Hart to Hart: Jimmy Hart’s transition from pop singer to heel manager
Part I of II
Shortly after defeating mid-carder Terry Sawyer with a sunset flip at the WMC-TV Studios on Saturday, April 1, 1978, Jerry Lawler makes a post-match interview with Lance Russell to announce his upcoming promotional appearances around the Mid-South area. Usually, such a spot would be reserved for later in the broadcast; however, the story goes that Lawler has to leave the studio immediately to make one of the scheduled meet-and-greet gigs. This, of course, leaves the dressing-room door open for heel “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant to turn babyface after Bill Dundee is attacked later that day by heels Sonny King and Joe LeDuc. (Lance Russell exclaims: “Lawler’s already gone! We need some help out here!”) As a last resort, heel Valiant struts out acting like he’s going to participate in the beating, pausing to flex and preen for the camera, before slugging King and LeDuc. Back in the kayfabe days, most fans weren’t savvy enough to see this coming a mile away.
Before he wraps things up with Lance, Lawler calls attention to two of the city’s other local celebrities. First, the King instructs the cameraman to pan the Boy-Scout-Troop-filled crowd to get a close-up shot of Blooper, the fuzzy orange-costumed, googley-eyed mascot for the Chicks (as in “Chickasaw Indians”), the local AAA baseball team.
Then, almost as an afterthought, Lawler introduces Jimmy Hart, former singer of the Gentrys, a band that had a few hits (“Keep on Dancing” and a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” among them) in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Receiving nowhere near the same reaction as Blooper, Hart awkwardly reminds Lawler of an appearance at the Pop Tunes record store on Summer Avenue before Lawler jokingly pushes him aside, saying, “OK, OK, that’s enough. Get out of here, Jimmy.” As Hart stumbles over his own two feet, Lance jokes, “Easy, Jerry, you almost knocked him down. Hahaha!”
Yes, fans, Lance Russell disrespected Jimmy Hart first. And he did so during Hart’s debut appearance on Memphis TV, which approriately enough, fell on April Fool’s Day. Little did Lance know at the time that Hart would get the last laugh — not to mention the loudest — during the future heel manager’s final appearance in Memphis for many years in that very same studio. But, again, I’m getting ahead of myself here.
The Gentrys formed in Memphis in 1963 as a seven-man band. While their debut album, “Keep On Dancing,” barely made the Top 100, the title cut climbed to No. 4 on the Billboard charts. The group originally featured Larry Raspberry as their lead singer, with early keyboardist Rick Allen later joining The Box Tops.
Riding their small wave of fame, the Gentrys opened for such bands as the Beach Boys, The Shangri-Las and Sonny and Cher. (I’m unable to confirm if Sonny inspired Hart to grow a mustache.).
The Gentrys disbanded in 1966; however, Hart, an original member of the group, reformed the band in 1969. With Hart now on lead vocals, the Gentrys recorded an album for the legendary Memphis-based Sun label, which also released early recordings of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. The Sun album, a turn-of-the-decade, hard-rock record, generated another three Top-100 hits.
When the hits stopped coming, Hart was relegated to appearing at a Ramada Inn in Memphis. Soon, Hart was approached by a mutual friend about helping to record some songs for Jerry Lawler, who was the number-one drawing card in the Memphis wrestling territory. (Later, when the two became enemies on the air, Lawler often crowed that “Hart was playing for drinks when I found him.”)
About two years earlier, Lawler recorded a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Bad News,” which might have been the very first music-video-type feature on a TV wrestling program. I only recently realized that Lawler had to change some of the lyrics to make it more accessible for the Mid-South viewing audience. “They tried to hang me in Oakland/They did down in ‘Frisco” became “They tried to hang me in Jackson/They did down in Tupelo.” The lyrics “Now I picked peaches in Georgia” wouldn’t apply to Lawler; however, the lyrics “Now I busted heads in Georgia” were fit for Memphis wrestling’s King.
Hart agreed to help Lawler cut “Stormy Weather” and, later, “The Ballad of Jerry Lawler.” As the story goes, the two bonded when they both realized that they were the only two squares in the recording studio: Neither would partake in the wine and dope being passed around the room.
Instead, Lawler and Hart talked music and sports, with the two eventually discovering they were alums of the same high school: Treadwell in Memphis. Among the two, Hart had been the athlete, playing wide receiver for the football team — he finished seventh in the city in receiving yards his senior year and has the newspaper clippings to prove it. Lawler played briefly for the baseball team his sophomore year but was kicked off the squad for failing to bunt a pitch as instructed by his coach. (Years later, Lawler had that same coach on his TV talk show and surprised his guest by asking: “Why did you do that?”)
Hart had grown up a wrestling fan. He even sold Cokes at the old Ellis Auditorium in Memphis so he could see the bouts free of charge. Now friendly with Lawler, Hart began hanging around the dressing-room area at the Mid-South Coliseum as the King’s guest. A year before his aforementioned TV “debut,” Hart was shown sitting next to Lance Russell and Mr. Guy Coffee during the video-highlights package of Lawler battling NWA World champion Harley Race to a 60-minute draw in 1977, set to the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man.”
Watching that bout in its entirety years later without the song, I was amused to find that Hart, despite not having access to a microphone (or a megaphone for that matter), can be heard many times yelling, “C’mon, Jerry, c’mon, baby!” Shades of things to come.
Eventually, promoter Jerry Jarrett hired Hart to help promote some of the towns in the territory. After some miscommunication led to Hart’s firing in 1979, Lawler quickly promised his friend a new job. Two weeks later, Hart, sitting ringside at the Mid-South Coliseum, handed Lawler a chain, which he used to knock Bill Dundee to Kingdom Come and win a title shot at AWA World heavyweight champion Nick Bockwinkel.
For the first time since the Mickey Poole era of 1977, Lawler had a manager. Mickey was a simple-minded mark, a fan whom Lawler chose to use on the air for some reason. It always amazed me that stars like Lawler and Eddie Gilbert surrounded themselves with the goofiest hangers-on to do their bidding. (Hey, wait, I managed both of those guys—maybe I need to take a look in the mirror.) Shortly following Lawler’s “retirement” angle in 1977, Poole disappeared for years. I was working as a manager in Memphis when Mickey showed up out of the blue backstage at the Coliseum in 1995. Lawler hadn’t seen or talked to him in years—so, of course, they decided to use Mickey in the main event. As I distracted the ref, Mickey approached ringside and gave Tommy Rich a fire extinguisher to knock out Lawler. Before we did the angle, Lawler asked Mickey repeatedly, “Now, Mickey, you will make it to TV, Saturday, right? We’ll need you there to explain this. Promise me you’ll be there? If not, we won’t do this tonight.” Mickey nervously assured Lawler he would make TV. So we got to TV Saturday, and Mickey was a no-show. I was standing next to Lawler when he called Mickey to find out where he was. Poole explained that his mother was mad at him for attacking Jerry and causing him to lose the match. “She won’t let me leave the house. I’m sorry.” I think Lawler was too amused to be angry.
Like Poole, Hart was initially allowed only a limited on-air role, chiming in with the occasional “That’s right, baby!” as Lawler boasted, bragged and belittled. Along the way, Hart feuded with jobber Pat Hutchinson and ref Tommy Marlin, while also interfering often in Lawler’s bouts with the likes of Superstar Graham, Dick the Bruiser, Austin Idol and Bobo Brazil. Hart also forced into action as Lawler’s tag partner in bouts vs. Dundee and the likes of midget wrestler Cowboy Lang.
When Lawler broke his leg in a touch football game in January 1980 and was forced to vacate the AWA Southern and CWA World titles, Jarrett banked on Hart becoming his biggest heel star in the interim, putting all the heat on the manager. With Lawler looking at months out of action, Jarrett began planting the seeds for the King’s triumphant babyface return. To turn up the heat, Jarrett instructed Hart to compare Lawler’s injury to a “prized racehorse” breaking his leg, an analogy that legitimately irked the King. Hart asks Russell: “What do you do to him, Lance?! You shoot him, right? Jerry Lawler is no good to me anymore. He can’t make me any more money, baby!”
Hart went on to name mid-carder Paul Ellering his new King, complete with crown and cape, with Ali Hassan picking up the royal slack. Ellering departed before Lawler’s injury healed, leading Hart to later award newcomer Bobby Eaton a crown. Although he wouldn’t hit his peak until 1982, Hart developed into a tremendous talent, with his promos priceless and his bumps more than adequate. Most important: The fans wanted to kill him. The Mouth of the South was off and running.
Nearly every top heel who entered the area was put with Hart, guaranteeing heat in the process. And, let’s face it, when your top heels are guys like Dr. Bill Irwin and Killer Karl Krupp, you need all the Hart-inducing heat you can get.
In early fall 1980, Tennessee-native Tommy Rich, who had made himself a national sensation on Ted Turner’s rasslin’ show televised to the country via innovative technology known as “cable,” returned to the area. After “Wildfire” burned out of control in his first match back in the area against fellow babyface Bill Dundee, he punctuated the heel turn by shoving the still-crippled King to the floor when Lawler questioned some of Rich’s tactics. A feud with Rich seemed imminent upon Lawler’s return to the throne.
But Lawler’s return was delayed again, until Dec. 29, by which time Rich had abruptly turned back babyface as he prepared for a homecoming of his own: Atlanta and Turner’s WTBS SuperStation.
Instead, at Hart’s suggestion, the promotion invested in the realtively unknown Troy Graham, who amazed the young manager backstage at the Coliseum with his polished promos, which sounded amazingly like Dusty Rhodes. (Graham had previously appeared in Memphis in January 1980 under a hood as the Coach of the Assassins.) Lawler and Jarrett were quickly sold on Graham’s prowess on the mic—and, besides, he could actually work, too. Hart has found his man.
Wearing a black hood, the Dream Machine makes his debut a couple of weeks before Lawler’s return. The challenge is issued. The stage is set. Lawler vs. the Dream. If Lawler wins, he gets five minutes with Hart, the man who stabbed him in the back at the beginning of 1980. Jarrett Promotions had weathered inconsistent crowds with the King on the shelf. Now at year’s end, business was about to pick up.
(To be continued in Part II: The Return of the King)