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"If you dress like the audience, pretty soon you're going to end up sitting in the audience." Those were the enlightening words of advice the ageless Dick Clark once gave a young singer named Jimmy Hart. Little did Clark or Hart know at the time that the kid would go on to become, not only a million-selling recording artist with a group called The Gentrys, but the man who made the term "Mouth of the South" an understatement.
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From yelling at opponents and fans with his trademark megaphone to managing the likes of The Hart Foundation, Hulk Hogan and even comedian Andy Kaufman, some of the biggest moments in professional wrestling history all had one thing in common, and that's Jimmy Hart.
Because of this, Hart is not only featured in the "WWE Legends of Wrestlemania" video game, he also appears on the cover. And this is an honor that Hart calls one of the top three moments in his career.
That's right, for a guy who has given his life to a business of bumps, he cites being inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame, managing King Kong Bundy and Greg "The Hammer" Valentine at the first Wrestlemania, and appearing on the cover of this video game as his biggest achievements.
He also claims that WWE owner Vince McMahon had a lot to do with his success because of the freedom Hart was given to develop his own style.
"Vince was always great to me. He allowed me to be colorful," Hart explains. "People always ask me where I got the megaphone, but Vince is the one who gave it to me. He saw it in Japan and said that it was going to be my gimmick. When I managed in Memphis, I always carried a cane, but Mr. Fuji already had a cane, so I didn't want to come in and copy him. Vince always wanted me to be colorful, he let me change my jackets, we did our own interviews, and I think by allowing me to be so colorful, that enabled me to be there so long.
"Back then, it was a different time. People were scared of the heels because they were all giants. We had Andre and King Kong Bundy, so the fans would yell at them from a distance, but they all thought they could beat me up. That was my role, and I was so happy to do it."
Here's what else Hart had to say as we talked Wrestlemania, Andy Kaufman and a young Hulk Hogan.
ESPN: I was just watching Wrestlemania to get ready for the interview ...
Jimmy Hart: Oh gosh. Everyone always asks me if Wrestlemania 3 was the biggest because I went out there four different times and I managed Honky Tonk against Jake Roberts, and I had the Hart Foundation out there against the Bulldogs, then I had Adrian Adonis in the hair match against Piper, but it's Wrestlemaina 1 that's still the biggest. If Wrestlemania 1 had not been successful, there wouldn't be a Wrestlemania 25 coming up in Houston, Texas on the fifth of April. What people don't understand is, we were live in Madison Square Garden, but it was being shown all over on closed-circuit in movie theaters. Vince put everything he had into this. People tried to talk him out of it. They thought he was crazy.
ESPN: What was the atmosphere like back then for the first Wrestlemania?
Jimmy Hart: For me, coming from Memphis, Tennessee, it was unbelievable. Our territory back then, we were driving everywhere. We had Memphis Coliseum on Monday night, then we'd drive to the Louisville Gardens in Kentucky the next night and so on and so forth. That's just how it was done back then and they did that in every territory. But can you imagine, me, Jimmy Hart, out of Memphis, Tennessee, at Wrestlemania? I went up there to WWF only three months before the event to manage Greg Valentine and King Kong Bundy, and the funny thing is, I used to manage Bundy down in Memphis. So here I go into Madison Square Garden for the first time and it was just such a breath-taking thrill for me. There were so many people. It was the biggest show on earth, and I thought, if it all ends tomorrow, I've really done it all. Who would've thought I would stay there for 10 years and be at all those Wrestlemanias and manage Hulk and Brutus and Honky and the Harts. It's unbelievable to me, it really is.
ESPN: To take you back a little further, how crazy was it for you traveling with Andy Kaufman at a time when a lot of the fans thought the act was real. There were a lot of people down in Memphis who hated you guys with serious passion.
Jimmy Hart: Originally, they had gone to Vince McMahon Sr. about doing something with Andy Kaufman, but he didn't want to do it at the time. So this guy who did all the wrestling magazines by the name of Bill Apter, he called Jerry Lawler up and told him about Kaufman and told him that during his breaks in his TV schedule, Kaufman wants to wrestle. Lawler wanted Kaufman down in Memphis, then put me as his manager. We fought Lawler, then Andy and I fought each other, and while a lot of people only see a few of those tapes, what nobody realizes is that Andy was with us down in Memphis for over a year. It was tremendous.
I remember one night Andy and I went to eat at Denny's after the matches and the waitress came over and was like: "Can I get y'alls autograph?" And Andy actually says no, that he wouldn't sign anything until after we ate. The waitress starts yelling, and I'm like here, you can have my autograph right now. Andy asked me: "What did you do that for?" And I told him: "At least my food will come out the right way. Your food, there's no telling what is going to come out in it." That changed his mind real quick and he signed her autograph right there. [laughs]
ESPN: How tough was it for you to take in-ring bumps from huge guys like Hogan and Davey Boy Smith back in the day?
Jimmy Hart: In high school, as small as I was, I played football and baseball and everything else, and I was just always very athletic. But when I was young, I was part of a group called The Gentrys and we had a million-selling record called "Keep on Dancin'". So we went out and signed with Dick Clark and we did tours with the Beach Boys and Sonny and Cher, and back then, there were all of these bus tours, but no matter where we were, I always watched wrestling. I loved it. And like anything else, when you don't have hit records anymore, you start playing in smaller clubs. Well, it was about that time when Jerry Lawler wanted to cut a wrestling album, so he called me, and that's how we first met. He asked me if I wanted to come down to Memphis and manage him, so I started managing Jerry, and the second week I was in the business, they had me in the ring wrestling. I was thrown into the fire real quick.
And then what happened was Lawler broke his leg about four months after I started managing him. So then Jerry Jarrett came to me and told me that they were going to make me the hottest thing down in the territory until Lawler could come back. I started managing people like Handsome Jimmy Valiant and Austin Idol and Koko B Ware and Kamala. Then when Lawler came back, we ended up having a feud. And what turned out so good about the feud is every Monday night we'd bring in someone new for me to manage. Terry Funk came in, The Brisco Brothers, Dory Funk, then all of a sudden, in came Hulk Hogan and I managed Hulk against Lawler.
And to answer your question, I learned how to bump because I knew that the people loved to see the managers get involved. A lot of the other managers used to believe back then that if you got beat up all the time, that it kills your heat and you can't draw money. But my whole thing was that if I come back every week, and no matter what they do to Jimmy Hart they realize that they can't get rid of this guy, and I keep coming back with even more colorful jackets, that it would give me longevity in the business and I think that really helped me tremendously.
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