New Solie book reveals man behind the mic
As a pro wrestling announcer, Gordon Solie was without equal.
He was the Walter Cronkite of his profession, the great communicator of his generation.
No less than Jim Ross, widely considered the best mat announcer of the past 25 years, has touted Solie as the greatest ever.
“Gordon is and will always be the No. 1 announcer ever in the business, while the rest of us yahoos are simply playing for second,” says the WWE Hall of Famer.
Pam and Bob Allyn, Solie’s daughter and son-in-law, provide an up-close and personal look at the man behind the mic in “The Solie Chronicles.” It’s their second book on Solie since the legendary announcer’s death in 2000 at the age of 71. Their first offering, 2005’s “Gordon Solie ... Something Left Behind,’’ was largely a compilation of his short stories and poetry.
This book, however, delves into Solie’s illustrious career in the wrestling business, and his sometimes painful life outside it. To the credit of the authors, they didn’t shy away from describing his frailties and shortcomings, thereby giving the readers an honest look at a man held in such high esteem in the industry.
The book also devotes its share of space to his involvement in the auto racing business, an equally enjoyable vocation for Solie, who called stock car action on Florida’s Suncoast during the 1950s and 1960s, and was even involved in track ownership and national auto thrill show tours.
His call of pro wrestling, obviously, had to come from another approach. It was his innate ability to make people believe that made him such an effective broadcaster.
Solie, born Jonard Frank Labiak in Minnesota before legally changing his name years later, sold pro wrestling as legitimate athletic competition. He also popularized a number of expressions that became part of the pro wrestling lexicon, most notably “crimson mask,” referring to the visage of a bloody grappler. He produced trademark calls every Saturday afternoon on Championship Wrestling From Florida, and his signature “So long from the Sunshine State” sign-off, always delivered with a wink and a smile, is still fondly remembered to this day.
When Gordon Solie talked, people listened. Especially wrestling fans, a generation of which were weaned on Solie’s unique call of the action inside the ring and unparalleled commentary on the business.
His distinctive voice, which he once described as “sixteen pounds of gravel” (the result of a steady diet of vodka and Benson and Hedges), automatically gave career boosts to hundreds of performers, including The Funks, The Briscos, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Mr. Wrestling No. 1 and 2, Tommy Rich, Ole Anderson, Thunderbolt Patterson, Roddy Piper and Don Muraco.
The Allyns, aided by wrestling historian Scott Teal, went through literally thousands of personal notes and documents in compiling bits and pieces of Solie’s career and weaving the material into a highly enjoyable read.
“It was labor-intensive to put the pieces of Gordon’s life together,” says Bob Allyn. “He kept brief notes and articles, but the other parts of the puzzle went to his grave with him. I remember one article in particular that took six years to document because it had no date and no one else knew anything about it. I suppose that the biggest surprise (about writing the book) was how far I had to dig to get information about a man who was so well known.”
There were reasons, though, why Solie rarely let his guard up around friends and even family. Intensely private about his personal life, Solie had a tumultuous childhood, and he went through a bitter, family-splitting divorce from his first wife at a young age.
Daughter Pam, a casualty of that divorce, recalls going from “Daddy’s little girl” to a “Sunday visitation.” But she would never lose the closeness of that relationship and, ironically, would share a special relationship while caring for her father the last two years of his life, a period Solie described as “bittersweet,” one in which the two would become friends on an adult level.
Bob Allyn, her husband of 38 years, didn’t even meet his wife’s father until their honeymoon.
“When Pam and I were married, Gordon was invited to our wedding but did not or could not make the trip from Florida to Illinois at the time. Prior to our honeymoon, Gordon and Smoky (Solie’s second wife) had agreed to keep his children from his first marriage (Pam and Jonard) as a secret from Smoky’s children and the folks in Tampa. When Pam and I showed up in Florida, that secret came to an abrupt end. Gordon, nonetheless, heartily welcomed us and treated us well during our stay in Florida.”
Taking advice from an old friend of Solie, Pam Allyn mixed the “good with the bad” in writing the book, shining a light on her dad’s strengths and his weaknesses, and offering a vivid account and a fair portrayal.
Solie had his share of flaws, although they rarely showed in his work. He was a chain smoker and a heavy drinker — a combination that would eventually prove to be lethal.
But he also was a man dedicated to his craft, one who made his mark in many endeavors, and who eventually became the best professional wrestling broadcaster in history.
Conspicuously absent are the salacious, behind-the-scenes wrestling stories so often found in similar books. But there’s a reason. Solie, somewhat surprisingly, was often kept out of the creative loop, and wasn’t privy to the backstage machinations. It tended to make his announcing more spontaneous.
Still, says his daughter, it bothered him when he sometimes would be treated like talent rather than part of the office.
“There were definitely times when he didn’t like being kept out of the business loop, especially later in his career when wrestling became a corporate entity,” says Pam Allyn. “His genius was calling the match as he and the audience saw it. It was not canned ... it was a superhero comic strip come to life and Dad wasn’t just a narrator, he was the master in telling a story that he never tired of.”
Solie, who announced an estimated 25,000 wrestling matches during his career, was a perfectionist and, according to his daughter, never knew just how good he was.
“He didn’t realize just how good he was behind the mic. He always believed there were improvements to be made. Many times he would tell me, ‘If you are going to do a job, for God’s sake, do it right.’ Part of that extends from his relationship with Grandpa Pierre. Dad never felt he could measure up to Grandpa Pierre’s standards ... perfection. I have a tape of Dad making a commercial for a local Tampa Bay car dealership where I thought the first run sounded flawless. Apparently it was not to Dad’s liking as he repeated and repeated the 30-second spot until every word was clear with just the right inflection. He never thought he was worthy of all the accolades.
One of the most pleasurable things about writing the book, says Bob Allyn, were the many interviews he conducted with some of the people who knew Solie best.
“It was a pleasant experience to work with Scott Teal and my wife, Pam, but the highlight was the interview process. Over the years, I have been fortunate to develop a casual but good rapport with legends like Harley Race, Dory Funk Jr. and Jim Ross, just to name a few. With hardly any exceptions, the people that worked with Gordon in both stock car racing and professional wrestling held him in high esteem for his contributions as an announcer and a promoter. Many of them were thankful that Gordon helped their careers, while others also valued him as a personal friend.”
Solie called matches involving many of the greatest performers in the history of the profession. Like Jim Ross today, Solie’s voice added a sense of history to those bouts.
“In the early days, Gordon loved to call the action for the matches between Hiro Matsuda and Danny Hodge along with the Jack Brisco-Dory Funk Jr. bouts,” says Bob Allyn .”He was a fan of The Great Malenko as well. Later on, Gordon was impressed by the showmanship of Ric Flair, and he praised Bret Hart and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.”
The weekly Championship Wrestling From Florida show was must-see TV in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Solie’s deadpan delivery and concise commentary was a big reason for its popularity. And his underplayed style of selling wrestling, in stark contrast to the bombastic presentation commonly used today, earned him respect as a legitimate broadcaster, even if it was pro wrestling that he was calling.
Solie was far from loud and bombastic. He dressed sharply, had a rich vocabulary and gave his audience an anatomy lesson week in and week out, expertly describing the parts of the body that were affected during a bout. Wrestling matches were, as Solie would adroitly say, “human chess at its finest.”
Generations of fans grew up listening to his voice. His catch-phrase “Solie-isms,” as they became known, were imitated by generations of wrestlers. “He’d fight a buzz saw and give it the first two rounds,” he was wont to say.
Solie always made sure that it wasn’t about him. It was about the wrestlers. But there was never any doubt that he was the man who guided the train.
The Minnesota-born Solie later became the voice of Georgia Championship Wrestling on Ted Turner’s SuperStation when it became the highest-rated show on cable television in the early ‘80s. He joined World Championship Wrestling in 1989 where he did play-by-play on several of its syndicated programs and offered color analysis alongside Ross on the nationally broadcast programs on TBS.
Two important figures in the book, and influential in Solie’s long and successful run, were Eddie Graham and “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
Graham (Eddie Gossett), who wrestled, booked and later owned the Florida wrestling territory from 1960 until his suicide in 1985, played a pivotal role in Solie’s career. The two, along with original owner and promoter C.P. “Cowboy” Luttrell, may have been the most influential forces in the success of Championship Wrestling From Florida.
Pam Allyn says her father enjoyed a close relationship with Graham going back many years.
“They were a part of a banded brotherhood going back to the early ‘50s. Dad never had a brother and Eddie was, in many cases, that brother. Together they were in a league of their own as a powerhouse duo promoting their passion — old school wrestling. Dad was deeply distressed by Eddie’s early death and extremely reluctant to talk about it.”
“Gordon said Eddie was one of the smartest guys he ever met,” adds Bob Allyn. “Eddie also was street-smart. He wasn’t like a (Jim) Barnett who was well-groomed and well-educated.”
Solie also enjoyed success with Rhodes (Virgil Runnels Jr.).
“When Gordon was announcing and Dusty was wrestling, their relationship was great,” says Bob Allyn. “Gordon was amazed at the appeal that Dusty had with the fans. He always touted Dusty’s charisma, and Gordon even proudly stated that together, they could pack any house in Florida. They had a lot of great times both in and out of the business.
“Later on, Dusty’s roles changed when he came back to CWF as a booker for Crockett and then even later, he was a principal owner in a new venture (PWF). Both ventures failed and Gordon did harbor some resentment toward Dusty because of the demise of professional wrestling in Florida.”
Solie, as well loved as he was in the business, could be a man of extremes and admittedly had his share of detractors and his share of heat with various individuals. He excessive drinking often exacerbated those situations.
“He actually quit for a couple months in the ‘70s,” recalls his son-in-law. “But they were short intervals. From what I understand, people encouraged him to start drinking again after dealing with him after not having drank for some time,” Allyn says half-jokingly. “But you just accepted him. I loved Gordon either way. When you’re close to someone, you have to take their weaknesses with their strengths. And he had so many good points. He was a cool guy. He was highly intelligent and he was fun, but there were those rare moments when you’d say the wrong thing, and he’d rip you a new one.”
“Gordon and I didn’t talk for two years once,” adds Allyn. “We exchanged some words, and we didn’t talk for two years after that.” The two eventually mended fences. It was “water over the dam,” Gordon would later tell his son-in-law, saying everything was OK because he had never seen his daughter happier.
Former Olympian and pro wrestling star Bob Roop says the character Solie portrayed on camera —a warm, avuncular, caring individual who was very likable and respectable — wasn’t the same person off camera.
Roop also claims in the book that Solie once told him that he never received a pay raise during his long tenure working for Graham and Championship Wrestling From Florida.
“I have no way to verify that claim,” says Bob Allyn. “Pam, Scott Teal and I all had a hard time believing that statement from the Bob Roop interview.”
“Gordon loved to study human behavior and, accordingly, he occasionally baited people just to observe their reactions,” says Allyn. “There were many times when I saw him lead people on during a conversation. Some people figured out that he was just messing with them, but other times people had no clue. Gordon Solie was that convincing. As you know, he was a master storyteller.”
Allyn also believes that Roop may have caught Solie at particularly trying points in his life — in the wake of “Black Saturday” when Vince McMahon and his World Wrestling Federation took over the Saturday night time slot on SuperStation WTBS that had been home to Georgia Championship Wrestling and its flagship weekly program. Weeks later, however, Solie was back on the station as lead announcer for a new Championship From Georgia show headed by Ole Anderson.
“Then he caught Gordon in the late ‘80s after all the Florida wrestling things were falling part. Gordon was not in good humor,” says Allyn.
Allyn admits that he didn’t especially like being around his father-in-law during that period.
“He could be a pain in the butt. He was mad. He was frustrated. Global didn’t work out. FCW was falling apart. Back in ’84, not only did he go through Black Saturday, but Eddie (Graham) also died shortly after. Gordon’s life changed drastically. And he took things personally when things weren’t going well.”
Roop admits it was only hearsay in that Solie told him he never got a pay raise. And the revelation came only after sharing some drinks.
“When I was booking CWF for the last time in 1986-87, Gordon and I used to work together on the TV,” says Roop. “It was only logical for me to seek advice and input from a guy with his experience. I usually had a bottle of rum in my desk drawer, and Gordon and I would work on TV for a while and, once done, have a few. It was during these drinking sessions that he would talk about his personal feelings. Eddie Graham was long gone by this time, with Duke Keomuka and Hiro Matsuda the only members of the original ownership still present.”
Roop claims Solie would become bitter during some of these sessions.
“His main complaint was that the entire time he worked there, they never treated him like he was smart to the business, but like a mark when talking in his presence. I don’t blame him for being sore about this kind of treatment, but wonder why he didn’t say something about it to Graham or (in later years) Jim Barnett during all that time. My suspicion for motive ties in with his second major beef, which he told me several times, that of never getting a raise during all his years of doing the show. One logical reason to keep him as a mark was to remind him that, in Graham’s eyes, he was merely an employee, not a member of the inner circle. If they had treated him as a colleague, it’s only logical they would have had to adjust his pay accordingly.”
Roop believes Graham may have used Solie’s widespread TV exposure as an excuse not to pay him more.
There was little doubt, however, that the impact they made on pro wrestling in the state of Florida was immeasurable, not only through pro wrestling, but also the many charitable organizations they helped.
And no one can dispute the fact that for many years Solie’s voice defined pro wrestling.
Solie’s final years were far from the ending he had envisioned. His voice gradually became drowned out by the growing theatrical nature of sports entertainment. There was no longer any room at the microphone for a voice of reason.
Solie stayed in the business until 1995, but his departure was not a happy one. Wrestling had changed. It had gone corporate. It was no longer enjoyable.
Some friends confided that Solie unofficially “gave up” after his wife, Eileen “Smoky” Solie, passed away in 1997.
“When she died, he just didn’t give a darn anymore,” said Don Curtis, a longtime associate of Solie who died last year at the age of 80. “He would talk about how he wanted to be with his wife. I guess he wanted to be in heaven with her.”
“I think Gordon’s grief and bitterness about Smoky’s death was normal behavior for a man who lost his spouse after 37 years of marriage,” says Bob Allyn. “What threw him back was the mere fact that she preceded him in death; Gordon never expected to outlive Smoky.”
Solie, who already had lung and liver problems brought on by years of heavy smoking and drinking, was diagnosed with cancer soon after his retirement, and in the late ‘90s his vocal chords were removed due to throat cancer. It seemed like a cruel twist of fate when Solie, who for years entertained fans with his smooth, even-handed delivery, was fitted with an artificial voice box, his golden voice now a raspy whisper. The cancer that robbed him of his voice spread to his brain. In July 2000, the man affectionately known as “the dean of pro wrestling announcers” finally succumbed to cancer at the age of 71, leaving behind five children and generations of fans.
Quite simply, Gordon Solie created a trust between himself and the audience, and he never broke that trust.
His daughter says her dad would have liked the book.
“I believe he would say, ‘Well done, Babe, but you left out this and that story.’ He would agree with Tom McEwen with telling the good with the bad, and Dad would be delighted to know more about his ancestors. He would have been much harder on himself than we were.”
“She obviously had some mixed emotions about some of the things she put in there about her dad,” says Bob Allyn. “But we could never see writing a biography without writing it like a truthful story.”
His propensity for drinking wasn’t really a secret to his friends in or outside the business.
“If they knew him they did (know about it),” says Allyn. “Whenever I asked someone if they had any good Gordon anecdotes, they started talking about some drinking story.”
Allyn recalls asking an old Florida hand how Solie could drink like that and still maintain his job.
“He was Gordon Solie and he could get away with it,” replied the old-timer.
His longtime friend Tom McEwen, retired sports editor for the Tampa Tribune, called Solie the last of the three martini, half a pack of cigarettes, lunch men. They both agreed that Solie, in addition to the various wrestling halls of fame, should have been in the Popov vodka Hall of Fame and the Benson and Hedges shrine.
But those decisions were his, he would admit, and no one else’s, and he took full responsibility. “Blame me, if you must,” he once told a friend.
In the end, as Gordon penned in a farewell message, all grudges were a thing of the past and totally insignificant. in the final analysis. He had lived a full and satisfying life that some only dream of fulfilling.
And, of course, one final sign-off for the road.
“So long ... from the Sunshine State.”
Gordon Solie’s happiest time, says his daughter, was simply “speaking into a microphone.”
“All you had to do was give him a microphone and let him loose,” says Bob Allyn. “He was in another world with the mic. He was happy. If he could have been on the mic 24 hours a day, he would have been the happiest man in the world.”
For more information or to purchase “The Solie Chronicles” ($19.95; Crowbar Press), visit www.crowbarpress.com.
- I’ll be a guest on the 57gold.com show with Gary Cubeta at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at email@example.com.