MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Rock N Roll and Midnight Express: Three decades of greatness
It’s been 30 years since two of the greatest teams in the history of professional wrestling first embarked on a journey that would be fondly remembered three decades later by a generation of fans.
Those two teams will be honored at the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest on Aug. 1-4 in Charlotte.
The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson) and The Midnight Express (Bobby Eaton, Dennis Condrey and Stan Lane), along with manager Jim Cornette, will be inducted into the Hall of Heroes during that weekend. Lane, who took Condrey’s place in the Midnight Express for a four-year-period, will be unable to attend due to a prior commitment.
Cornette also will be hosting a midnight Q&A session titled “Cornette: Unplugged and Uncensored,” with all five taking part in a “Mid-Atlantic Memories” documentary project.
And you can bet your bottom dollar that Cornette will be wielding his signature “Louisville Slugger” tennis racket.
It’s the same racket that the outspoken manager used to swat Morton and Gibson with more times than he can remember.
Cornette figures the two teams locked horns on several hundred occasions, and that’s probably the number of times he whacked his team’s archrivals over their heads.
“I don’t know that there might have been a match where I didn’t slap one of them with the racket,” he laughs.
The opinionated but entertaining Cornette, who has taken time off from the wrestling business since last November, will be making his only wrestling-related appearance of the year at Fanfest. He says he’ll give an amusing account of when “I finally realized I needed to get away from the wrestling business for my own health and sanity.”
It promises to be an event that very well could be remembered for another 30 years.
“I’m really looking forward to this. Being inducted is a great honor,” says Gibson.
“It’s a chance for us to give back to the fans. We’ve always put the fans No. 1. It’s good to come back and see old friends where grudges are forgotten.”
“I love the fans,” says Morton. “That’s what I like so much about Fanfest. People come from all over ... even different countries. It’s a great event.”
The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express and Midnight Express collectively held more than a hundred tag-team titles and can legitimately lay claim to one of the greatest and longest-running feuds in pro wrestling history.
“What makes this so special is that we’re the first tag team in history to go this far,” says Gibson.
Cornette says it would be difficult for fans to ever forget The Midnight Express.
“The crowds were so big at that time, that if anybody is going to remember anything, they’re going to remember that. The matches also always delivered. Nobody ever went and saw The Midnight Express and thought their match was bad.”
Just what makes a group of performers so beloved (and others once so hated) all these years later?
If you’re a longtime fan, and particularly a follower of the popular Mid-Atlantic variety, you can probably still remember the pulsating chant that reverberated off the walls of every building where Mid-Atlantic wrestling was held during the ‘80s.
“Rock and Roll! Rock and Roll! Rock and Roll!”
Fans still chant their names.
It became an anthem for one of the most popular teams of that era.
Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson were The Beatles of the wrestling scene as they combined sex appeal with high energy and talent in the ring.
Thirty years later, their hair is thinner and those adoring teenybopper fans have children of their own, but Morton and Gibson are still entertaining wrestling crowds and keeping the memories alive.
“I can still perform as good as I did years ago. If I couldn’t perform, I wouldn’t do it,” says Morton, 56, who still proudly sports his familiar blond mullet. He even has a shirt in his collection with “MWO” (Mullet World Order) emblazoned on it.
“I’ve had my share of injuries, but nothing I couldn’t recover from. But you never know what tomorrow brings. I’m not a bodybuilder. I’ve got a little belly. And I gave up my modeling career years ago,” he laughs.
Gibson, 54, also sees no end to their 30-year run — the longest continuous tag-team run in wrestling history.
“Age is just a number. It’s how you keep yourself in shape that counts,” he says.
They still remember how the business was when they first started teaming in 1983.
“Everywhere we went we drew money and broke records,” says Gibson. “(Rock ‘N’ Roll vs. Midnight Express) was the longest feud in history. It was amazing.”
Gibson recalls the night he and Morton pulled up to the front door of an arena in Lafayette, La., where the two were wrestling that night. A news station was on hand, and a reporter asked them who they were.
A puzzled Gibson asked the newsman what he meant by the question. The reporter informed Gibson that fans had been camping out for days trying to score tickets, and he merely wanted to know what this phenomenon was all about.
Gibson answered simply: “We’re Ricky and Robert ... The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express.”
Rock ‘N’ Roll craze
The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express phenomenon started in Memphis in 1983 when promoter Jerry Lawler, looking for a young babyface tag team, paired up Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson.
Morton had been working in San Antonio for promoter Joe Blanchard, while Gibson was working in Pensacola for promoters Ron and Robert Fuller.
The R&R Express (standing for Ricky and Robert) was considered as a name for the new team before it eventually evolved to The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express. The new moniker, says Morton, was a collaborative effort between Lawler and Jimmy Hart, who helped produce the team’s first music video, Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
“They were friends, and Jimmy was into the rock and roll. Lawler put us together, and Jimmy Hart really came up with the name. It worked out great for us.”
Their first arena show as The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express was on March 13, 1983, at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis.
Their second bout the following week was against The Galaxians (Danny Davis and Ken Wayne), a masked team managed by, no less, a young James E. Cornette.
“Their first program was against a team managed by me,” says Cornette. “It was actually the best team I ever managed besides The Midnight because Danny Davis and Ken Wayne were incredible as a team.”
“I remember the first day we did this,” says Morton. “We really weren’t prepared ... we didn’t even know what kind of outfits to wear.”
Lawler had a pair of skin-colored tights that he suggested for Gibson.
“He looked like he was naked,” laughs Morton. “But then we went to a flea market behind Mid-South Coliseum and bought some bandanas, feathers, all kinds of stuff.”
For Morton, a conventional wrestler who wasn’t accustomed to a lot of bells and whistles, there was a definite feeling of uneasiness sporting the new rocker getup.
“I was kind of embarrassed. I was used to wearing regular wrestling stuff. But when they played our music, we went out and those people instantly bought it. The fans went crazy.”
That is, adds Morton, all but one.
“One of the fans stopped me out back and said, ‘Hell, I didn’t know whether y’all were Indians or Gypsies,” laughs Morton. “But from there we smoothed out all the rough edges.”
The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express was a spinoff of another successful Memphis-based team, The Fabulous Ones (Stan Lane and Steve Keirn), who had been a takeoff on the Fabulous Fargos team from a previous generation. That team had set the Jerry Jarrett promotion on fire, drawing the biggest crowds that area had ever seen.
Lane, who years later would join Cornette’s Midnight Express, had been a heel in Tennessee where he was managed by Jimmy Hart, but turned babyface in 1982 and was billed as the protégé of area legend Jackie Fargo.
With Fargo’s endorsement, Lane and Keirn dubbed themselves The Fabulous Ones.
“Stan Lane and Steve Keirn were great workers, but they were in the footsteps of Jackie Fargo.
And they got the push. Robert and I were playing second fiddle,” says Morton.
Enter Mid-South promoter Cowboy Bill Watts.
Watts and booker Bill Dundee brought Morton and Gibson to the sprawling Louisiana-based circuit.
The team immediately popped the territory.
“We were selling out every night,” says Morton.
But, he adds, they needed a strong heel team to get them over.
They made fans take notice when they defeated the much larger duo of Nikolai Volkoff and Krusher Khruschev (Barry Darsow).
But Watts had bigger plans for the popular pair.
Virtually untested as a team when they arrived in Watts’ territory in 1984, Morton and Gibson became a main-event act as crowds picked up to see them do battle with a team they would forever be linked with — Cornette’s Midnight Express.
With Cornette’s early Midnight version consisting of “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton and “Loverboy” Dennis Condrey, a well-oiled team made even better by Cornette’s natural ability to infuriate fans, Morton and Gibson found the perfect opponents.
Cornette and his team had arrived in the territory shortly before Morton and Gibson, and were beating opponents on a nightly basis.
The two teams were no strangers.
“I had worked with Dennis and Bobby all my life,” says Morton. “Dennis had been with Norvell Austin and Randy Rose. And then he and Phil Hickerson were partners. Bobby and Dennis were both great workers. We had been around each other for years.”
The Mid-South territory became unglued when the two “Express” teams first locked horns.
“It went to a whole new level. The time we were there Bill Watts made more money than he ever did while owning his territory,” says Morton.
“Watts had never used smaller guys. But we were pushed. There were such great workers at that time. Everybody knew how to do their job and they knew how to get us over. It worked out great.”
Few teams, though, had as much chemistry working together as Rock ‘N’ Roll and Midnight.
“It was The Express vs. The Express. Plus, Jimmy Cornette was one of the greatest interviews ever,” says Morton. “Every wrestling fan in the world hated him. He did his job so well. It was just something that clicked and clicked ... not only during the Bill Watts era, but all the time after. I loved it there. It gave us so much experience before we went into the Carolinas.”
A famous series of scaffold matches between the two teams in November 1984 literally took the action to new heights.
For Morton, the experience was nothing short of terrifying.
“If you watch tapes of those matches, you can see that I’m just trying to hold on. It was an experience that I wouldn’t recommend. And I’m scared of heights. I wouldn’t even get on top of my house.”
“We didn’t do the thing where you took the big bumps off the scaffold,” he adds. “We just did the thing where you’d drop and land on your feet .... because at the time bumps like that were unheard of.”
While admitting it was “very scary,” Gibson says he was much more relaxed on the scaffold than his partner.
“I was more or less the crazy one out there. I was jumping around. Thank God I never got hurt up there. Everybody else was like a cat trying to get a grip of everything.”
“You get on top of that and it’s unbelievable,” adds Morton. “It was so high. But we got through it and we got over it. Every time we had that scaffold match we sold out. I gave it the best I could.”
For Cornette, the scaffold matches were the “lowlights” of their program.
“You can’t do much in a scaffold match. I couldn’t really have any involvement so it wasn’t that much fun for me.”
It wasn’t any fun for Cornette two years later, either, when he suffered a serious knee injury after falling from the edge of a 20-foot-high scaffold at the “Night of the Skywalkers” event at Starrcade ‘86.
Cornette made the mistake of landing with his legs locked and extended, and his bodyguard, Big Bubba Rogers, was out of position to catch the manager in mid-air and prevent any damage.
He still has knee problems to this day.
Cornette says it didn’t get any bigger than, as a 22-year-old, working main events in Houston and at the Superdome in New Orleans.
“I loved Houston. Those fans would go ballistic. We had a six-man one night with The Rock ‘N’ Roll and Jim Duggan against The Midnights and Ernie Ladd. The people were crazy off the charts. I was 22 years old and worked four times in the Superdome in the main event that year in front of a combined total of more than 65,000 people. It was so big that we had to take a golf cart to the ring.”
But working that area also had it dangerous drawbacks, says Cornette.
“The fans in Lake Charles, La., were crazy. The Freebirds would get their tires cut, so they started driving to the police station and having the police bring them to the show. The fans then cut the tires on the police car that brought The Freebirds.
“They put Drano in water guns and tried to squirt (Skandor) Akbar in the eyes. We’d have a dozen cops circle us in a flying wedge and walk us to and from the ring, so fans had to get inventive to get at people. They shot glue into the keyholes of our cars. They lipsticked the headlights. If I was by myself and not traveling with the boys, I’d do drive-throughs. I wouldn’t even get out of the car.”
One night while driving down the interstate out of Lake Charles, says Cornette, fans tried to run them off the road.
“There were three lanes. We’re in Dennis’ van and he’s driving. Two cars full of Cajuns come up on either side of us. Dennis pulled out the biggest handgun I’d ever seen from under the seat and just held it up in front of his face, and those cars hit the brakes, and we were gone.”
World tag-team champs
As quickly as they achieved success in the Mid-South territory, it was even quicker when promoter Jim Crockett scooped The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express up the following year and they arrived in the Mid-Atlantic area.
In an auspicious debut, to say the least, Morton and Gibson won the highly coveted NWA world tag-team title their first night in by defeating Ivan Koloff and Krusher Khruschev in June 1985 at a TV taping in Shelby, N.C.
“We were still working in Louisiana when they brought us in,” says Morton. “We gave our notice there and came in and did their TV on a Tuesday night in Shelby. We won the world belts and the next morning went back to Louisiana. We wrestled there for two weeks and then came back to North Carolina.”
Outsized by most of their opponents, the heartthrob duo made up for any lack of bulk by featuring non-stop, precision-like teamwork in the ring. And with youthful good looks and featured in snappy music videos produced by Watts’ son, Joel, Morton and Gibson were babyfaces of the first order.
“Nicky (Nikita Koloff), Krusher (Khruschev) and Ivan (Koloff) had beaten everybody. They had beaten Dusty and Magnum T.A., Dusty and Manny Fernandez, they beat everybody,” says Morton. “We came in as All-American kids, and the match went nearly 58 minutes of the TV time. We beat them at the end. And it just exploded.”
Just like in Mid-South, it was the same result in the Carolinas. The towns continued to sell out.
Over the course of a career, The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express would hold dozens of regional and world tag-team titles.
It was that first world tag-team title victory, however, that Morton cherishes the most.
“That was a big deal. Winning that first world tag-team title was the greatest of all.”