Simply fabulous: WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Lawler shares his memories of Memphis wrestling legend Jackie Fargo
“I was meaner than a damn rattlesnake and tougher than a $2 steak, pally.”
—The late Jackie Fargo
When Jerry Lawler was a skinny teenager attending the Memphis wrestling matches every week with his father at the Ellis Auditorium in 1967, there was one star who stood head and broad shoulders above the rest: the Fabulous Jackie Fargo.
In an interview with me this morning hours after Fargo’s death, Lawler recalled the memories of the flamboyant Memphis wrestling icon who not only helped him break into the business but also passed the torch and anointed him the new King of the territory.
“Jackie’s personality enabled him to have an incredible connection with the people,” Lawler says. “Nobody in Memphis at that time had the charisma of Jackie Fargo. He was so good on interviews that you hung on every word he said. He was always off the cuff—he never knew what he was going to say until that microphone was in his hand. As a result, there was a sincerity in his promos that people could identify with to the point that they truly believed in him.”
A testament to his connection with the fans was how Jackie helped his legit little brother Sonny Fargo—who weighed about 165 pounds—get over as an unstoppable maniac dubbed “Roughhouse Fargo—the Nut.” The story goes that Jackie would check his brother out of the insane asylum in Bolivar, Tenn., whenever he was desperate for a partner. As part of the gimmick, Roughhouse would make the hot tag and end up cleaning house—decking the heels, the referee, the manager, and even Jackie. The crowd ate it up. Fans of Jim Crockett Promotions’ Mid-Atlantic Wrestling were obviously confused when they saw footage of Sonny from Memphis, as he was a mild-mannered referee in the Carolinas.
Despite his knack for comedy and showmanship, bleached-blonde hair, and colorful sequined ring attire and high hats—not to mention his trademark cocky strut—Fargo had an aura of believability in everything he did in the ring.
“When I first started wrestling, I’d ride to the towns with Tojo Yamamoto, who’d always stress the importance of facial expressions in telling a story to the crowd,” Lawler says. “So much in fact we’d be driving down the road, and Tojo would suddenly grab me and yank my arm or throat or whatever, and I’d wince in pain. This delighted Tojo, who’d say, ‘Yes! That’s it!’
“Well, Jackie had the most charisma and the best facial expressions in the business. The people felt it when he when he was in pain or suffered a loss, and they shared in his joy when he won a big match. I learned so much about psychology from Jackie.”
Shortly after Lawler’s father passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 1969, Jerry, a talented young artist, began sending sketches of the matches from the Ellis Auditorium to Channel 13, then the home of the Memphis wrestling show.
“I’d always done caricatures of the matches when I attended the cards with my dad, but it wasn’t until after he died that for some reason I decided to send the drawings to Lance [Russell] at Channel 13 in hopes he’d show them on the air,” he says.
At that point, promoter Nick Gulas was still running the territory and was not in favor of picking up the added expense of sending camera crews to the arenas and showing video highlights from the big bouts at the arenas on free TV, believing it would hurt ticket sales.
When Jerry Jarrett took over Memphis in 1977, he began showing clips regularly, giving fans a taste of the mayhem they were missing at the arenas, which helped boost attendance. But during the Gulas era, the young Lawler’s sketches were the next best thing, as Russell and Brown would show the colorful comic-book-style drawings when going over the Monday night results on the following Saturday morning.
The brilliant illustrations were such a hit that Russell eventually introduced Jerry, wearing his Sunday church suit, on the air during the live channel 13 broadcast, never dreaming that the soft-spoken teenager behind the sketches would go on to be the King of Memphis.
Fargo was so impressed with the kid’s artistic talents that he hired Lawler to paint a series of murals and caricatures throughout his Memphis nightclub—called the Southern Frontier—which the wrestling legend co-owned with Eddie Bond, a popular rockabilly singer. At the time, Lawler had dreams of being a disc jockey, so Bond, the program director at KWEM Radio, helped the kid secure the on-air graveyard shift. Fargo and Bond also set Lawler up in a small studio on Madison Avenue to produce signs as well as paint lettering on business trucks. The King still has one of the original business cards of the Fargo Bond Sign Company.
“I was just a kid out of high school, and it was the biggest thrill of my life to see the three names at the top of that card: Jackie Fargo, Eddie Bond and me—Jerry Lawler. I mean, gosh—my name was right next to Jackie’s! So I was working at the sign company during the day and then I’d help out at the nightclub that evening; I remember constantly running back and forth to the grocery store. Their house specialty was a 16-oz T-bone steak for $2. [I cannot confirm if the house special was the inspiration for Fargo's aforementioned catchphrase.] Then I’d do my radio shift. I loved every minute it, mostly because I was actually hanging around with Jackie Fargo.”
When Lawler began interviewing Memphis wrestlers on the air as part of his radio show, he became impressed with the grapplers’ flashy clothes, wads of cash and big cars—and their female fans. He soon began thinking of a way to ask Jackie to help him break into the business, which was no easy task at the time. Then fate stepped in. A young would-be wrestler named Jerry Vickers, a part-time ambulance driver who had worked a few outlaw shows in front of sparse crowds in West Memphis, stopped by looking for Jackie, trying to catch a break in the big leagues of Memphis wrestling.
Vickers and Lawler instead struck up a conversation, and the aspiring DJ expressed his desire to break into the biz. So with virtually no training, Lawler bought some gear off Vickers and began his career in earnest, teaming with the other young hopeful to learn the ring ropes. Lawler promptly knocked himself out taking a bump in one of his first bouts for promoter Aubrey Griffith. When Lawler started plugging the West Memphis promotion on the radio—which technically was the opposition to the established Memphis promotion, despite the small crowds—Fargo intervened and got Lawler a spot on the Gulas crew.
When Jerry Jarrett began booking Memphis with great success, he saw a natural arrogance and potential talent in the young grappler and began building Lawler up as the new star of the territory and a top a contender for Jack Brisco’s NWA World title in 1974.
By that point, Fargo had burned out on being a full-time wrestler on the road and was more interested in running his nightclub and other business interests, so he was ready to pass the torch to Lawler.
Recalls Memphis promoter Jarrett during one of our talks in 2009: “Lawler became a big star and threatened Fargo’s top spot, so there was a bit of tension there, though Jackie did everything he could to get Jerry over.”
Announcer Dave Brown says that it was Jackie’s willingness to create a new star that made the program so successful–including the largest overflow crowd ever at the Coliseum, with 11,783 fans on hand on June 24, 1974, for a card headlined by Fargo vs. Lawler. (Only fitting that Fargo strutted into the afterlife 39 years to the day of his biggest match with Lawler.)
“The key to the transition was Jackie,” Brown says. “Jackie was so good at selling [a loss] that he was over even more when he got beat…and Jerry was now a star. Jackie had a willingness to make the program work; he could have said, ‘I’m the star, and I don’t want to do it.’ But he was on board.”
Fargo’s blessing as his successor has always meant the world to Lawler.
“Without Jackie, there would be no Jerry Lawler,” the King says. “But while he was more than happy to step aside, there was a sense of realism in the eyes of the fans because you had me—the young lion—trying to take over as the leader of the pride. Incidentally, that’s how the King gimmick took off. Just on a whim one Saturday morning on TV, I said, ‘Fargo, you’ve been the King of Memphis for a long time, but you’re looking at the kid who’s gonna knock you off the throne.’ Well, I ended up beating him that Monday night for the Southern title, and the following Saturday, a lot of the fans were shouting, ‘There’s the new King!’
“To be honest, I’d forgotten I’d even made that ‘King’ reference. It was one of those wonderful accidents—sort of like the ‘Austin 3:16’ deal years later in WWE.”
Fargo was practically retired by 1979, but could be called on to spark the houses at the Mid-South Coliseum, typically when his protégé, the King, needed a fighter—not a wrestler—as a partner.
In fact, the first card I attended at the Coliseum in January 1979 featured heel Austin Idol bringing in Mil Mascaras—one of the biggest stars in the country from his exposure via the Apter mags—to be his partner against Lawler and Fargo in a stretcher match. Although Mascaras had a rep for being an uncooperative egomaniac, he sold big time for Fargo and did the stretcher job when the aging legend repeatedly stomped the masked man’s ribs after Mil crashed into the canvas after missing a flying bodypress from the top rope.
Years later, when I told Jim Cornette of this night at the Coliseum in 1979, he reminded me that Memphis had a rep for billing established masked wrestlers with no-name guys under the hood, so he figured it was probably Pepe Lopez—not Aaron Rodriguez—under the trademark Mil mask. (Never mind that Lopez had been killed years earlier in the car crash that took the life of Lawler’s manager Sam Bass.)
Jarrett, however, confirmed for me that it was indeed the renowned Mascaras selling like crazy for Lawler and Fargo. He explained that in the late ’70s he had become close friends with Mexican promoter Salvador Lutteroth, who had helped launch the career of Lucha Libre’s first breakout superstar, El Santo, and transformed the masked star into a national pop-culture phenomenon. When Mil arrived at the Coliseum that night, Jarrett says he sat with Rodriguez for a couple of hours, joyfully swapping stories about Lutteroth, who had once hosted the Memphis promoter at his house in Mexico. Mil was clearly enjoying himself when he asked, “So, Jerry, what do you want me to do tonight?” Jarrett replied, “Well, Mil, I know what I want you to do…but I don’t know if you’ll go for it. But he did.” And that’s how Mil Mascaras did a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo in Memphis. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes from the general admission seats at the Coliseum, I doubt that’d I’d believed it either.
The promotion wisely used Fargo sparingly in the late ’70s and early ’80s—building up his return as the legend returning to kick ass, which never failed to pop the houses.
In fall 1982, following a hot summer for Jarrett Promotions, attendance had declined. Frustrated with business being down despite a stacked roster of solid talent, Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett mentioned to Dutch Mantell that he wished could clone Jackie Fargo and bring him back. Dutch replied, “Well…why don’t you?” And so began the thought process behind a gimmick that would help set the territory on fire for the next two years.
Weeks later, Jimmy Hart announced to the Memphis Wrestling TV audience that he had paired together two guys going nowhere in the business, Troy Graham (the former Dream Machine) and Rick McGraw. He bleached their hair, put them in tuxedos and high hats, and dubbed them his “New York Dolls”–a name the former Gentry came up with in tribute to the infamous band of the same name. Shortly after their transformation, the Dolls won the WWA World tag titles from Spike Huber and Steve Regal. None of this pleased Fargo, who filed a grievance claiming infringement on the dapper-duo gimmick made famous by he and “brother” Donnie as the Fabulous Fargos. (The Dolls’ cheap tuxedo jackets and sequins were enough of an insult, but apparently it was the high hats that really irked the Fabulous One.) Fargo’s unpolished yet gritty delivery is something that’s sorely missing in today’s promos.
A week later, Fargo revealed his Fabulous Ones with this MTV-style video, featuring incredible strobe-light technology far ahead of its time. Fargo’s endorsement alone helped transform mid-carders Stan Lane and Steve Keirn into overnight sensations. Jackie still had that kind of magical credibility with the fans. When Lane and Keirn later took the gimmick nationwide, they never got over to the same level as they did in Memphis because they didn’t have Fargo’s cred behind them.
Lawler, who recently recovered from a heart attack, received word three weeks ago that Jackie, 82, was having severe heart problems. In typical fashion, Fargo refused to sell the doctor’s diagnosis when speaking on the phone with Lawler, brushing it off with his usual bravado in his raspy tough-guy voice: “Oh, hell, I ain’t ever been sick a day in my life.” As sharp as ever, Fargo also told Lawler: ”You’re in the will, pally. But don’t root against me.”
Days later, a neighbor found Fargo lying on the floor in his house. Jackie was rushed to the hospital, where he eventually lapsed into a coma. The former powerhouse of personality was placed on life support until family intervened, saying Jackie wouldn’t want it that way. Down to 130 pounds, Fargo died early Monday morning. On Wednesday, he would have been 83.
“I’m just sick about it,” Lawler says. “Jackie and I remained very close through the years, and I often turned to him for advice. He always called me ‘Son,’ and I always called him ‘Pop.’ I miss him already. There will never be another like him.”
Often imitated. Never duplicated. Pally.