Lance Russell, legendary 'voice of Memphis wrestling,' finding his way back home

Memphis wrestling legends Lance Russell (left) and Jerry Lawler.

Fewer territories have a grander tradition than that of Memphis wrestling.

“The Fabulous One,” Jackie Fargo, was a master showman, performer and innovator during the territory's heyday. “Often imitated but never duplicated,” the charismatic Fargo passed the proverbial torch to Jerry “The King” Lawler, who during the '70s and '80s sold out the Mid-South Coliseum on numerous occasions.

But for all those years in between, there was one constant, someone who provided the soundtrack to that era and without whom that revered tradition would have lost much of its luster.

Since the late 1950s, Lance Russell has been “the voice of Memphis wrestling.” While Lawler may have been the signature star, Russell was the show.

And as wild as Memphis wrestling was — and it was plenty wild — Russell, the consummate professional, always provided a sense of sanity to a sea of madness.

The affable, easygoing broadcaster had a unique ability in not only relating to his audience, but also in communicating disgust at the heinous acts perpetrated by the dastardly bad guys who crossed paths with him every week on the popular Saturday morning wrestling show.

His one-liners, which would become known as “Lance-isms,” were reserved for mouthpieces like Jimmy Hart, along with other nefarious sorts, who would instigate outlandish shenanigans in a studio that sometimes didn't seem big enough to contain the out-of-control action.

Russell, who somehow managed to always maintain his cool while approaching his job with the utmost seriousness, was no stranger to calling out the heels — with a bit of feigned indignation — when warranted.

“Don't start with that smart stuff!”

“What in the Sam Hill is that?”

“Will you guys just stop and get out of here?”

Russell, who will turn 90 years young on his next birthday, laughs at those wild and woolly days.

“I sure had a lot of fun back then. Sometimes I'd have to tell them (the bad guys) that I'd go get Eddie Marlin (to restore order). Eddie was the guy who ran the show. Forget Jerry Jarrett (booker and Marlin's son-in-law). I was going straight to the boss!”

Perhaps the catch phrase Russell is best known for, however, is the line he opened his shows with for decades: “Yello (Hello) again, everybody!”

“I didn't realize that was the way I said it,” chuckles Russell. “Now every place I go people have to hear it. They even did a T-shirt with that on the front.”

And those lucky enough to be at Oman Arena in Jackson, Tenn., on Oct. 24 are more than likely to hear the man himself greet them once again with that familiar opening.

“An All-Star Tribute to Lance Russell” is planned for that weekend, and to commemorate the event, the 65-year-old Lawler and the 71-year-old Terry Funk will meet in a match billed as “The Final Stand.”

Russell is excited about being in the spotlight once again in the town where it all began. He called his first mat action at a station in Jackson, Tenn., nearly six decades ago.

“That was kind of my hometown back then. That's where I began my broadcast career.”

The fact that Russell's longtime friend Lawler and Terry Funk are headlining the show makes it even more special.

One of the most unique bouts in the history of pro wrestling took place in 1981 in Memphis in an “Empty Arena” match pitting Lawler against Funk. There were no fans, no timekeepers, no ring announcers. Just Lawler and Funk, along with Russell standing with a microphone in an empty Mid-South Coliseum talking to a cameraman as footage rolled.

“It gives me a thrill knowing that on YouTube they're still playing that Empty Coliseum thing. It's so nice knowing that some people still remember.”

Russell is especially looking forward to working again with Lawler, whom he met when the future “King” was a teenager and drawing caricatures of wrestlers. An avid fan, Lawler would send his sketches to WHBQ in Memphis, which aired the live wrestling show every Saturday morning.

“I started with Jerry when he was 14 years old and drawing those first pictures,” says Russell. “People got such a kick out of seeing those things (sketches). He went from absolute nowhere to star of the promotion.”

There's little doubt, however, that the star of this show will be the venerable Russell,

whose familiar voice still resonates like a soft summer breeze.

“I've been so blessed,” says Russell, who credits much of his success with the luxury of working with a talented pool of performers over the years.

But it took a great man behind the announce desk to put those performers and shows over, said Memphis wrestling historian and author Mark James.

“It was up to Lance to get the angles as well as the boys over with the fans. Some announcers would week after week give the same speech, 'Fans, get your tickets now for this Monday night's card. It's the best card ever!' Lance refrained from that. He only pushed the cards to the moon that deserved it.”

And it didn't matter if Russell was having his suit torn off by heels like Lawler and Sam Bass, flour dumped on his head by Jimmy Hart, or other indignities.

He remained the voice of reason.

“Lance gave Memphis wrestling credibility,” said James. “More than anyone else in the territory.”

Broadcast duo

Also appearing on the show will be longtime Memphis stalwarts Superstar Bill Dundee, Rocky Johnson, The Rock 'N Roll Express, Koko B. Ware and others.

Dave Brown, a Memphis broadcast personality for more than half a century, will make the trip to reunite with his old announce partner.

“You can't have a Lance Russell without a Dave Brown,” chuckles Russell.

The team of Russell and Brown just might have been the best tag-team announcing duo in the business.

Brown was a college student and kid disc jockey at WHBQ radio in 1967 when Russell, working on the TV side of WHBQ, an ABC affiliate, tapped him as his sidekick for studio wrestling.

“Davey was an all-night rock and roll disc jockey while he was going to school at what was then Memphis State. He was a hard-working guy. He was looking and I told him that he ought to come over here and get into television.”

As director of programming at his TV station, Russell was in the position of hiring.

“I needed a guy to work with me because the guy that I had was dropping out of it. I was looking for an assistant. I got to know Dave around the station and was really impressed. When he said he would do something, he did it. Dave was just a very conscientious guy who was an extremely dependable man of his word. That attracted me to him. He had a great personality and a great sense of humor.”

Brown gladly accepted Russell's offer, and a dream team was born. A year later, he also was host of the weekday morning “Dialing for Dollars” movie program and a “weatherman” on the noon news.

“Davey came on over and worked with me on wrestling. It's amazing how it affected his career, and I'm glad that it did. He's one of the great guys around. He's just a super, super person. It's amazing how things turned out when I look back and go through it all.”

The duo stayed together for about a quarter-century, becoming the longest-running tag team in the annals of wrestling broadcasting.

At the height of the show's run, nearly half of those watching TV tuned in on Saturday mornings — the highest local market penetration in the country — while fans would line the sidewalk outside Channel 5 waiting to get a seat for the matches.

Russell would also give Brown his most famous role at the station — that of weatherman.

“I remember asking Dave if he knew anything about the weather,” recalls Russell. “He said, 'Well, I think it's raining outside.' Davey was my kind of guy. He not only wanted to do it, but whenever he tackled a subject, he tackled it with vigor.”

Brown, lauded as a calming voice in stormy weather, retired as chief meteorologist at WMC-TV in Memphis last month after an incredible 53-year run in radio and TV. Regarded as one of the region's most respected and trusted news personalities, Brown would host Memphis wrestling from 1967 to 2002, 27 of those years alongside Russell.

“In addition to all that stuff, he's one of my very best friends, and to this day it's true. He's just a heck of a guy,” says Russell.

At the age of 89, Lance Russell remains a Memphis — and pro wrestling — icon.

From 1959 until 1997, Russell's voice was as familiar as anyone in the region. Along with the town's weekly Saturday morning wrestling broadcasts, for years the top-rated program in the market, Russell served as a programming executive with several area stations.

There were few things more Memphis than wrestling.

But for Russell, it all began in Jackson, a small town 70 miles east of Memphis.

He began his broadcasting career there during the mid-'50s where he did radio work at a station owned by the town's mayor and his brother. “It was a small station — a 250-watter,” says Russell, who later went to work for a station owned by the Jackson Sun newspaper.

When he took a job at his third station, WDXI, whose owner bought the Jackson Generals baseball team, it would provide his entrée into pro wrestling.

The station's owner, who also owned a TV station and purchased a theater in Jackson, stopped Russell walking down the street one day.

“Hey Russell. ... did you ever broadcast any wrestling?” he asked.

“I said, 'I've never done it, but I feel like I ought to be able to do it,' “ he recalled. “I started doing commentary on it, and just loved it and had a lot of fun doing it.”

“Well you better get used to it, because in two weeks we'll be in that theater over there.” “That was my first relationship with wrestling,” says Russell. It's also where he first met area promoters and power-brokers Nick Gulas and Roy Welch.

Russell now looks back over those many years and thanks his lucky stars to have been in the right place at the right time.

“I've been so blessed ... just going from one station in Jackson to another. If I hadn't made that move to leave the newspaper station, I'd have never met Nick and Roy.”

That luck followed him when he made the move to the much larger Memphis market.

“When I moved to Memphis, we started doing wrestling at the station. Buddy Fuller was promoting there and had talked to Nick and Roy. They said we always had good luck with this kid Russell. Why don't you go to the station and see what happens.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

While Russell interviewed hundreds of performers over the years, none were more destined for success than Jerry “The King” Lawler.

“He had that natural ability to not only talk — and he's as good as there is — but he was a guy who was a lot different than those who were into themselves,” says Russell. “He never took a drink. Rarely did he work out in the gymnasium. He was just an amazing star and a very nice guy.”

Russell, who says Lawler has grown “milder and mellower” over the years, credits his friend with helping keep Memphis wrestling alive.

“He has always loved it. I appreciate him remembering the early start. It's just that way with Memphis wrestling. He helped it grow as much as Jackie Fargo.”

Russell says he never could have envisioned Lawler, a staunch defender of the territorial system, ending up in New York.

“It's been really thrilling to see him meld into WWE. But never in my life did I believe that would happen. I never truly believed he would end up there.”

Russell is thrilled that his old friend will be in Jackson to share more memories.

“When I first heard about what they were planning, I thought, 'That dadgum Lawler is blowing it right out the top.' It's really beautiful how they are tying this all together.”

He could only smile when he heard Lawler and Funk were going to follow up on their Empty Arena match more than three decades ago.

“This will be part two of the Empty Arena reunion,” says Russell. “They're calling it Last Man Sanding. They even made me do something I promised my kids I would never do and even promised my wife too ... I think If she were with us she would go along with it.”

Just what is Russell planning?

“I'm going to get up in that ring somehow and I'm going to — with Dave's help — I'm going to do the commentary for the main event so we can make it a real blowout. I just can't get over the number of guys that I do know that are going to be here. For them to come down is really nice.”

Russell was an integral part of the golden age of Memphis studio wrestling and Monday night wrestling. “I was there with the right people,” he humbly says.

But for Memphis wrestling, Lance Russell was the right person.

“Memphis Wrestling could not have had a better announcer or ambassador than Lance Russell,” said James. “Lance Russell is the same guy on camera as off. Genuinely nice and attentive to each and every fans question.”

Russell has made his home in Grand Breeze, Fla., a suburban community located across the bay from Pensacola, since 1999. He moved in with youngest son Shane earlier this year.

As the saying goes, behind every good man is a good woman, and that was Audrey Russell. And only death could separate the earthly bond the two had shared for more than seven decades. Audrey passed away on June 29, 2014, on the date of their 67th wedding anniversary.

“That was my girl,” says Russell. “People used to ask how two people can stay together that long. You have to work on it, of course, but you also have to hope that the good Lord has pointed you to someone you love, and someone with whom you can develop an even deeper love. And that was Aud.”

Russell points out that the two had an advantage over most other couples since they began going steady as freshmen in high school.

“We started going together in the ninth grade. We truly lived our two lives together. We were very fortunate. We could go back and say, 'Hey, remember that first dance in the ninth grade and how your mama had to drive us where we were going, and I was so embarrassed because I didn't have a driver's license?' It just was things like that, stuff I never realized until we stopped and thought about it later on in life, that is so important.”

The two married after Russell, a native of Dayton, Ohio, returned from a military stint in the European Theater and a year at Northwestern University.

“We said it was time. We were together more than 70 years. That's a long time. It just wasn't long enough ... but there'll be another day.”

While this past year has been extremely tough without his beloved Audrey, events like the Jackson tribute help him remember the good times.

His oldest son, Rusty, will be accompanying Russell to the Jackson show.

“We'll be taking a lot of pictures when we go to Jackson,” he says. “I'll be sure to look for that house we bought for $8,000 back in the early '50s. It'll be like going home.”

For Russell, it will be a special trip down memory lane.

“It couldn't have happened at a nicer time in my life,” he says. “The good Lord has been listening to what I've been saying to him.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.