Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets – The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling by Ron Hall

(Shangri-La) Of all the amazing music, video, tour guide books, photo books, and rock ‘n’ roll yearbooks the great Memphis label/store/institution Shangri-La has unleashed on the world, this gorgeous photo book may be the best.
There is a brief, interesting history of Memphis wrestling included, but truly the pictures tell more than words can in this book. The 50s rasslers (the book covers not only local Memphis athletes, but stars who spent time on the Memphis circuit) like Lou Thesz, Baron Leone, Gorgeous George, and the Swedish Angel (not Tor Johnson, but scarier looking). Just staring at the hard, sculpted, world-weary faces of these man-giants could occupy a few hours of your day, but it’s when the book hits the 60s that photos, clippings, and captions really get rolling. Sputnik Monroe was Memphis’ ring superhero in the 60s, and with his futuristic two-tone hair sitting atop his raw hamburger face you can tell what a special dude this is at first sight. One of the most insightful passages in the book is one about Monroe getting arrested for hanging out with black fans in a black bar. He hired a black lawyer to defend him (a Memphis first) but made no objections when the judge fined him for breaking the segregation rules. That’s just the way it was (some ads in this even direct black fans to the colored sections of the arena). With the “Sputnik” in the title out of the way, let’s get to the Masked Men and Midgets. The photos are grouped by amazing categories: midget wrestlers, women wrestlers, black wrestlers (Rocky Johnson, the Rock’s pop, is prominently featured), wrestlers who pretended to be ethnic villains and heroes, donning turbans, fezes and feathers, depending on the country’s pulse at the time, , masked wrestlers, bears who wrestled humans, and (the most beloved Memphis wrestler ever, Jerry Lawler included) rockin’ wrestlers. It’s very easy looking at these photos to understand how wrestling and rock ’n’ roll appeal to the exact same corner of the exact same brain lobe, and it seems that in Memphis that was particularly true. The brief text in this book (including an intro by Lawler) tells about sneaking Elvis into matches, and there’s a great shot of the King (Elvis, not Lawler) rocking a concert in a wrasslin’ ring. Also, many of the best grapplers were friends with Memphis musicians and cut novelty records. Some of these 45s’ labels  are reproduced in the book, and a CD included has four classic lost records by grappling greats. Sputnik actually made a record about clashing with Memphis musicians, and Jackie Fargo does a maudlin Red Sovine-esque tale of a dying wrestler’s last match to save a child. So basically, this is the best book ever.

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