In the November 9, 1985 issue of Billboard magazine, alongside reviews of Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog, Robert Palmer’s Riptide and ZZ Top’s Afterburner, you’ll find a quick appraisal of The Wrestling Album, a 35-word critique that concludes thusly: “As singers, they’re pretty good wrestlers.”
Thirty years later, that’s still a pretty apt assessment. By almost any critical measure, The Wrestling Album is bad, though that’s largely beside the point – it’s a collection of songs being sung by professional wrestlers, after all. The bigger sin would be if this record were boring; if it somehow failed to capture the comic-book energy of a WWF where Hulkamaniacs and good-natured Hillbillies battled cheatin’ cowboys and masked marauders from “parts unknown,” or capitalize on the sheer WTF-ness that sprung from putting “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in a studio with the guy who wrote “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.”
So, in terms of sheer entertainment, The Wrestling Album was a five-star success. And while it wasn’t a huge hit (it only made it to number 84 on the Billboard Top 200, and none of its three singles cracked the Top 100), it sold well enough to spawn a sequel – 1987’s Piledriver – and gave us cult classics like Hillbilly Jim’s “Don’t Go Messin’ With a Country Boy,” Junkyard Dog’s “Grab Them Cakes” and, of course, “Real American,” an honest-to-goodness patriotic anthem that was subsequently co-opted by the WWF’s biggest star, Hulk Hogan.
But perhaps most importantly, The Wrestling Album represents the moment when the business began to change. After taking over the WWF from his father, Vince McMahon embarked on a quest to drag pro wrestling out of the VFW halls and onto MTV, pairing stars of the day like Cyndi Lauper with Hulk Hogan and ushering in “The Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” Era. Within three years, the Hulkster made the cover of Sports Illustrated, 93,000 fans packed the Pontiac Silverdome for WrestleMania III and wrestling became “sports entertainment.” It’s never gone back, either.
To mark the 30th anniversary of an album that really, truly changed it all, Rolling Stone spoke with three men who helped shape it: Grammy-winning producer Rick Derringer, musician-turned-manager Jimmy Hart and former wrestler Hillbilly Jim. Here’s what they remember about an album that started as a joke – but became something else entirely. Even if it’s still pretty funny after all these years.
Jimmy Hart, wrestling manager/musician: I had done the music thing with the Gentrys. We had some hits, you know, but by this point, I had been managing Jerry Lawler for about six years, when one day I had the magic phone call from Hillbilly Jim, who told me “Look, I’m going to tell you something: Vince McMahon is having a show called WrestleMania – Howard Finkel saw your tapes from down in Memphis, they’ve been trying to reach you.” Because, every time I’d get a call from a 203 area code, I’d think it was one of the wrestlers playing a rib on me, so I never called it back. Anyway, Hillbilly said “Let me call the office to see if they still want you.” Twenty-five minutes later, Vince McMahon calls, then next day I was on a plane going to New York and the rest was history.
When I was up there for the first WrestleMania, I met Dave Wolff, Cyndi Lauper’s manager. And he said, “Look, after this, we’re thinking of cutting a wrestling album, and I know your background with the Gentrys. A good friend of mine is going to produce it – Rick Derringer. Would you be interested?” I had known Rick from a few little tours we’d done together; the Gentrys and his group, the McCoys, would do package tours. So obviously I said yes.
Rick Derringer, producer/songwriter: I had been working with Cyndi Lauper extensively, because she was singing with Blue Angel, and they were dropped by their record label and had asked me to come and help out. It quickly became, “Well, let’s not get Blue Angel a deal – let’s get Cyndi Lauper a deal.” So we were friends, and that’s how I got connected with this album – because David Wolff was Cyndi’s better half at the time, and he was an avid fan of wrestling, he was really into those characters and personalities, so The Wrestling Album was really his idea. I think he asked me because I had won some Grammys with “Weird Al” Yankovic, and the kind of guy they wanted for this was someone who knew it was going to be a novelty album, but also knew how to make a great album, musically.
Hillbilly Jim, wrestler: I was on board with it immediately. Here’s why. The whole goal in those days was to get to the WWF. Those guys were cutting edge – they were the first to start doing things with pay-per-view and merchandising. This is a funny story: One time we were at Notre Dame University and Pat Patterson came in with a stack of papers. He said, “Hillbilly, I got some legal stuff for you here. Did you get some woman pregnant or something?” I said, “No, man!” So he hands me the papers, and goes “Look at this!” And there was a check at the bottom of it, for $87,610.76 – the first merchandising check off the Hillbilly Jim action figures. He was laughing his ass off. I was so happy. I knew to stay where my bread was buttered, so when they asked about the album, of course I said yes. I don’t think they even knew I had musical ability until later.
Derringer: I wrote a couple of the songs on there, David Wolff gave some others to me – sometimes, they would tell us, “Here’s this song for this guy, can you make it work?” But, in some cases, the wrestlers turned out to be very talented. Hillbilly Jim, Gene Okerlund – he played rock & roll piano, Roddy Piper was pretty talented when it came to singing. Jimmy Hart was in the Gentrys. I remember doing “Grab Them Cakes,” Vicki Sue Robinson sang that, and she was great, of course, but I also remember being impressed by the wrestler who sang on that [the Junkyard Dog]; he was a real talent.
Hart: They asked me if I had anything for The Wrestling Album, and I said, “Well, I’ve got this little song I wrote in Memphis, called “Eat Your Heart Out, Rick Springfield.” I was doing songs like “Barbra Streisand’s Nose” and “I Hate School” with Lawler, just for fun. So I gave them the demo to that one, Rick Derringer produced it and it was phenomenal. I never heard from Rick Springfield about it, but a woman I knew down in Tampa, who would get me by Ray-Ban sunglasses, she knew him, and she’d go, “I played this for Rick and he thinks it’s the funniest thing!” She seemed legit, so I just believed her. When the album came out, it was down to either “Grab Them Cakes” or “Rick Springfield” as a single, but I guess since I was a heel, they went with Junkyard Dog.
Jim: Everybody still knows my song, “Don’t Go Messin’ With a Country Boy.” I start my SiriusXM Outlaw Country radio show with it every week! I recorded it in New York City at the Hit Factory. Joel Dorn was in there with me and we did part of it, then finished it up in Philadelphia. They didn’t even give me a key to sing it in, ’cause it was just a novelty song. We wanted something that would be a signature, as soon as you heard that fiddle, you knew who it was.
They even got Eric Weissberg, who did “Dueling Banjos” in Deliverance, to play on it. And you know who wrote the song? Marshall Chapman, the singer here in Nashville. She said Doc Pomus was on the phone and he wanted her to write the theme song. That’s where it came from. I told Marshall, “That song has been played all around the world,” and she and I just laugh.
Derringer: Of course, the song I’m known for best on that album is “Real American.” That song is becoming the new national anthem. I never intended it for the WWF; my partner and I who wrote it, when we listened back to that one, we actually cried. I remember thinking “We have written the most patriotic song of all time.” We looked at it as a legitimate thing; we never envisioned it for the WWF, but when we came to be involved with The Wrestling Album, they asked us what songs we had, and one of them was “Real American.” At first, Vince wanted it to be the theme for the U.S. Express tag team, but they left or something, and all I know is that Hulk Hogan decided he was going to use that song.
It was a double-edged sword, to be honest. Hulk Hogan was successful and very prominent, so because of him, a lot of people heard the song. But on the other hand, we felt we wrote this fabulous patriotic rock anthem – it’s one of the better songs I’ve ever written, probably – and we felt like, “Oh wow, we’re kind of throwing it away on this wrestler.” Of course, since then, in some ways, it’s become one of the biggest records I’ve ever made…and I’m the guy who did “Hang On Sloopy” and “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.”
Hart: Back in the day, heels were heels, so if I managed the Hart Foundation or Earthquake and Typhoon, or Honky Tonk or whomever, I would only travel with them. And when The Wrestling Album came out on cassette, we’d always listen to it in the car and just flip out. We loved it. I think some of the established wrestlers at that time weren’t entertainment-oriented; they were great in the ring, but they realized it was heels and babyfaces and if you start putting this music with them, it’s going to take away from the mystique of it all. A lot of people didn’t like the direction it was going in, because it was getting to be like show business.
Jim: They had decided to do a video for “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and we were getting ready to do TV in some arena, so they made us get there early and they came in with smoke and mirrors and had us shoot that stuff. And the vocals were done in a recording studio, but sometimes they’d just get us in a room somewhere and have us sing a part. And getting wrestlers together is like herding cats.
Hart: Putting that video together was unbelievable; you had some of the wrestlers who wanted to keep the curtain pulled – you had all the heels and babyfaces together, and that was a no-no back in the day. We came from small territories, where everybody was separated; you drove in separate cars, you ate at separate restaurants, you stayed at separate hotels, because that’s how you made your money – you made people believe. So some people were concerned what fans would think if they saw Jimmy Hart standing next to “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. But Vince had this idea. He’s always looking for an attraction, and back then, everybody was an attraction – Paul Orndorff, John Studd, Andre the Giant, Bobby “the Brain” Heenan and Mr. Fuji, Lou Albano and Fred Blassie – so I remember people were very concerned with who they were standing next to. Some guys just wanted to do one take and get out of there. They’d play it up – “I can’t sing, why am I here?” – but deep down, you knew it was a big deal to them.
Derringer: I remember that video was quite an experience. They envisioned it as being their centerpiece, their big hit, with all these guys in it – so it was outrageous. I remember Cyndi Lauper showed up in disguise, wearing a wig, doing her Mona Flambé character. There were wrestlers everywhere. Meat Loaf was there. Roddy Piper pulled me aside and gave me some advice: “If I have to knock ya down, stay down. Because being in character, if ya get back up, I’m going to have to go to work on ya. That’s the nature of what I do.”
Hart: I might be wrong, but I think this was the first-ever wrestling record, and it really helped start this “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” era, where you had big stars and MTV hanging around with WWF wrestlers, and it really brought celebrity into what we do. And that’s still around today; music is so important – if you watch wrestlers go to the ring, the fans will pop as soon as they hear the music. And I think that was created by Dave Wolff and Vince McMahon, because without Vince giving it the OK, it never would’ve happened.
Derringer: It was certainly one of the more interesting projects I worked on, from all the different personalities of the wrestlers involved to the whole experience of promoting it – I did Piper’s Pit a couple of times; it was a different kind of production than I was used to, that’s for sure. I don’t dwell on legacy, but as far as the Rick Derringer story goes, this is a pretty interesting sidenote. I’ve had the opportunity to do all kinds of things during my career – some more legitimate that others – but one thing this album taught me was that, even if you want to call something a “Novelty” recording, that doesn’t mean people didn’t work incredibly hard on it. If anything, it’s the opposite.
Jim: I’ve got gold records for it in my house. I have buddies of mine who are good musicians, play in bands and are wonderful entertainers who are toiling away – and they’re never going to get one. I have two. I have a gold album for The Wrestling Album and one for Piledriver, the follow-up album. It’s a little hokey, but as time has gone by, The Wrestling Album has come to mean a lot to me. I remember when we shot the album cover. I remember when we shot the video. We just did our thing. It was a magical time.
Additional reporting by Joseph Hudak.