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“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

August 4th, 2011 9 comments

Got your back, brother. A young Hulk accompanies the King to the ring on the night the Freebirds used their Skynyrd anthem for the first time.

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.

I want my MTV! Wrestling music videos of the 1980s

October 28th, 2010 1 comment

Sign of the times: Wrestling in the '80s often imitated MTV...with decidedly mixed results.

When Jerry Lawler recorded a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Bad News” in the mid- ’70s, it resulted in might have been the very first music-video feature on a TV wrestling program. Of course, 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, who previously worked the Peach State under the management of Gary Hart. Never one to be modest, Lawler recalls how he sparked the MTV craze with his first music video.

After returning from a broken leg in 1981, Lawler was awarded the original Southern title belt when it was retired and replaced with a new strap. In recognition of this achievement, the best Lawler video of the era was produced, fittingly set to Elvis Presley’s cover of “My Way.”

With the popularity of MTV spreading like “Wildfire” Tommy Rich in 1982, Memphis began producing music videos on almost a weekly basis for its stars, featuring heartthrobs like Stan Lane and Steve Keirn, the Fabulous Ones, in a successful effort to expand the audience to teens. Eventually, the videos began mirroring several recording artists’ MTV-style videos–with much lower production values, of course; for example, the Fabs’ special set to ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” had the same vibe as the Houston, Texas, trio’s videos of the day. (Though, thankfully, we never saw Dusty Hill in a Speedo.) Mid-South Wrestling’s Joel Watts liked the Fabs’ version so much he did a shot-for-shot remake of the video for the Fantastics, who clearly had no shame when it came to gimmick infringement.

Unfortunately, Memphis also had several miscues, producing some of the worst videos of the ’80s, most notably the homo-erotic introduction of the New Generation: Bart Batten and Johnny Wilhoit, best friends with benefits, who spent a memorable sunny afternoon parading around Jerry Jarrett’s massive estate. (I keep rooting for Kamala to come running out of the bushes to spear these two sissies.)

World Class Championship Wrestling producer Mickey Grant was producing the most exciting wrestling show in the country in the early ’80s, with never-before-seen camera work and production values, including innovative out-of-the-ring profiles of the Texas promotion’s stars and music videos that raised the bar for a wrestling promotion. Rock videos produced for the Von Erichs and the Freebirds helped capture the imagination of Texas teens, attracting a whole new audience who were captivated by the young lions of World Class.

Grant’s best effort may have been a video produced in 1984 highlighting all the stars and wild ‘n’ wooly action of World Class rasslin’, set to the Cars’ “You Might Think.” (Special thanks to my buddy Guerin Shea for uploading this.)

A year later, Memphis  produced quite possibly the worst wrestling video of all time, featuring Tommy Wright, a mini-Magnum TA wannabe, who clearly spent his days driving around shirtless in Jerry Lawler’s borrowed Corvette (after washing it first, most likely) and visiting area convenience stores and gas stations. He also had an affinity for wearing headbands, running in place and cutting gibberish promos in front of the camera. Needless to say, this clown didn’t exactly get over with the Memphis audience. (Even worse, Randy Hales talked producer Randy West into setting the video to his favorite song of the time.)

Hulk smash!

November 20th, 2009 1 comment

 

A (Bruce) Banner start: Memphis marks marveled over the muscular newcomer.

A (Bruce) Banner start: Memphis marks marveled over the muscular newcomer.

A recent online visit to Cornette’s Collectibles left me reminiscing about the early days of Hulk Hogan and the second card I ever attended at the Mid-South Coliseum. Briefly listed for sale (quickly snapped up by some jabroni before I could snag it) amongst Cornette’s treasure trove of wrestling gold was a mint-condition “Hulk Hogan rookie” program from Jerry Jarrett’s July 23, 1979, card. On the cover: a young Terry “the Hulk” Boulder (Bollea). I have a tattered copy of the same program, minus the lineup insert, in my parents’ attic in Memphis somewhere in my collection of Jarrett programs and Apter mags.

 The Hulk was introduced to Memphis fans via a video reportedly shot at Jarrett’s house. (See clip below.) With the lights dimmed and the 24-inch pythons oiled, Bollea engaged in a version of the posing routine that would become a staple of his WWF act years later as announcer Michael St. John provided the voice-over. (St. John was also the memorable voice behind the infamous Kimala and Apocalypse [Mike Boyette] videos shot in the jungles of Jarrett’s sprawling estate.)

With Lou Ferrigno a huge star in 1979 as a result of the excellent “The Incredible Hulk” TV series on CBS, Jarrett’s suggestion that Bollea assume the moniker of the Marvel Comics character was an inspired decision. Hogan claims in his new book that Jarrett gave him “the Hulk” gimmick after the Memphis promoter saw him dwarf Ferrigno when the two appeared side by side on a local TV talk show. (And here I thought they called him the Hulk because he was so green.)

Although Bollea’s story is certainly possible, as Ferrigno did make the local TV rounds to promote a personal appearance at Liberty Land amusement park in 1979, like anything else that Hogan claims, I’d take it with a grain of  Fuji’s salt. The problem with the story is that Boulder was immediately booked as the Hulk when he made his first Mid-South Coliseum appearance on May 14, 1979, as Lawler’s mystery wrestler to challenge the Stomper for the Southern title. (Keep in mind that Hogan also claims that Elvis Presley used to watch him wrestle in Memphis. While Presley was a fan and did occasionally attend the matches, it’s impossible that he ever saw the Hulk, as Elvis died in August 1977… almost two years before Terry Boulder debuted. Maybe Hulk meant Elvis was there in spirit.)

 By the Hulk’s second week in the territory, he was headlining with Lawler vs. the Stomper and his manager, Gorgeous George Jr. in a cage match main event. As a Marvel Comics fanboy, I loved the Hulk and his finisher, the Super Southern Squeeze (bearhug), despite the fact that the Hulk came up short in his AWA Southern title bouts with Stomper and, later, Ron Bass. Jarrett also suggested that Boulder use the legdrop, given his limited ability at that time. (Yep, smart marks, Jarrett is partly to blame for what would become an agonizing string of predictable finishes to nearly all Hulk matches in the mid-1980s.)  

Marvel Team-Up: The Hulk and the King...the real Mega-Powers.

Marvel Team-Up: The Hulk and the King...the real Mega-Powers.

Jimmy Hart, who was soon to enter the business as Lawler’s manager later that year, likes to tell the story today that the King told him at the time that “Hulk will never draw a dime in this business.” Lawler denies it, saying he knew all along the kid would be a star. Sounds like Jarrett, though, was the one who was really convinced that Hulk would be a player in the industry down the road as he recommended the future WWF champ to Vince McMahon Sr., who took a chance on the Florida native and added the Hogan surname to his gimmick because he wanted an Irish heel. (Hogan says he balked at Sr.’s suggestion to dye his hair red.) With the legendary “Classy” Freddie Blassie as his manager in 1980, Hogan headlined against Vince Sr.’s champ Bob Backlund in several cities, including his best match up to that point at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

 Hogan, fresh off his first WWF run, returned to Memphis for one night on Feb. 9, 1981, as one of Hart’s hired henchmen to rebreak Lawler’s leg. At that point, Hogan wasn’t doing many jobs, period, so a compromise was reached: Hart interfered with his cane for the disqualification after the King appeared to have the bout won. (In the clips, Cornette can seen at ringside snapping photos for a story that would appear in Pro Wrestling Illustrated.) The next morning, the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper reported only that Lawler beaten the Hulk before 9,000 fans. Even before Hogan took the wrestling world, there was controversy over the Memphis finish, with Hulk challenging Lawler on an episode of Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling From Florida. Hulk lost the rematch in St. Petersburg, Fla., via countout.

 After Vince McMahon Jr.’s aggressive expansion efforts into the traditional territories in 1984 with Hogan as his champion, Lawler and Jarrett frequently aired clips of that ‘81 bout, often editing the finish to make it appear that the King had pinned Hogan. Lawler also implied that he had pinned Hulk in 1979; however, the two never worked a singles match…only tag bouts as partners.

 But back to 1979.The Memphis promotion was red hot in the summer of  ‘79, with the hot heel tandem of Wayne Farris (Honky Tonk Man) and Larry Latham—billed as the Blonde Bombers—keeping a firm grip on the AWA Southern tag titles, thanks to frequent assistance from the helmet of manager Sgt. Danny Davis.

In the weeks leading up to this July 23 card, the Bombers had won the titles from Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee in Tupelo, Miss., which resulted in the infamous., concession-stand fight—one of the greatest brawls in wrestling history. Booker Jarrett kept the heat on the heels by having the dastardly duo temporarily blind legend Jackie Fargo with some sort of mystery substance. (Although the Freebirds were in the area at the time, Michael Hayes denies it was the dreaded Freebird Cream). Jackie, of course, had been called out of partial retirement for emergency duty by the King and the Superstar weeks before. Although his eyesight “hadn’t fully returned,” Fargo was out for revenge, so he called in a legendary reinforcement of his own: his brother (Sonny) Roughhouse Fargo. According to Jackie, Roughhouse was in the nuthouse in Bolivar, locked away because of his violent, crazed nature. A typical Roughhouse spot during the match: hitting everything in sight, including the heels, the ref and brother Jackie. (Mid-Atlantic Wrestling fans may find it hard to imagine Sonny Fargo playing such a role, as he was a mild-mannered referee in their area for years.)

memphisferris

Illegally blonde: Before his Honky Tonk Man days, Wayne Ferris cheats his way to another victory.

To top it off, Lawler and Dundee were matched up with two other promising rookies, Terry Gordy and Michael Hayes, the Freebirds. Gordy and Hayes were given a huge introduction weeks prior on Memphis TV, which included a rare clean victory over Lawler and Dundee in their first match in the territory—nearly unthinkable. I think Gordy was only 17 at the time, but he was already capable in the ring. (His partner, on the other hand, despite declaring himself to be “the hot child in the city, running wild and looking pretty” in his pre-match promo, wasn’t nearly as polished or confident…which was evident when Hayes literally shit his trunks during the bout.) Although the Boulder Bros. were billed as the main event, the King and the Superstar vs. the ““Birds was the last bout—the one the fans had come to see.

memphis3

Bird watchers: Lawler and Dundee await the arrival of Hayes and Gordy.

I recall the finish like this: Referee Jerry Calhoun is bumped as a four-way brawl breaks out. Dundee rolls up Hayes for a pin, and babyface wrestler Steve Regal (not the WWE wrestler Lord Steven Regal of today) runs from the back to count the fall. (Insert joke about Dusty booking the finish here.)

Also on the card, the Fabulous Moolah made a rare appearance in Memphis successfully defending the women’s title, doing her usual spot of attempting to slap the ref after his traditional pre-match inspection for a foreign object. (The thought of old-man referee Paul Morton getting fresh with Moolah is comical.)

Tommy Gilbert and his young son Eddie were involved in a pretty hot feud with Buddy and rookie Ken Wayne, which included a bloody beat-down of Eddie at the TV studio while Tommy was helpless as he was handcuffed to a ringpost…very intense. On this night, as the ref was taping Tommy’s hands, Buddy grabbed a handful of “medicated” powder. As the official turned to ring the bell, Buddy quickly blinded the elder Gilbert, and then knocked him out with a taped-fist punch, ending the bout in seconds…a hot finish to incite the crowd.

Not too long ago after my memories of this night originally ran in a column in 2007, Mark Ehrmann, another fan who was there that night, wrote to me, saying:

Love your “Kentucky Fried Rasslin’ column and your work in Memphis. Your column brought back so many great memories. I was at that Mid-South Coliseum show in 1979 as part of the WFIA convention. As an 18-yr.-old Southern wrestling fan from Philadelphia, PA, I was in heaven that weekend. TV taping Saturday morning in Memphis, Jackson Coliseum show Saturday night, Lawler softball game on Sunday, and the Mid-South Coliseum show Monday night. I got to meet Lawler, Dundee, the Gilberts, Fabulous Moolah, Wayne Ferris, and the legendary Danny Hodge, who drove our group to the Jackson show. I became a lifelong fan of Eddie Gilbert, Ricky Morton, Kenny Wayne, the Freebirds, etc. that weekend. Then years later finding out that such greats as Jim Cornette and the late Brian Hildebrand were also in attendance as fans/photographers. Your column was right on about the excitement in the building upon the Freebirds entrance. It was indeed “Fabulous”! I’ve attached a few photos I took that night. Not professional photos by any means, just some shots taken by a fan of Southern rasslin. I hope you like them. Keep up the great work. Your recollections of Memphis wrestling, in your humorous and unique style, are greatly appreciated!

memphis21

Class is in session: Dundee takes the 17-year-old Gordy to school.

I’m not surprised that Cornette was in attendance, but I had no idea the late Brian Hildebrand was there, although that certainly makes sense with the WFIA in town. That means three future heel managers in Memphis were in attendance that night. I would meet Brian years later through Eddie Gilbert, a brief encounter I wrote about here.

 

Since you were 18 at the time, that means you were probably around the same age as Freebird Terry Gordy. Amazing how good he already was back then, as he carried the team. Love that elevation on that Dundee backdrop, of which you snapped a nice pic.

 

Seems like Memphis and a lot of the territories really catered to the fan group whenever they came to town. Of course, the local territory also got rub, with the visting WFIA awarding their annual honors to all the local stars. I believe in 1979, Lawler and Dundee were awarded Tag Team of the Year, while Eddie Gilbert took Rookie of the Year honors. (I recall afterward that for months Eddie was billed as “WFIA Rookie of the Year Eddie Gilbert.” I’m wondering if the promotion requested that Dundee–not Lawler–be awarded the honor of singles Wrestler of the Year, as Lawler would soon turn heel on Dundee, citing the fact that he was overlooked for an AWA World title match with Nick Bockwinkel. I’m fairly certain Lawler also mentioned the WFIA slight in one of his first promos when returning back to the dark side. Funny: Lawler’s famed crown-shaped goatee was fully grown back in by the time he turned heel on Dundee a month later. In your picture, it appears that the stubble outline of the goatee is starting to come in. Dundee shoulda seen it coming!