Music fans who tuned into UPN-30 last Saturday morning got a big surprise. Guitarist Tom Nunnery was walloped in the head with his own instrument by wrestler Doug Gilbert, then Memphis music icon Jim Dickinson was brought out to great acclaim. They were promoting the Memphis Slam Jam, which is being billed as "A Night of Rock-and-Wrestling." The event, to be held at the Mid-South Coliseum Friday, April 23rd, will include 10 matches and one main event -- a lights-out, "non-sanctioned" match teaming manager Jimmy Hart's Money Inc. against Jerry Lawler and Animal (of the Road Warriors). Ticket prices range from $30 for ringside seats to $10 for general admission.
The big show, however, will be when Hart, "Handsome" Jimmy Valiant, and Lawler quit brawling and pick up the microphones to deliver some hard-hitting rock-and-roll. Hart, the promoter and brainchild of this event, says, "Lawler will sing 'Bad News' and 'The World's Greatest Wrestler,' of course, and Handsome Jimmy will do '714' and 'Son of a Gypsy' with the Nunnery Brothers. I'm singing 'We Hate School' and 'Monday Night Memories,' backed by Dickinson. All the ringside ticket holders will get a commemorative CD with our music on it and artwork by Jerry Lawler."
Combining sports and music is hardly a stretch for Hart, who started out as a musician, fronting the Gentrys on recordings for MGM, Sam Phillips, and Stax. He got involved in wrestling by managing -- and feuding with -- local hero Jerry "the King" Lawler in the early '70s, then climbing in the ring to beat Lawler for the Southern Heavyweight title. He repped dozens of other characters, including Andy Kaufman, who worked under Hart's wing during his brief but legendary career as a Memphis wrestler.
With Lawler, Hart also initiated the wrestling music-video phenomenon -- filming versions of "Bad News" and "The World's Greatest Wrestler." He's also made videos for Hulk Hogan ("American Made"), Shawn Michaels ("Sexy Boy"), and scores of others.
Locally, he's a famous face. As a mainstay on WMC-TV's Saturday morning wrestling program and the Monday night bouts at the Mid-South Coliseum, the "Mouth of the South," as Hart is called, was, during the '70s and '80s, the man most Memphians loved to hate.
Now, after 15 years away working for Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation and for World Championship Wrestling, Hart has returned home to Memphis. Determined to restore wrestling to its wholesome roots, he and fellow promoter Corey Maclin have relaunched the TV broadcasts -- on Clear Channel affiliate UPN-30 this time around -- and brought live wrestling back to the Mid-South Coliseum.
"Memphis was what got me to the penthouse," Hart explains today. "We're the home of 'Rhythm & Bruise.' So many big wrestlers came through Memphis in the '80s -- guys like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. Memphis let me be wild, flamboyant, and crazy.
"You know," Hart says, "we didn't [understand] how big wrestling was back then. We were working five days a week. We were too busy to realize what kind of impact we had on people. But we were drawing 6,000 fans to the Coliseum on a Monday night, typically the worst night of the week. My house was getting rolled with toilet paper several times a week! My son got beat up on the playground for being my kid! It was huge!
"And now," Hart continues, "we're putting wrestling together the way it used to be."
Maclin, who heads the company behind UPN-30 wrestling, agrees. "Our show is so clean and family-oriented," he says. "I needed something my kids could watch. We're trying to stay with the sign on the marquee. People want to see wrestling, not all that behind-the-scenes stuff."
"Everybody here grew up with wrestling," Hart adds. "They love to get their frustrations out through the characters in the ring. I really believe wrestling has never left Memphis. When Vince took the top talent, other regions collapsed, but Memphis somehow managed to hold on."
"I've got to give Corey and Jimmy credit," says UPN-30 general manager Jack Peck. "They have a lot of persistence. I told them that my studio wasn't ideal for wrestling -- the ceiling is too low -- but they insisted they could do it."
Maclin and Hart surveyed the studio space in early 2003, and, within two weeks, they had their mats installed -- after cutting a foot off the ring posts. "Corey swung the deal," Hart says of his partner. "Jack and [general sales manager] Jim Doty welcomed us. They wanted to keep the Memphis tradition going too.
"It's a marriage made in heaven," Hart enthuses. "Now we've got the highest-rated weekend show and plenty of sponsors with annual commitments."
Peck confirms Hart's boasts. "In the last several ratings books, it's the number-one regularly scheduled weekend program," he says. "It's amazing."
And with weatherman Brian Teigland taking up the announcer's vacancy left by WMC-TV's Dave Brown, Memphis wrestling has come full circle. "We'd considered bringing Dave over," Maclin explains, "but that didn't work out. Brian contacted me, saying, 'I'd love to get a crack at this wrestling thing.' Well, we were getting ready for the show one day, and Jimmy's flight got held up, Jerry [Lawler] was out of town, and Brian walked in and said, 'What can I do?' I just threw him in there.
"Since then," Maclin says, "the station has gotten tons of phone calls every week. Now they're putting up billboards promoting our show. We're also syndicating in other markets, like Jackson, Starkville, Tupelo, Miami, Pensacola, and Little Rock."
"Part of my past is now part of my future," Hart says. "What's old is suddenly new again."