One of the most colorful personalities in wrestling history, “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart got his start in the territory system of the ’70s and early ’80s, establishing himself in Memphis and surrounding areas. He was involved in the infamous feud between Jerry “The King” Lawler and Andy Kaufman in 1982 and vocalist for the Gentrys (best known for the chart-topping hit “Keep on Dancing”) in the ’60s and ’70s. After joining the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), Hart was an integral part of several early WrestleManias, managing the likes of Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart and the Honky Tonk Man in the ’80s and ’90s. With rumors that he might be involved in Lawler‘s match against Michael Cole at WrestleMania XXVII this Sunday, Hart is in Atlanta for appearances at WrestleMania Axxess this weekend.
Before we get started, I just have to mention that my roommate’s father, Billy Farmer, played bass for the Gentrys.
Oh my God, you’re kidding! Yes, Billy Farmer, oh my God! You know what? I [just got back from Memphis for] the premiere of Memphis Heat. It’s going to be on HBO this summer and it’s a story about Memphis wrestling. Jerry and I are featured through the whole thing and it’s about Sputnik Monroe and, you know, all the territories before WWE came along. We had Memphis, they had Texas with the Von Erichs, of course Atlanta had World Championship Wrestling. But that’s so funny that I [was just] there for the premiere of the movie and, oh my God, Billy Farmer was awesome. Thank you for bringing that up. What great memories.
You obviously played a big part in Memphis wrestling before you were in WWE, but you also spent some time in Atlanta as well in those early days.
I sure did. We stayed in that hotel, I believe it’s the CNN Center, five days a week and went home on the weekends. I was in WWF first, then we left after WrestleMania X and we did the WCW stint down there with those guys. Then, of course, I went back to New York and did the Hall of Fame and everything.
Were you ever part of the shows at the old City Auditorium and the Omni?
Yeah, the Omni and Center Stage were where WCW used to do shows. Before I went there, Jerry Jarrett was part of WCW. They had so many people coming in and running the old WCW stuff, and I want to say Ole Anderson was running the stuff down there at one time. But I’d drive from Memphis to Atlanta and it’d be me, Rick Rude, Lawler, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant, Austin Idol – we’d all drive down there to do TV, then drive back to Memphis. We’d do all the little cities down there – Augusta, Columbus and everything. Tommy Rich was one of the biggest names down there at the time. He sure was.
A lot of managers at that time were former wrestlers. Did you ever actually wrestle?
Well, what happened was WWE called me when I was down in Memphis with Lawler and those guys and I thought it was a rib at first. There were no cell phones back then, so I’d be on the road up in Louisville or wherever and I’d call home from a pay phone every night. One night they said, “Vince McMahon called here.” And I said, “Come on. You’ve got to be kidding me.” I thought it was Austin Idol or “Handsome” Jimmy or somebody playing a trick on me, so I never called back. A week later George Scott, who was his booker at the time, called me and I still didn’t call back. Then Hillbilly Jim called me and said, “Jimmy, why aren’t you calling New York. Howard Finkel saw your tapes and they’ve got a big show starting called WrestleMania in two months and they’d like to see if you want to be part of that.” So I said, “Are you kidding me? Feet, don’t fail me now.” Vince called me and I was on the plane the next day going to New York and I stayed there for almost ten WrestleManias. I’ve managed 23 people up there, from King Kong Bundy at the first WrestleMania, to Greg Valentine, which was also on the first. Of course after that I had the Honky Tonk Man, Adrian Adonis, Dino Bravo, Terry Funk, Dory Funk, Earthquake, Typhoon, the Rougeau Brothers, Hulk, Brutus [Beefcake] and the list goes on and on. I’ve been so blessed and every day I look in the mirror, pinch myself and say, “Do I really get paid for doing this all these years?”
When I first went to New York and worked with Bobby Heenan, Lou Albano, Freddie Blassie and Mr. Fuji, all of them were ex-wrestlers turned managers. Myself and the Grand Wizard were probably the only two people at the time that never had wrestling experience. I was thrown into the ring a lot in Memphis because you had to do everything there – I almost had to set the ring up, referee, manage and wrestle, too. That’s when I did all the stuff for the late, great Andy Kaufman against Lawler back in the day.
What is your role in WrestleMania this year? Are you going to be involved in Lawler’s match at all?
I wish I could be. You never know what might happen. Everybody asks me, “Are you going to be part of the Jerry Lawler match? My gosh, you managed Lawler. Lawler inducted you into the Hall of Fame. You and Lawler have been friends for more than 30 years. He got you into the business. You went to high school together.” And I say, “You know what? Have megaphone, will travel, baby.” It would be great to be part of that, but right now I’m doing a lot of radio and TV while we’re down there, every day at fan Axxess, all the Hall of Fame meet-and-greets – Jimmy Hart’s going to do it rent a manager, baby.
You just mentioned all the other managers that were in WWE when you got involved, but there aren’t as many managers these days. It’s kind of a lost art, but do you think that will ever come back?
You never say never. That’s one thing about WWE. Box office-wise, crowd-wise, pay-per-view-wise, WWE is so far ahead of everybody else. They’re doing tremendous, but they always change everything. So you really never know what’s going to happen. But I still can bump and I still can do anything that anybody else can do, so I’m hoping I’ll someday get that call to step back in the ring and manage some of the younger stars.
I’ve got my colorful jackets and people always say, “Jimmy, why did you always dress so colorful?” Well, speaking of the Gentrys, I remember Dick Clark, on my first tour after high school with Sonny & Cher and the Beach Boys with the Gentrys, he pulled everybody together and said, “Look, when you’re on that stage you better give the people their money’s worth. Just remember, if you dress like the audience one day you’re going to wind up sitting in the audience.” That’s why I had the crazy jackets and the megaphone and everything else because I always wanted to give people their money’s worth. But the door’s always open for me. Like I said, rent a manager, Jimmy Hart.
How many WrestleManias have you actually been involved with?
I participated in the first nine. There were four others that I made appearances on and did publicity for. I’m like a pimple on prom night. They just can’t get rid of Jimmy Hart. I just keep coming back and I’ll do WrestleMania and that leads to something else like going on the USO tours for them and being in the video games. And you’ll always see Jimmy Hart action figures and the WWE Legends memorabilia and stuff they put out.
Like you mentioned earlier, Lawler inducted you into the Hall of Fame in 2005. This year some local legends with whom you are very familiar are being inducted.
What a great crew that was [in 2005]. You had “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Hogan, Paul Orndorff, who lives in Atlanta, by the way, “Cowboy” Bob Orton, whose son Randy Orton is such a major star now with WWE. We had Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik, so what a great crew I was able to go in with, and they were people that I worked with during the nine years I was there.
Have you ever eaten at Abdullah the Butcher’s restaurant in Atlanta?
As a matter of fact I managed him a couple of times when I was in WCW. And in Puerto Rico I was with Abdullah the Butcher on several big matches with Carlos Colon, so I’m definitely familiar with him.
“Bullet” Bob Armstrong comes from a great wrestling background and I’m glad to see him get a chance, too. His son referees in WWE. And I’m so happy to see “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan go in this year. They always put a celebrity in each year and I’m really excited about Drew Carey.
But what I’m really excited about is Shawn Michaels because a lot of people don’t know that his theme song is a song that me and my partner wrote for him so many years ago. And he’s kept that theme music all this time and never changed over. We wrote that for Shawn and Shawn sang it. I was happy to be a part of that and with him being inducted that night I’m like a proud father.
WrestleMania Axxess. 6 p.m.-10 p.m. March 31-April 2, 8 a.m.-noon April 2-3, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. April 2, 12:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m. April 3. $35-$96, free 3 and younger. Georgia World Congress Center, Building C, 285 Andrew Young International Blvd. N.W., Atlanta. 404-223-4000, www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemaniaaxxess/, www.gwcc.com.