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Sputnik Monroe Wrestler… And Troubadour

Courtesy Natalie Bell.

When people think of wrestler Sputnik Monroe’s records, they think of his stance against segregation and his wrestling titles. They don’t think of the songs he recorded on vinyl, his literal record. But the man who in the late 1950s desegregated Memphis’ main wrestling auditorium, one of the first things to be desegregated in the city, was also a trailblazer of another sort. In 1959, Monroe became one of the first wrestlers to ever cut a record.

In November of that year, the charismatic wrestler with a whiskey tenor voice recorded several songs at Peak Records. The studio, on the corner of Second and Beale Streets, was not far from Ellis Auditorium, where Monroe wrestled weekly in front of audiences made up of blacks and whites, and arguably felt most at home.

But the graceful athlete was out of his element in the studio.

“I was always inspired by music, but I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,” Monroe said during an interview at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, where he was inducted.

In the studio in 1959, Monroe didn’t sing, he talked his songs, sometimes belligerently. During the song “Sputnik Hires A Band,” the hot-tempered Monroe fires his band members one instrument at a time.

“Hold it! Hold it, you ignorant cotton-pickers,” he said as he got rid of the horn section. “No horn blowers! No horn blowers!”

Monroe’s former wife, Midge Thompson, recalls even though he barked at the musicians, wrestling fans enjoyed his single.

“Loud and boisterous is what he was,” she said in a telephone interview. “A lot of people that was his following fans, they got a kick out of it and laughed about it a lot. You know, big bully up there trying to sing, and beating on the band, and all this and that. It was really a calamity.”

Calamity or not, Monroe loved music and was very comfortable in the spotlight. So when wrestling promoters suggested cutting a record, the idea made sense to him.

Credit Courtesy Ron Hall.
A Side of Monroe’s 45, recorded in November 1959 on Peak Records.

Thompson recalls being surprised. “He came home, said, ‘Hey, I cut a record,’” she said from her home in Alexandria, Louisiana. “And he played it for me. I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I said, ‘Now, who’s going to buy that?’ He said, ‘Nobody,’ he said, ‘but it might help the wrestling business … any kind of exposure is better than none at all.’”

While the huge first pressing of 45s might have helped fill the wrestling auditorium, they didn’t sell. Thompson gave them away to friends. 

“Oh, it was a flop,” she said.

Regardless of the sales, one fan who enjoyed the record was Monroe’s daughter, Natalie Bell. 

“I remember listening to it a lot when I was in elementary school because all our friends got a big kick out of it and thought it was really funny,” Bell said in a telephone interview.

Even though his record didn’t make the charts, there may have been another reason Monroe wanted to participate. He penned the B-side song “Man That’s the South.” He said as a lullaby for his daughter.

But Bell preferred the song her father didn’t write, “Sputnik Hires A Band,” and didn’t flip the record over often to hear the song dedicated to her.

“No, not that much. I think I listened to it, you know, just to see what it was. But the other one was the one,” said Bell from Tuscon, Arizona. “We always had Daddy’s record in there.”

Credit Courtesy Natalie Bell.
Midge Thompson, Sputnik’s wife at the time, with their daughter, Natalie Bell, in early 1960 a few months after Sputnik cut his record.

Bell enjoyed listening to her dad’s fiery delivery as a child, but now that she’s older, she doesn’t think it’s as funny today. The man who single-handedly desegregated Memphis wrestling and was jailed for hanging out with black people on Beale Street ended up recording some off-color statements, like, “Get out of here you ignorant, cotton-picking ape!” 

“I think a lot of the stuff that happened, you have to take into consideration the era, the time and place that it took place, you know, because things have changed so much now,” Bell said. “Now, you have to be so politically correct with everything. And that record is just so not politically correct.”

Saxophonist Ace Cannon, one of the musicians on the record, said he didn’t recall much about the session, but he believes all the band members Monroe berated were white. 

Like Monroe himself, the record reflects a spirited and contradictory nature. Monroe died in 2006, as a wrestler, an unlikely civil rights pioneer and a troubadour. 

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