It's been 11 years this month since I — Chris Davis, a multi-award-winning staff writer for the Memphis Flyer — did just about the dumbest thing I've ever done. You see, I'd always been fascinated with the summertime phenomenon of shirtless men who go about their oblivious business, even in places where shirtlessness was inappropriate. As a struggling freelancer willing to do anything to get the attention of the late Flyer editor Dennis Freeland, I decided to strip to the waist and become that man — and to write about the bare-chested life. Thus Shirtless Man — a fleshy and bombastic alter ego that haunts me to this day — was born in the pages of the Flyer. But the story was hardly original. Although I'd been the Flyer's first topless cover boy, I was not its first prominently placed shirtless man. That distinction goes to barbecue guru and political gadfly John Willingham (pictured).
Political editor Jackson Baker captured Willingham's partial nakedness in words and pictures in the June 13th, 1996, edition — almost two years to the issue before my own topless debut.
"The [congressional] candidate decided, midway through his remarks, to change from the dark shirt he started with into one of his newly minted white campaign T-shirts," Baker wrote.
"Unaccustomed as he was to public speaking, or determined to press the bare facts upon his audience, Willingham ended up dissertating for some time while shirtless. In this age of fitness buffs and muscle toning, he may have started a trend. But even Willingham would probably concede that he is not the ideal exemplar of the style."