The unmistakable voice of Memphis Wrestling, Lance Russell, is being honoured with the Announcer’s Award at the upcoming Cauliflower Alley Club’s 51st Reunion, April 11-13 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
One of the greatest wrestling announcers of all time with his earnest style and smooth delivery, Russell was integral to Memphis Wrestling, one of the most influential and innovative territories in the country throughout the ’70s and ’80s with the likes of Jerry Lawler, The Fabulous Ones, Andy Kaufman, and countless names who have left their mark on the business.
Russell recently celebrated his milestone 90th birthday, so SLAM! Wrestling caught up with him for an in-depth chat about his life, career, and being a central figure in one of the hottest territories in the country.
Below is part two of our interview, as Russell delves into the infamous Empty Arena Match and Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl, credibility, and Memphis’ indelible impact on the history of professional wrestling.
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SLAM! Wrestling: Fans still talk about the infamous Empty Arena Match between Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk. How difficult was it to call a match without a live audience?
Lance Russell: That was one of the hardest things. Who would have ever thought of coming up with an empty arena match? (laughs)
And it was tough, I didn’t really realize it until then how much you depended on reacting off the audience, and not only Jerry, but anybody who was any good and over with the fans would react to the audience. So it was a tough, tough proposition.
And when I tell you it was tough, it was tough in the hardest sense of any job you do, whether you are digging a sewer line or whatever you’re doing. And that’s what this one was, it was just difficult, and nobody really knew how it was going to come out. Well, maybe Lawler did, but I don’t think even he did and I don’t think Funk did.
SLAM! Wrestling: You were there when Funk and Lawler battled in Jackson, Tennessee — your hometown — this past October, billed as “The Final Stand.” Tell us about that.
Lance Russell: That’s right, and Jackson, Tennessee is a place that I grew up, a little ol’ town way back then was maybe 30,000 people and my grandfather had a transfer company, where you’d go and haul freight from the railroad lines and you’d take food to the grocery store and move furniture and that kind of stuff. So that’s what that was all about and that was my life. And I went out and thought the biggest thing in the world was to get in line, where the guys would let me get in line with them, there would be maybe five guys and me, when I was a little kid, and when we’d pass a 10-pound bag of flour down the line, then pass it to one guy to another and stack it up in the truck. And then we’d go to the store and unload it and put it in the store, and that’s the way they handled it way back then. That was a long time ago.
So, Jerry got the idea from talking to me about my history in Jackson and having a “Lance Russell Night” this past October 24th in Jackson. And we did very well and the crowd was big. So then we went there and it was all on the radio and different stuff, and it told ’em about when I was a little kid and how I use go down to the artisan wells which were on Highway 45 in Jackson, Tennessee. And we’d go down to get cold water and it didn’t cost you a dime, and it was… any how, you can’t go back.
But I did have a marvelous time. I took my oldest son who is a talented guy in television production all of his life and it was just terrific. Well, the big payoff to it was, Terry Funk and Jerry Lawler for the last time — all happening again in the Casino of the Empty Arena. And I said, “Oh my God, when I first heard that from Lawler I thought, you son of a gun, you just keep toppin’ ’em!” And the people bought it like a million dollars. It was just so great and people were so excited about it, and I was so excited which helped get the people even more excited. Anytime I would talk about it or do anything on Facebook, and all of that, and it was the greatest house for me.
SLAM! Wrestling: So “The Final Stand” was a trip down memory lane?
Lance Russell: It sure was. It brought all these nostalgic things that I remembered from my past into the build up of it, and all of that, so the pay off was Lawler in the end of it — of course Funk was great — and Lawler finished him off with the biggest fireball in the history of wrestling. He was known for that, but I’ll tell you, I’d never seen — and I’ve seen a jillion of these fireballs thrown — a fireball so big. It was bigger than Funk’s head and it just stunned everybody there and it was so great. And it’s when you go to things like that, and I shook hands with 3,000 people who were there, lined up, and that’s when you start feeling like a celebrity. And I’m not making any great things about, but hey, if people loved it and they came to see it, then I was tickled to death.
And we used to sell out 11,000 every single week in the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum and I’d ride all the guys in the East who would talk about Madison Square Garden. Look at that man, they’d say, we had 24,000 people there. And then I’d say, yeah but that was in a city with eight million, and we’re sitting down in here in Memphis with 350,000 people and we had 44,000 people in one month spread over four shows. Because we’d wrestled every week and they wrestled once a month, so I used to always ride them about that, that we outdrew Madison Square Garden.
Because like I said, they would have 24,000 in a month and we’d have 44,000, ’cause we did 11,000 a week and that was huge for a little old town like that. So when you look at the number of people who lived in the area and the size of their television audience, you would think how could you compare those two. But the truth of the matter is, if you take the month of say October with them having one show and us having four, we would draw nearly double the number of people they did. And that was always one of my favourite things, to ride the Eastern people about.
SLAM! Wrestling: Another wild and woolly barnburner of a match that fans still talk about today is the famous Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl between the Blonde Bombers (Wayne “Honky Tonk Man” Ferris and Larry “Moondog Spot” Latham) and Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee…
Lance Russell: We took an old body shop in Tupelo, Mississippi and made it into an arena and it didn’t hold all that many people, but that night we had all that it could hold. And it was a situation where, business had not been good and (Jerry) Jarrett said, “What are we gonna do with this?” Lawler probably said, “Hell, let’s just get a big brawl going.” “Do we have to go outside or what?” “No, let’s do it in the concession stand,” I think the conversation went.
And the way it came on, it was so natural, and it was a blowout because everything came together at one time. I screamed at my sound guy and engineer, we were packing up our equipment to leave and I said, “Hey, wait a minute something’s goin’ on downstairs, grab your stuff and let’s go and see if we can get the microphone down far enough!” So I went down the steps and had to squat down and lean over the concession stand, that’s where it steps up to where I was doing the show in this body shop, in the upstairs, so I said in the middle of it, “What the hell, God, I can’t get this thing loose,” or something like that. It was just totally inappropriate to have swearing like that on our show. Later Jarrett told me, he said probably that one line made the whole show because it was so believable.
And let me tell you, when Lawler threw that gallon jug of mustard at his cousin’s head, The Honky Tonk Man, Wayne Ferris — he was Jerry’s cousin by the way and they didn’t like each other — and he fired that thing and I’ll bet you it didn’t miss Wayne’s head by more than about eight inches and it hit the 2 x 4s behind in the concession stand and busted the bottle and mustard went all over the wall. And that was just one of the things that made that memorable brawl so unbelievable. It was one of the most exciting, blood-stirring times that I’ve ever had in wrestling. There have been other good ones, but that one was so exciting, and these guys, nobody ever put as much into it as Billy (Dundee) always puts into it, and he and Lawler and one of the Moondogs (Larry Latham) and Wayne Ferris, and it was smoke and fire, I’m tellin’ you. The whole thing was great.
SLAM! Wrestling: Along with Bill Dundee and Jerry Lawler, Dutch Mantell is a legend in Memphis. Can you share something about “Dirty” Dutch?
Lance Russell: The Dutchman, he had more lines, he was just great to be around all the time. The only time that I didn’t like to be around him is when he got on that deal with that whip, let me tell you, he was not very good. And he could just as easy take your ear off and say, “Oh, I’m sorry.” (laughs). And the Dutchman always had great stories to tell. I think he’s done two books, and he knows every story of every wrestler that’s ever been through the Mid-South, and there’s not a lot that hadn’t. And he’s just a funny guy and he works hard. He comes up with some really good ideas. I always liked to see Dutch when he was coming in to work a couple weeks or so or longer, because he was really good to work with and he was a big deal.
SLAM! Wrestling: How big was that feud between Jerry Lawler and comedian Andy Kaufman in Memphis?
Lance Russell: It’s the biggest thing that ever happened to Memphis, and this will give you an idea, that was the biggest thing between Memphis and New York. They had that deal offered to them, right in their laps, but those promoters, and they didn’t want it. They thought, “They’re doing that comedy stuff, that guy’s a comedian, are you kiddin’? We don’t want him.”
So Andy got a hold of Lawler, and he was told who to call, and man do you think Jarrett and Lawler didn’t go for that? Not only was he the number one comic guy from television, coming down to work, he was working virtually for nothing. He paid his own transportation, he flew himself every time he was down there from New York and he put on such a show like nobody ever thought of seeing in wrestling before. And that was Andy Kaufman. And I’ll tell you, one of his peculiarities was, an hour before every show he’d lock himself in a dressing room and meditate for an hour before the show, and that’s the way he was.
And when he took that match to wrestle Lawler, y’know Lawler wanted to get him in the ring, and his manager whose name I forget right now — I used to know them all — but he almost had a heart attack when Kaufman took that match on to wrestle Lawler. He could see his million-dollar jewel in there wrestling with this thug who wasn’t looking for anything but a couple days of publicity out of it, and he could see, there goes my money. (laughs)
SLAM! Wrestling: Did you get to know Andy Kaufman personally?
Lance Russell: No, I didn’t. The only person in our group who really got to know Andy was Lawler. He and Jerry got to be pretty good buddies.
SLAM! Wrestling: How was your time working for WCW in the ’90s?
Lance Russell: I enjoyed myself, basically I have to tell you, I really enjoyed it. I’m sure there’s nights where I wished I hadn’t been there, but not many of them. And I’m glad that in a sense, I didn’t end up making as much money as somebody who grew up doing New York or California or something like that, but I had a lot more fun and I enjoyed it and the wrestling thing was a sideline with me, because I was director of programming for RKO General who owned WHBQ-TV. That was one of the two stations we were on in Memphis.
SLAM! Wrestling: You brought credibility to every promotion you worked for. In the documentary, Memphis Heat, Jerry Jarrett talked about your credibility and said if you were announcing a good card coming up, you would just read the matches. But if it was a great card you would say, boy you can’t miss it!
Lance Russell: Yeah, I think that is true, because we all used to make fun of — rest his soul — Nick Gulas, because Nick tried to feature himself as a star on radio and television and he tried to do a lot of that stuff himself. And one thing all of us used to joke about was, Nick used to start off every single card with, “Ladies and gentleman the greatest card ever to come down the road in Memphis, Tennessee,” or wherever it was… but everything was the greatest card that ever came down the road. And that’s what Nick would do. And that’s the thing that I would disagree with some of the guys who felt you had to holler and shout when you’re doing a wrestling voice. You don’t need to do that, you’ve got to have some variety, at least that’s how I feel about it. So I would agree with Jerry on that, well, one of the few things I agreed with.
SLAM! Wrestling: Tell us about your relationship with Jerry Jarrett.
Lance Russell: Well, Jerry and I have had our problems. But you know, I think one of the things I appreciate about it, is I think both of us recognize the other one has contributed to our life and our existence and our enjoyment of whatever we do. I know Jarrett is one of the smartest, brightest promoters I’ve ever run across of anything, anywhere, anytime. I don’t like Jerry, particularly, and he didn’t like me. But I think that, and he told me — it’s ridiculous and I don’t know why it took me so long to figure it out — but he told me, “You’ve got more air time than Lawler or anybody else put together, and to not have me featured in that Memphis Heat film was a stupid move on the part of the filmmakers.”
SLAM! Wrestling: In Memphis Heat, there’s some great footage of you being manhandled by The Dream Machine (Troy Graham) in a very physical altercation.
Lance Russell: (Laughs) And boy did he enjoy that! I got up off the floor and said you dirty, lousy, and he popped me pretty good. He really did and it made it all believable.
SLAM! Wrestling: Turning 90 years old, do you find yourself reflecting on the long and illustrious career you’ve had?
Lance Russell: I have on occasion these days, more than when I was living it, to say, “Boy, what a lucky rascal you were.”
We grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and believe this when I tell you, we grew up in a period that you just can’t imagine, if you were a young guy and you liked music at all, to know the people we sat down and drank coffee and beer with. And guys that were in and out of the station just to stop by, and what I’m talking about is the biggest names in the rock business and in the music business that you’ve ever seen in your life. You name ’em and I’ll tell ya they were in Memphis, Tennessee, at some time, and we had contact with them because we did a lot of music stuff on the show and it was unbelievable the number of guys who grew up in and around Memphis, Tennessee.
And the same thing was true with wrestling. Because once they got started, Jarrett came up with the idea of making Lawler, because he used it in interviews by saying, “This is just one more step on my way up to being the world’s heavyweight champion.” And he kept referring to being the champion. So Jarrett, he took a lot of the big wrestling names out of Detroit, all over the country and he would book them in there with Lawler and wrestle him, and shucks, Lawler would come close to winning the match but he would just barely miss it. And the point is, they got to see everybody in the country just about who came through there, because they booked this thing and that’s the way so many of the guys got goin’, like Hulk Hogan.
Hulk Hogan was brand new and came out of Florida and they knew there was no better place for a young wrestler to get a background than Memphis, Tennessee. And sure, I’m braggin’ about Memphis, Tennessee, because I’m very proud of it. And as I told you before, when I went to Turner in my first association with all the other guys like Jim Ross, any how, I saw all of these guys and had to defend Memphis Wrestling and all of the things we did there a jillion different times, but I was proud to do it. And I still feel that way today. I think Memphis made a big contribution that a lot of people won’t admit, although they know, that Memphis played a significant role in developing the wrestling business pertaining to the viewers, from a viewer standpoint. So I think Memphis had a lot more to do with it than a lot of people will admit, certainly.
Nearly everybody came through Memphis, even The Undertaker. What a great guy, and what an arm on him. I used to stand there when we’d be getting ready for a show, I’d stand at the back and watch these guys tossing a football around and Mark (Calaway) could hum that football. He was a real athlete and you could tell right then and there.
SLAM! Wrestling: In closing, congratulations again on receiving your Announcer’s Award at the upcoming CAC Reunion. Have you attended in the past?
Lance Russell: Do you know, and this is a terrible thing, but I’ve never gone. Nick Bockwinkel, bless his soul, he had it set up for me to come in and do some announcing on one of those shows, and I didn’t feel capable. I don’t know what it was or why I was feeling that way, but I didn’t accept it. Maybe I was feeling a little embarrassed because the Cauliflower Alley Club was such a big thing, because all of these big names were going to be there.
So this will be the first time I’ve been there, and I’m not proud of it, that’s for sure. Because I believe we should have supported the group. Right now I’ll be lucky to support it one time by riding a plane out there. The last time I got on an airplane it almost froze me to death, they had no blankets on this stupid plane. My nose nearly broke off sideways because it was frozen (laughs). Anyhow that’s another story, for another time.
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