smaller babyfaces feuding with larger heels could work. The territory had never seen anything like it, and it clicked with Mid-South fans. The Rock ‘n’ Rolls got over huge, as they were pushed like rock stars, featured in music videos produced by Joel Watts, Bill’s son, who took the Memphis art form to a new level with his videos set to the hottest music at the time.

To further distinguish his team as the anti-Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, Cornette often introduced his boys as being from the “Dark Side” before bouts in Mid-South. The chemistry between the Rock ‘n’ Rolls and the Midnights resulted in state-of-the-art matches for the time, further cementing the cool aura of tag wrestling in U.S.  The five former Memphis mid-card castoffs had become bona-fide drawing cards. Along the way, Cornette also lost his hair—twice in the same week in fact. (The book has the whole story, but leave it to Dundee to milk that stipulation for all its worth.) The two teams traded the Mid-South tag titles, drawing great, consistent money around the area.

Easily one of the most interesting aspects of his new book, Cornette’s meticulous records details the result and houses as the Express wars heated up around the territory, peaking with a June 16, 1984, bout for a card at the Superdome that drew 20,000 fans paying $166,000. The feud had staying power, as the Express rivals also helped draw a sellout of 11,000 fans paying almost $90,000 for a scaffold match on Nov. 23.  Legendary Houston promoter Paul Boesch had a phenomenal year in 1984: a total of 175,000 fans paying $1,150,000 for 24 events, of which, Cornette, Condrey and Eaton appeared on all but three.

As good as the money was in Mid-South, the territory had started to decline, especially for the big Superdome shows, after the departure of Junkyard Dog to the WWF.  The Rock ‘n’ Rolls left for Jim Crockett Promotions and the national stage, winning the NWA World tag titles from Ivan Koloff and Krusher Krushchev in their debut. JCP booker Dusty Rhodes had wanted to bring in the Midnights as natural rivals, but Watts instead sent the Cornette and the boys to World Class as part of another talent trade, much to the chagrin of the MX. Cornette later explained they went along with Watts’s mandate as they didn’t want to burn any bridges just in case the eventual gig with Dusty and Crockett didn’t work out. The distance between the teams actually worked out for the best, as it gave time for the R ‘n’ R to get over huge as World champs before the clock struck Midnight on their title reign.

The Midnights floundered on the sinking ship that was World Class in 1985, with the lone highlight being excellent matches with the Fantastics (Fabulous Ones rip-offs Tommy Rogers and Bobby Fulton). A Midnights feud with Kevin and Kerry Von Erich, which could have been huge, never materialized. Writes Cornette in his book, “The MX had been in the same ring with the Von Erichs only a handful of times, and the VE’s and their opponents were the only talents on the cards that got paid main-event money. Gino Hernandez, Chris Adams and One Man Gang had those spots locked up…and other heels were not being given a chance. With the booking haphazard, leadership from the office almost nonexistent, the prospects of a program with the Von Erichs nil…the MX decided there was no money to be made here…and considered their $1,000 a week average checks a paid vacation. [We] got our start date from Jim Crockett and gave our notices.”

In July 1985, the MX took their dastardly act to the big stage: NWA World Championship Wrestling on TBS. Condrey and Eaton got over with the fans and their colleagues alike, especially high-flying “Beautiful” Bobby, whom NWA World champion Ric Flair crowed about on the air not long after the Midnights’ debut: “That Bobby Eaton does things off the top that even the Nature Boy can’t do.” (Though considering the fact that Flair’s top-rope repertoire consisted only of getting slammed from it, that wasn’t much of a compliment.)

Gold standard: The MX raised the bar of tag-team wrestling with innovative bouts with Morton and Gibson, including their NWA World tag-title win on the SuperStation.

Gold standard: The MX raised the bar of tag-team wrestling with innovative bouts with Morton and Gibson, including their NWA World tag-title win on the SuperStation.

 

After a string of squash wins, the Midnights were eventually booked into a feud with Morton and Gibson, whom they defeated during SUPERSTARS ON THE SUPERSTATION, a taped prime-time special on TBS and a forerunner of the CLASH OF THE CHAMPIONS specials the NWA/WCW would run on a fairly regular basis on Ted Turner’s network in the late ’80s, early ’90s. As usual, the foursome had a great match, ending with a finish typical of the time: the R ‘n’ R have the MX reeling and nail Eaton with their double-dropkick finisher. Beautiful Bobby collides with ref Pee Wee Anderson, who takes a bump outside the ring. Morton has Eaton pinned, but there’s no ref to make the count. Condrey blasts Morton with Cornette’s loaded tennis racquet. (Cornette would occasionally doctor the racquet by wrapping a thick chain around a horseshoe—he’d then purposely drop the racquet on the floor and the resulting sound would get tremendous heat with ringside fans. Trouble was, Condrey sometimes forgot when Cornette loaded the damn thing, nearly breaking Morton’s back with it in the process more than once.) Gibson and Condrey tumble out of the ring, Cornette places the groggy Eaton on top of the prone Morton and shoves the ref over to the make the count: 1, 2, 3—and we’ve got new NWA World tag-team champions.

 

Next Week: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Sultan of Swing and the Gangster of Love, “Beautiful” Bobby and “Sweet” Stan, the Midnight Express

 

Class is in session

June 5th, 2009 2 comments

comics

Congratulations to my friends Scott Tipton and Chris Ryall on the publication of their wonderful new book, Comic Books 101: The History, Methods and Madness. As the title implies, this book has everything you need to know about comics, bursting with fun-filled facts for novice fans of the art form as well as established geeks like myself. With the foreword written by Stan Lee, this gorgeous, groovy book features artwork from some of the most memorable moments in comics history and expert analysis on several classic characters—and the writers and artists who brought them to life.  It’s a fantastic read, true believers. Don’t walk, don’t run, simply click here to purchase.