It wasn't difficult to pick out Jimmy Hart, "The Mouth of the South" in the lobby of the Ace Hotel. Not only did his magnificent bouffant mullet immediately distinguish him from the conservative close-crops of all the slack-faced tech bros, but he was wearing a suit jacket festooned with high-contrast hearts and sunglasses with piano-key frames. At his side was his signature airbrushed megaphone.
Few in pro wrestling history have had less need for a megaphone — his distinctively shrill voice could cut through the noise of a jet engine — but Jimmy Hart's never been subtle. Why settle for annoying fans in just the first 50 rows when a little amplification could let you hector the entire arena?
Hart's life has been a showbiz fairy tale. Right out of high school, his band The Gentrys had a million-selling record, "Keep on Dancing." After years of playing and touring with the band, Hart joined his high-school friend Jerry Lawler in Memphis Wrestling, beginning a second, much longer career as a pro wrestling manager.
It was in pro wrestling, including a long stint with WWE, where Hart became notorious as a manic, mile-a-minute motormouth whose relatively slight stature often contrasted with the gigantic beasts he represented in interviews and at ringside. He managed Greg "The Hammer" Valentine at WrestleMania I, was involved in three separate matches in WrestleMania III, and played a key role in many other famous pro wrestling feuds and moments. Just before Mardi Gras, he was in town to promote tickets going on sale for WrestleMania Axxess, the WWE fan experience that will run April 5-8 during WrestleMania weekend.
Wherever Hart goes, he draws a crowd. Two hotel guests recognized Hart from his days in Memphis, and sat in on the interview, at one point treating both Hart and me to lovely cappuccinos — not that Hart seemed undercaffeinated.
Gambit: As a manager of bad-guy wrestlers, you were the focal point of so much fan hatred. Did you ever worry about getting people so worked up?
Hart: Not really! Sure, the crowds were very vocal in Memphis. It was the same here in New Orleans and most of the other Southern cities. People booed, threw a little beer now and then, a little gum in your hair every now and then. A good manager always carries a jar of peanut butter. If you get gum in your hair, you can take the peanut butter, roll it around in it, and get the gum out without having to cut your hair.
Among your many accolades, you've won a couple of Wrestling Observer awards for Best Interview. How have interviews in the WWE changed?
Well it's a lot different now, because you have writers; the writers write the things that you're gonna say. When you've got 200-something wrestlers going, you've got to stay on track and the writers have the vision of where the programs need to go. In my day we were fortunate enough to be cut loose and ad lib and I think when things come from your heart it's a little bit different.
Back in Memphis there was no guaranteed money; what you drew in [non-televised] house shows was the percentage you made. So whatever you did on TV, you had to convince the people that was really your deal. So if we were fighting Jerry "The King" Lawler and I was managing the late great Andy Kaufman, we had to make sure the people who were watching that TV wanted to go buy that ticket.
What was Kaufman like to work with?
He was phe-nom-enal. He loved professional wrestling; his favorite wrestler was the Nature Boy Buddy Rogers. He also loved going by Elvis' house; after every Monday when the matches were over we had to go drive by Elvis' house out in Graceland — we'd go by and just look at the fence. That was our ritual. He loved the Elvis character.
He was an kind of odd cat, though, right?
Well, he was into yoga before anyone knew what yoga was. That was one thing. Oh my gosh — he would sit and meditate every night before the matches. I'd never seen that. I was like, what the heck is this?
This April will be your second WrestleMania in New Orleans; did you get to see much of the city last time outside Axxess and other fan commitments?
I did find a chance to sneak out of the hotel back in 2014. I went into a record shop on one of the side streets here and you know what I found? An old Gentrys album, in mint condition. That was a huge thrill for me!
What are you looking forward to this year?
I always look forward to the Hall of Fame — this year will be Goldberg, the Dudley Boys, and they'll be announcing more names in the weeks to come... but I really like Axxess. It gives the fans a chance to meet and talk to us, and and there's always so many celebrities— past, present and future. I love the atmosphere, the excitement of it. I'll be there, you've got Sgt. Slaughter and Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat, and then you turn around over here you've got Sasha Banks and Asuka — you go to another stage and there's John Cena! You've got the NXT matches too; you get to see these up-and-coming young superstars who'll be on Raw and Smackdown in the near future. And exhibits and memorabilia — they got the Andre the Giant statue there, one year we had all these muscle cars from John Cena's collection — one year they had the Jimmy Hart jackets! It's different every year; you never know what they're going to bring in.
Oh! If the Undertaker does come back ... I love watching Shinsuke Nakamura, love his matches. He's so talented, I'd love to see those two — but I think I want a rematch between Undertaker and Roman Reigns.
There's so many things. I'd also love to see Braun Strowman go one-on-one, no disqualification, anything goes against Brock Lesnar!
I loved the Royal Rumble — it had a few little twists and turns, which was great. I loved the ladies. Also I loved on the Monday night after it seeing Asuka wrestle Sasha Banks. A tremendous match! I am such a fan of both of them, oh my gosh. I thought Sasha broke her neck when she dove through the ropes and caught her foot and went down like a torpedo. But I loved that match, it still stands out to me. The girls work so hard and I'm so glad they're getting a chance to get the credit they really really deserve.
Looking at Asuka and Shinsuke Nakamura, the winners of the women's and men's rumble matches, neither of them speak a lot of English. I feel like back in the day they would have had managers.
You know, they probably would — but now with social media, you can get the word out without having to say too much about anything. The other night they interviewed Shinsuke and it was just — "Who you wanna fight?" "A. J. Styles." That was all he needed to say, and that was it! Case closed!
Interviews the way they used to do them maybe aren't as important. I'm really big on facial expressions, and Asuka's got the best facial expressions of anybody. She tells a story with her face; I love her. I love Alexa Bliss' facial expressions; they're great. And Kurt Angle, his reactions to things.
Is there someone on the current roster you'd particularly love to manage?
That guy with the guitar, Elias... He's kind of a cross between Honky Tonk Man & Randy Savage. I'd love to get him out of those blue jeans and t-shirts... Elias! Dick Clark told me something one time, baby — if you dress like the audience, you gonna wind up in the audience. And buddy, you only got one foot from the audience! Look at the way you're dressed. I'm taking you to Memphis, Tennessee, I'm taking you to my personal tailor at Lansky over on Beale Street where Elvis used to go, I'm gonna get you a jumpsuit, put you in Sun Recording Studios, I'm gonna make you a star, baby!
You have such a big personality; how do you avoid eclipsing the wrestler you're representing?
You know I've had 23, 24 different wrestlers in the WWE, and every one of them was different — and that made me different too. I'd adapt to them. I'd change my outfit, even my jacket colors.
I think it's about having freedom to be yourself and being smart enough to realize that your man is really the one who makes the money, so you don't wanna overshadow him. Whoever you're with, make sure the fans realize — I'm the hood ornament on the Cadillac, and the wrestler's the Cadillac. That's the way I've always done my stuff.
It's been 13 years since you were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame; what's your life like these days?
I love this business. I wish WWE would use me more — but you know I stay busy, I have a beach bar in Daytona [Beach, Florida] I run, Jimmy Hart's Hall of Fame Bar and Tiki Deck. On Monday Nights we watch RAW, Tuesday nights we watch Smackdown, once a month we have the pay-per-view — absolutely free, by the way, free popcorn too — and that helps me keep up with what the young talent's doing and who's got what belts and who's wrestling who.
And you see I still wear the crazy jackets, still carry the megaphone, I make sure Jimmy Hart's hair still looks the same with the Paul Mitchell freeze and shine — it can take a pile driver and still bounce back up — because people expect it.
One night [The Gentrys] were on the tour with the Beach Boys and Sonny & Cher and everybody was in a big room and Dick Clark came in, and he said to us, "Look, guys, every night you're not gonna feel great. But when you're on that stage, give the people their money's worth." All of this is just me being me, and I think that's what's made me last this many years .
That was my next question. You're so high-energy, but there had to have been days or evenings where you weren't feeling it. On a day where you just feel bad, how do you go out there and be Jimmy Hart for all those people?
I know that I've been blessed. I've been so blessed. I look in the mirror every day and pinch myself and say: Did I really get paid for doing this my whole life?
I've never had a plan. I was in high school, we had the hit record, I was on tour with Dick Clark; I didn't know what I was gonna do after that. Then all of a sudden I meet Jerry Lawler, we went to school together at Treadwell, all of a sudden I'm managing him at ringside. No plan, I didn't know what I was gonna do after that.
Six years later, I get the magic phone call from WWE, and all of a sudden I'm going to New York City! No plan for that. No plan to have a beach bar in Daytona, Florida, no plan to come down here and do WrestleMania 34 — I've been so lucky. So even when I feel bad, I really don't feel bad.
I mean, look, here I am in New Orleans! You know how many people would love to go to New Orleans? On Saturday night I'll be in New York City. How many people would love to go to New York? It's just crazy how all of this has evolved. And you know, for me to even be a small part of that, I've been so blessed.
Besides being a manager, you also wrote the entrance themes for a lot of big WWE stars. That "Sexy Boy" theme for Sean Michaels became so associated with him, and through all the changes he went through over the years, shifts in attitude and persona, he kept that song. He still uses it today. Why has it worked for so many decades?
I just think it fit his character. Him talking about himself — I think I'm cool, I know I'm sexy— and then we had the hook that everybody could sing along to. You know, sometimes the simplest songs are the ones that get the most airplay and make the most money. And Sean wasn't just great in the ring, he was a great entertainer, a great showman. So it worked for who he really was.
When me and my friend John McGuire were lucky enough to be able to do some of the themes back then, I was able to take Sean Michaels into the studio and put his voice on the track. To take Ted DiBiase for the Million Dollar Man song and use his voice — and that laugh. To take Hawk from the Road Warriors, to get him in the truck right there on location and have him go "Waargggghhhhh... What a rush!" I always liked having the wrestler's own voice, their words on the song.
Thanks so much for all your time, Mr. Hart. As we wrap up, can you share one key that you think really got the audiences to hate you?
Being uptempo and feisty. When I used to go to the football games and my team would lose, to see the other fans jumping around going "Yeah yeah yeah!" — it'd just make me so mad. So when I got in the wrestling business I made sure when my guys won to rub it in everyone's face.
So if Honky Tonk [Man] won, I'd run laps around the ring. If [King Kong] Bundy won I'd jump in his arms. I've never liked the characters who when they win just go "Ehh, we won. We knew we were gonna win." That didn't get the heat. I liked running around the ring, jumping in the wrestler's arms and going "YES, we WON! I TOLD you we'd win! I told you, baby!"
— Tickets to WrestleMania Axxess are available through Ticketmaster. For the full Axxess schedule including autograph opportunities, click here.