“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”: The Freebirds and Jerry Lawler–not Hulk Hogan–set the standard for modern-day entrance music
I admire Bill Simmons, aka “The Sports Guy” from ESPN.com, who wears his unabashed love for professional wrestling on his sleeveless “Austin: 316 shirt,” despite the critics who probably wish he’d stick to “real” sports like football. (His passion for the biz is especially evident in the fall, when he tweets back and forth during Monday Night Football games and WWE Monday Night RAW.)
Despite his enthusiasm–and nerve to write about “sports entertainment” on a legit, high-profile site like ESPN–Simmons managed to raise the ire of the smart mark wrestling community last week.
His crime? Simmons credited Hulk Hogan with having the greatest influence on the pyro-charged, fire-breathing, tailored-themed musical entrances of today, which are often more elaborate than most matches and storylines on WWE’s RAW.
Cynical, longtime fans, much like The Comic-Book Guy character on “The Simpsons,” buried Simmons for buying into Hogan’s hype that he created showmanship in professional wrestling when he started coming to the ring to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” in 1983. That song, of course, was the comeback theme in “Rocky III,” in which Hogan had a memorable role as Thunderlips in a boxer vs. wrestler scene. (Useless trivia: Vince McMahon Sr. recommended part-timer Gorilla Monsoon for the role, not wanting to lose Hogan for any shows. When Hulk did the movie anyway at Sly Stallone’s request, that was supposedly the beginning of the end of his big push in the WWF in 1981.) The column itself was actually a damn entertaining read despite some inaccuracies on Bill’s part.
Simmons wrote: “Once Hogan started crushing his “Eye of the Tiger” entrances and perfecting the finger-pointing/eye-bulging/shirt-ripping routine, it dwarfed everyone else’s entrances so dramatically that the mindset changed overnight. Suddenly, everyone needed their own music. In retrospect, Hogan’s song worked perfectly because of its recognizable hook at the beginning (“Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da … DAH! DAH DAH DA! DAH DAH DA! DAH DAH DAHHHHHHHHHH”), then the energy of the song itself (pretty consistent, no dips), so really, we owe the wrestling entrance boom to Sly Stallone more than anyone.”Eye of the Tiger” launched a two-year free-for-all of wrestlers copying Hogan with mainstream entrance songs such as Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”(Kerry Von Erich), ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” (Jimmy Garvin) , Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” (Junkyard Dog), George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” (Chris Adams and Gino Hernandez), Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Wendi Richter), Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” (Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham), and the best of them all, the Alan Parsons Project’s “SIRIUS” (Ricky Steamboat). (And I didn’t even mention two obscure-but-awesome movie theme song choices: Ric Flair’s using “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme or Midnight Express’ going with music from Midnight Express.) I wish this era could have lasted forever.”
Wow–where to begin? Without being too much of a critic–I really like Bill’s work–I want to (rock ‘n’ roll) express a few thoughts on the subject. First, while he did mention Gorgeous George’s use of music decades earlier and the Fabulous Freebirds, he greatly underestimates the influence of Terry Gordy and Michael Hayes in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The ‘Birds and Jerry Lawler are widely regarded as the innovators to those in the know regarding modern-day entrances to the ring. (I believe Sgt. Slaughter was among the first in the WWF to enter to music, the USMC theme, in late 1980.)
I was at the Mid-South Coliseum on July 23, 1979, when Freebird Michael Hayes first pranced and preened to the ring along with his stoic partner Terry Gordy (barely 18 years old) plodded behind for the first time as their Lynyrd Skynyrd anthem played over the PA. (The brash rookies had been trying to convince promoter Jerry Jarrett to let them use the “Free Bird” music for weeks until he finally relented when they reached the main event.) Hayes loves recalling this story of that night: Despite being heels, the crowd rose to their feet (hell, half of them were probably wearing Skynyrd T-shirts–this was a rasslin’ crowd after all) to observe the ‘Birds’ entrance as a wide-eyed Lawler was taken aback at the fans’ reaction. (Working the undercard that night was a young Terry “the Hulk” Boulder, the future Hulk Hogan, who later worked with the ‘Birds many times over the next several weeks in Mempho.)
Hayes says a plan to turn the ‘Birds babyfaces in Memphis was abruptly dropped after that mesmerizing entrance, most likely out of jealousy–much like “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant’s quick switch to heel following his wildly entertaining “Son of a Gypsy” video (the original “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection”) airing on Memphis TV in 1978.
When Lawler returned from a broken leg in December 1980 in front of a overflow crowd at the Coliseum, he introduced the spectacle that took the art of wrestling entrances to a new level. As the Coliseum was suddenly plunged into darkness, the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” hit, with a spotlight circling the arena, followed by a cloud of smoke, as the King emerged through a stage platform to reclaim his throne as the fans went nuts, with the music switching to the theme from “Star Wars.” (More than two years passed when Ric Flair attempted a similar entrance for Starrcade ’83, which paled in comparison to Lawler’s).
The video recap of the monumental match was set to the theme from “Superman”–Memphis was clearly ahead of its time, pop-culture-wise, admittedly not always for the better. (Lawler told me years later that he was inspired for his royal entrance that December night by the rock group Kiss, who had risen from beneath the stage to kick off their concert at the Coliseum in 1979.)
Although laughable by today’s standards, this entrance was only the beginning, as Lawler tried to top himself each week for the next six months of his return, including a Feb. 9, 1981, bout with Hulk Hogan (fresh off his intial WWF run, when he used no entrance music): The King rode to the ring on a white horse in front of more than 9,000 Memphis fans, arrogantly pointing at the Hulk a la Apollo Creed as the theme from the first “Rocky” movie played. Again, Hogan took notice. (And don’t even get me started how Hogan lifted his eventual babyface spiels and mannerisms from former WWWF champion Superstar Graham.)
Lawler also was the first to be lowered from the ceiling a la Sting and HBK (and, tragically, Owen Hart) for a Jan. 18, 1981, bout with Lumberjack Joe LeDuc. The risk was high, as Lawler admits he was scared shitless as he was fastened to a mere harness as one man using a pulley lowered him down to the floor. In a weird twist of fate, Lawler was one of the first to realize Owen was fatally injured when attempting a similar entrance in 1999, when his quick-release harness malfunctioned, sending Hart plummeting to the ring and killing him almost instantly during a live WWE PPV.
By 1982, nearly every mid-card and main-event wrestler in Memphis had their own entrance music, arriving to the ring via motorcycles, limos, camels, etc. The Fabulous Ones’ entire gimmick was built around MTV-style videos. Really, Jarrett and the Fabs deserve a lot of credit for creating the wrestling music video trend, which greatly broadened the viewing demographic to teenage girls.
When “Rocky III” was released in May 1982, it was Lawler–not Hogan–who first started using the “Eye of the Tiger” song as his entrance music and highlight video. After debuting as a heel in the AWA in 1982, Hogan was switched babyface (when the fans refused to boo him) and began using “Eye of the Tiger” as he stormed to the ring and tore off his T-shirt–Hulkamania was running wild, brother.
Incidentally, Simmons rightfully disses Hogan’s “Real American” theme in the Former Fed, which replaced “Eye of the Tiger” when McMahon didn’t want to pay for the rights and began developing his own dreadful music for entrances. However, he forgets that “Real American” was initially used for Windham and Rotondo until Hogan’s initially revised generic theme (which basically consisted of recorded chants of “Hulk, Hulk, Hulk…) was rejected by the fans. (Bill’s countdown of the top entrance music of all time is a flawed but fun read.)
There’s no doubt that Hogan, Cyndi Lauper and McMahon took the concept to a new level in the mid-’80s, but rock and wrestling was booming in Memphis, World Class (who produced first-rate music videos of the Von Erichs) and Mid-South way before Hogan returned to the Big Apple to capture the WWF title from the Iron Sheik as the guitar rift from “Eye of the Tiger” rocked the Garden.
OK, maybe I’m just nitpicking. Besides, any mainstream sports columnist who devotes time to the recent CM Punk angle and actually recognizes the greatness of Jim Cornette’s Midnight Express is OK in my book.