I was talking with wrestler Wayne Ferris at the Toronto Wizard World Convention when we were approached by a young father and his two very young daughters. Noticing the family approach us Ferris turned to them and went into full entertainer mode. He greeted the small family and enthusiastically shook the father’s hand.
“See girls. I used to watch him on TV. His name is the Honky Tonk Man,” the man said to his young daughters.
The Honky Tonk Man towered over the two little girls, who looked up nervously at the him. With his hair and sideburns dyed jet black, Ferris was dressed in his trademark dark blue western shirt with musical notes embroidered in white and matching bell bottoms. Ferris reached down to the little girls, smiled and shook their tiny hands.
“Hi hi hi hi girls,” he said in his most charming Tennessee twang.
“And you know what he used to do” the father continued to explain. “He used to hit guys with his guitar.”
Ferris pretended to hit something with an invisible guitar. “Bing bop bang. I did, but don’t you girls do that kind of thing at home, okay?” Chatting with the man for a moment the trio eventually went on their way, and Ferris left the little girls with a wink, a smile as they shyly waved back at the wrestling legend.
Watching Ferris with the two little girls was a far cry from the Honky Tonk Man that I remembered from my youth. Was this the same man who mercilessly shoved a pleading Ms. Elizabeth to the ground and towered over her, laughing and taunting her, before beating the man she loved, Randy “Macho Man” Savage to a pulp with the help of Bret “The Hitman” Heart and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart? When I was growing up The Honky Tonk Man was one mean son of a bitch. He may have looked cartoonish with his Elvis impersonator gimmick, but his opponents weren’t laughing when he finished his matches by bashing a guitar over their broken bodies. One of the most memorable characters from the golden age of the WWF, The Honky Tonk Man made a lasting impression on fans that loved to hate him.
Beginning his career in wrestling in 1977, Wayne Ferris was formally a school teacher and football coach from Memphis, Tennessee. Floating through various wrestling organizations in the early stages of his career, Ferris was picked up by the WWF in 1986 where he created the character of The Honky Tonk Man. A cocky singing and dancing Elvis impersonator, “Honky,” as his hyperactive villainous manager Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart called him, claimed that Elvis had stole his songs and style. Of course, considering that Ferris was born in 1953, this factoid was obviously impossible, but the kids at home didn’t care. The Honky Tonk Man was colorful, memorable and entertaining to watch. The Honky Tonk Man made his first major “hit” when he appeared on fan favorite Jake “The Snake” Roberts televised segment The Snake Pit where he ambushed Jake by smashing his guitar over his head. A troubled man, as fans would later find out through various well documented sources, Roberts and the Honky Tonk Man’s feud would continue both in the ring, and out of it.
Ferris’ story would go into high gear in June 1987 when he defeated Intercontinental Title Champion Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and took the coveted belt for himself. Over the next sixty four weeks The Honky Tonk Man defended his title against some of wrestling’s biggest names including George “The Animal” Steele, Billy Jack Haynes, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. Finally, at the 1988 Summerslam, The Honky Tonk Man lost his belt to fan favorite The Ultimate Warrior in a bout that lasted only thirty one seconds. However, in the end, The Honky Tonk Man held the Intercontinental title for one year, two months and twenty seven days, which is still the longest that any wrestler has held it for.
While I watched wrestling in my youth, like most young boys do, I am not a wrestling fan today. However, I always enjoy meeting and talking to the men and women who make up the wrestling community. Incredible entertainers, I find them to be some of the most interesting people to talk to. Their industry is truly unlike any other. Wayne Ferris did not disappoint me, and he proved to be an interesting and well spoken man with a unique perspective on the world of wrestling.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
I’M A HONKY TONK MAN:
A CONVERSATION WITH WAYNE “THE HONKY TONK MAN” FERRIS
Sam: So when I was researching your career I was surprised to learn that you originally started out as a high school teacher and a football coach.
Honky Tonk Man: Yes. I was a teacher and a coach in high school. Then I started wrestling, and then I went and taught elementary school, and then I did wrestling again.
Sam: What made you go from teaching into wrestling?
Honky Tonk Man: During my college days at the University of Memphis, I was on the weight lifting team, and I had some friends that were on [that] team and who played football. They started tinkering in wrestling and kind of talked me into it. But my cousin was Jerry “The King” Lawler, and he was doing wrestling and was doing well. Nothing against cartoon artists, because they are very gifted, but [Jerry] was a cartoon artist. He draws very well, so I didn’t consider him the athlete of the family. I was the athlete, so I went into the wrestling business. I said “If Jerry can do it, I can do it.” That’s how I started in wrestling.
Sam: You are one of wrestling’s most famous heels, but talking to you right now, you seem to me to be a nice enough guy. What lead you to doing the heel role, and do you enjoy doing that sort of character?
Honky Tonk Man: I started out as the good guy, but it didn’t fit what I wanted to portray. It’s very easy to be successful when you can portray something that comes natural, and being the bad guy came natural to me. It was very good for me for a very long time. Now I’m the good guy out here. People are glad to see me and I love being the good guy now. But, yes, one time I was one of the baddest guys on the planet.
Sam: But I remember as a kid, watching you wrestle on TV, we liked the bad guys. They seemed more colorful and interesting. You are famous for your Elvis gimmick. Were you and Elvis fan?
Honky Tonk Man: Not really. I was a Beatles and Rolling Stones fan. But I had sideburns in college, because back in the 70’s everybody had sideburns. Well some wrestling fans mentioned “You have black hair and sideburns. Have you ever thought about doing an Elvis thing?” I said “No. I’ve never considered it.” They said “Well, you should.” My birthday came along and before I knew it they handed me a jumpsuit and said “Here you go. Happy birthday.” It was this gold lamé jumpsuit, and that’s how it took off.
Sam: Well it’s a great gimmick. Very memorable.
Honky Tonk Man: I took my name from an old country song by Johnny Horton from the 50’s. (sings) “I’m a Honky Tonk Man.” That’s how the name came about.
Sam: Now that you’ve been doing “The Honky Tonk Man” for so long do you have a different appreciation for Elvis?
Honky Tonk Man: Yeah. I’ve come to like the music and what he did and what he accomplished. The entertainment business is difficult and it has its ups and downs. Some people can handle it pretty well and some people can’t. Unfortunately it took its toll on him.
Sam: What is the wrestling community like? Are there any long time friendships or comradery within the industry?
Honky Tonk Man: You can count on your one hand, and sometime on one finger, your friends in the wrestling business. They are more business associates then friends.
Sam: With that said, how many of the rivalries in wrestling were made up and how many were real? I think back and I think of your epic battles with Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
Honky Tonk Man: Yeah. There was that. “Macho Man” Randy Savage was a good hit too. I liked that. That was one of my greatest “hits.” The hits just keep on coming!
Sam: And then there was your feud with The Ultimate Warrior.
Honky Tonk Man: The Ultimate Warrior was a whole different can of worms. That was survivor mode for me. I was just trying to keep him from killing me.
Sam: Now Jake Roberts has actually made statements that part of his very publicized drug problem came about due to the fact that you actually smashed a real guitar on him during your famous appearance on The Snake Pit. Is there any truth at all to this claim?
Honky Tonk Man: Well, Jake accuses every one of his problems except himself. Drug problems are something that are self induced. Nobody makes them do anything. If that’s how Jake feels then that’s how he feels. The thing is, I think Jake had a lot of problems before I tried to straighten him up with a guitar. Then the rumor was that I hurt him so bad that he had to have neck surgery. Well he wrestled for two years after the “guitar shot” before he had neck surgery. It is what it is. A good journalist always checks his sources. Well Mick Fowley wrote his book and interviewed Jake Roberts. Well I called him up and said “Nick, who did you check with to find out if I injured Jake?” He said “Well I asked Jake.” I said “Well why would you ask Jake? Jake’s been in rehab about ten times. Why wouldn’t you call up me and ask me? I was the one who hit him.”
Sam: I remember watching you with your manager Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart. You guys made a dynamic team.
Honky Tonk Man: Yeah. I was just with Jimmy last night. We saw each other at a wrestling reunion.
Sam: The managers added a lot of life and color around the ring and were just as popular as the wrestlers themselves. Beyond that, did the managers do for anything behind the scenes in regards to your career?
Honky Tonk Man: They were really good for bringing enhancement around the ring, but they did not mange my affairs.
Sam: When I was a kid watching wrestling, what I think what me and my friends liked the most is that you guys were like larger then life superheroes.
Honky Tonk Man: Yeah, and that’s why [wrestlers] fit right in with thinks like Wizard World, who do a wonderful job with sci-fi and comic books and action hero type heroes. That’s why we fit in because we are action heroes and bigger then life superheroes to some people.
Sam: Do you think the wrestling industry has changed in that regard?
Honky Tonk Man: No. I think that there still is just as [many] characters, but the characters are not as highly developed as we were. They don’t have that “Hulk Hogan” or “Jake the Snake” or “Honky Tonk Man” or “’Mouth of the South’ Jimmy Hart.” They are missing some of that right now.
Sam: Is the wrestling lifestyle a hard one? What is the reality of maintaining a career in this industry.
Honky Tonk Man: You really have to have a strong desire. You have to be very dedicated and you have to work hard. That part of it is not easy for a lot of people because if you lose that desire you don’t want to do it anymore. If you are not dedicated you might as well stay home. If you don’t work hard you’re never going to make it.
Funny thing about The Honky Tonk Man. When you meet him he comes off as a very friendly and well spoken guy, and after watching him with the two little girls, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the villain role from the 80’s was all that it really was – a role. However, as I was talking to him he stated “It’s very easy to be successful when you can portray something that comes natural, and being the bad guy came natural to me.” As we continued to talk, I wondered what he meant by that, and as Ferris became more comfortable with me an odd thing happened. His face would relax, his smile would disappear and his eyes would darken. Obviously a big part of wrestling is showmanship, and Wayne Ferris knows all about showmanship. But in order to create a character, that character has to exist somewhere. As I looked in the black eyes of Wayne Ferris, I began to wonder if there really was a bit of the mean and cunning Honky Tonk Man somewhere inside of him. While talking about his rivalries and the realities of the wrestling industry there was a scary and dark truth in Wayne Ferris’ face. Wayne Ferris is a showman, an athlete, an entertainer and a performer, but he also is the one and only Honky Tonk Man. Don’t turn your back on him, because he might have a guitar with your name on it just waiting for you.
POP CULTURE ADDICT NOTE: I want to take a moment to thank Jerry Milani of Wizard World Entertainment for arranging my interview with The Honky Tonk Man. Wizard World will be bringing the legends of wrestling to cities throughout North America throughout the year. For more information visit their web-site at http://www.wizardworld.com/wizcon.html. Support your local Wizard World. Thanks for all your support Jerry. I really appreciate all the opportunities you have brought my way.