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Rockin’ and Rasslin’ With the King In Memphis, Tennessee

 

There is a photo of Elvis Presley performing in the Ellis Auditorium in December of 1955.  Elvis is on the precipice of becoming the most famous singer in the history of popular music and the cultural face of the music that will be defined as “rock and roll.”  Backed by Scotty Moore and Bill Black, Elvis is not performing on a traditional stage.  He is singing inside a wrestling ring.

There has been no city where the cultures of rock ‘n’ roll and professional wrestling meshed more perfectly than in Memphis.  Every Memphian knows that they have been blessed with two kings – Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll, and Jerry Lawler, the King of professional wrestling.  Elvis Presley may be known as the man that brought the excitement of rhythm and blues music to white America, but it was another performer that is responsible for integrating black and white patrons at entertainment venues in Memphis.  That honor belongs to Rosco Monroe Merrick, who was professionally known as Sputnik Monroe.

Sputnik Monroe was a colorful heel wrestler (a bad guy) that took the Bluff City by storm in the late 1950s, his fame coinciding with the original broadcasting of the weekly wrestling television program in Memphis.  Sputnik loved attention inside and outside of the ring.  He spent much of his free time enjoying the music, alcohol, and companionship inside the “black” clubs on Beale Street.  At one point, he was actually arrested by Memphis police for drinking in a “Negro” establishment.

When Sputnik debuted at Ellis Auditorium, the African-American patrons were relegated to a small upper deck area known as the “Crow’s Nest.”  Although a hated heel performer, Sputnik was beloved by the local African-American community and demand was exceeding supply for the Crow’s Nest section.  Sputnik, never one to shy from publicity and having the benefit of being on the right side of history, often proclaimed that he demanded that the events be desegregated or he would no longer perform in Memphis.  A more cynical version of events is that the promotion saw any empty seat as lost business and was more than happy to transfer any anger on the new venue integration onto their lead heel.  In any event, simultaneously love and hatred for a dynamic self-promoter created a significant change in the city’s practices regarding race.

One young fan that was captivated by Sputnik’s natural charisma was Jerry Phillips, the son of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips.  Jerry, who wasn’t yet a teenager, wanted to get involved in the wrestling business and was given a most unique gimmick by Sputnik, “The World’s Most Perfectly Formed Midget.”  The rechristened “DeLayne” Phillips performed for a…um…short time in the area’s …um…smaller “spot” shows.  The audiences, who paid their hard earned cash to see real midget wrestling, were rightly outraged by this intentional falsehood.  The act was retired after a fan in Arkansas pulled a knife on the quasi-Lilliputian.

In 1965, a group of teenagers from Treadwell High School formed a band called the Gentrys and made it to #4 on the pop charts with the lighthearted “Keep on Dancing.”  Jimmy Hart, who was one of the vocalists for the Gentrys, came from a musical family.  His mother, Sadie Hart, had written “Enclosed One Broken Heart,” a #6 country hit for Eddy Arnold in 1950.  After tasting success, the Gentrys kept recording and performing but never found the Top 40 again.  By the mid-‘70s, Jimmy Hart was relegated to local session work and a Friday night gig at a Memphis Holiday Inn.

By 1974, another Treadwell High alumni had the city of Memphis under his spell.  Jerry “The King” Lawler, a twenty four-year-old former art student and disc jockey, had replaced Jackie Fargo as the top star in the city.  It was during this timeframe that local hustler Jim Blake of Barbarian Records starting releasing singles by Lawler.  As a singer, Lawler was a phenomenal wrestler.  However, making a music video of Lawler in Ardent Studios did nothing but make “The King” look like an even bigger star.

It has been said that Elvis remained a fan of Memphis wrestling throughout his life and given his fascination with comic book superheroes, there is no reason to doubt that assertion.  Even the large, bejeweled belts he wore, while performing in capes, resembled championship wrestling straps.  Elvis knew the unassuming Guy Coffey, who had been the general manager of the Ellis Auditorium in the 1950s and went to work full time for the Memphis wrestling promotion in the 1970s.  Guy would often let Elvis in to a private entrance to the Mid-South Coliseum, where he would silently watch the scripted mayhem behind the din of the screaming crowds.

Shortly after Elvis died in 1977, Jerry Lawler announced his retirement from professional wrestling.  He had decided to focus on music.  (This would be similar to Iman Lababedi deciding to give up rock criticism to focus on tap dancing).  In any event, helping with the musical proceedings was Jimmy Hart, who had bonded with Lawler in the recording studio as being the only musician who, like “The King,” didn’t drink booze or smoke pot.  Lawler’s first concert was, surprisingly enough, in the Mid-South Coliseum as part of wrestling card.  His music career ended that evening when “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant, one of the most compelling personalities to ever work the territory, busted a guitar over Lawler’s royal head.  The next Monday night, Lawler was back in the ring.

Jimmy Hart would transition into a full time wrestling personality, feuding with Lawler for several years.  He brought his musical skills into the promotion, penning the regional hit “We Hate School,” and would later write entrance music for the spandex wearers in the World Wresting Federation and World Championship Wrestling.  As a teenager, Hart worked selling Cokes at Ellis Auditorium.  For Guy Coffey.  To fans who were cursing at or applauding Sputnik Monroe.

Steve Crawford is the author of Legends of Memphis Wrestling available at Amazon.com  He always carries a foreign object.

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