Q&A With Burrhead Jones
For many years Burrhead Jones has been one of those special personalities in the wrestling business who has attracted a cult following - especially in the Carolinas, Tennessee and the Gulf Coast territories. Whether working in the Carolinas as the cousin of Rufus R. "Freight Train" Jones or in the
Deep South areas of Alabama and Mississippi during the era of the civil rights movement, Burrhead witnessed his share of changes in the business.
"There aren't many ways it hasn't," says the Moncks Corner, S.C., native, whose real name is Melvin Nelson but is know by most simply as "Burrhead." "The money, the emphasis on the showmanship, it's all different. Today's wrestlers are probably the most well-conditioned physically of any sport out there. They use their bodies as battering rams. The guys of today, though, won't spend 20 years or so in the ring like I did. They use too many chairs, tables and high spots, and they're taking too many high-risk bumps. Many are also dying young."
Burrhead also takes note of the over-the-top soap opera storylines and ringside pyrotechnics. The actual wrestling, he says, sometimes seems like an afterthought.
"We never had music, fireworks and all that stuff. It was straight-up wrestling. (Former six-time world champion) Lou Thesz would make mincemeat of any guy out there today in a strict wrestling match. Guys like Ole and Gene Anderson gave the fans real hard-core wrestling."
The money is different, too, he adds.
"If that kind of money was around when I was in business, I would have been a multimillionaire by now. Contracts back then were a handshake, souvenirs went for a few bucks and ringside
seats could be had for $3 or less."
Burrhead, 63, who still dons the trunks for an occasional match, retired from active competition several years ago and now works as a forklift operator at Standard Warehouse in Moncks Corner.
"There is a stop sign in every walk of life," he says. "I saw myself getting older and older. Wrestling wasn't going to provide for me in my old age. So I got myself another job, and I've never looked back."
Burrhead looks back on some of those memories in the wrestling business in this interview conducted in March 2001.
MM: You worked a lot with Bearcat Brown (Matt Jewel)?
BJ: We worked in Tennessee for Nick Gulas for six weeks for more and then went to Atlanta for Leo Garibaldi.
MM: What about the program with Billy Hines?
BJ: That was Rocky McGuire's territory in Mobile.
MM: Back then there weren't a lot of black wrestlers wrestling white guys?
BJ: No. That part never did mix. Bad Boy Hines had come over from North Carolina with his brother (Jimmy). They were The Red Demons there.
MM: You guys had a pretty hot feud.
BJ: Oh man. We were the first ones who mixed Panama City. Me and Ken Lucas were the first ones to mix Dothan, Ala., against Rocket and Flash Monroe. Back in that time there weren't too many black wrestlers. There was a black girl named Lilly Thomas, and two sisters from Atlanta. One of them was Sweet Georgia Brown. When we left Nashville and then to Atlanta and back to
Nashville, we went to Mobile, and that's when things started mixing up.
MM: They weren't mixing white and black wrestlers?
BJ: In Louisiana they did. Me and Frank Dalton had a feud over the championship. I was billed as coming from the cotton fields of Louisiana. I had a cotton sack.
MM: Who gave you your name?
BJ: Billy Hines. I went as Jimmy Jones when I first started out. I had worked at the old Madison Square Garden for old Vince McMahon with guys like Black Jack Mulligan, Prince Pullins, Prince Nero and teamed with Bruno and Bobo a couple times. I was a job guy and doing spots. Vic Rivera and Pedro Morales had just come out of the same gym I was in. I was doing all the house spots at places like Sunnyside Gardens and Jersey City.
MM: How much discrimination did you see back then?
BJ: It wasn't the Carolinas. It was just Tennessee and Mobile. Tampa, Fla., didn't do that. It was the Gulf Coast end. It was the promoters. They weren't anything but hillbillies anyway. When I left from Mobile, I went to Florida, where Cowboy Luttrall had sold the territory. They had Thunderbolt Patterson and a lot of guys down there, and that was all the same period of time.
MM: How about the tar-and-feather matches?
BJ: We did that in Alabama and they got away with it because I was a heel. We did that in Hattiesburg, Miss., and they closed the territory down because I was a babyface. Buddy Wayne was doing the booking down there for the Fields boys. We got away with it in Montgomery, Ala. I was a heel against Jimmy Golden and Plowboy Stan Frazier. They closed Hattiesburg because the people protested against it. If I was a heel, it would have been a different situation. When we did it in Montgomery, Jimmy Golden came to rescue me. Ken Wayne and Stan Frazier tarred and feathered me. They tied me up in the ropes and slapped me around and had me looking the big bird on Sesame Street. They used molasses, and I swallowed a few feathers too, because I was keeping my mouth open hollering and stuff. Those feathers were something to swallow. But
they began to draw and put the straps on me and Jimmy. I was a heel, but I had turned babyface. We did great business for about six months or so. Jimmy was the top babyface at the time. If I was a baby at the time, it would have been something like discrimination because I was the only black guy in the territory. After Jimmy came to my side and converted me, it was
different. He said, `Burrhead, I don't care what color you are, you bleed just like I
do. You don;t have to like me if you don't want to, but I just want to be in your corner and see justice done.
MM: I bet that popped the territory.
BJ: Oh boy. That did it. When we went for the championship, we went out fighting. Non-stop from the time the bell rang to the very end. We had those guys selling from one side of the ring post to the other. No holds, just high bumps and everything. Quick tags in and out. We really popped the people, and they thanked me for converting over to the good side.
MM: Did you ever get any threats from the KKK?
BJ: No. If we did, I never heard about it. Buddy Wayne was the booker for the Fields boys in Hattiesburg, so he figured he'd done it with Dandy Jack Donovan and somebody else. Me and Buddy Wayne were on the babyface side. They tied me in the ropes, and Jack Donovan and them tar and feathered me. They had more protests over that. That TV station that week was flooded. The next week we couldn't go back. They closed it down. Had I been a heel, they could
have gotten away with it. But I was a heel in Montgomery and a babyface in Mississippi, and that's what made the difference. I know there was a town in Mississippi where Bearcat Brown got kicked in the butt by a white man. He had been heeling against a white guy. He turned around and looked at the white man and said, "Thank you, sir," because he couldn't hit a white man. There were a lot of places that me and the boys could go out, but I couldn't sit with them
and eat. One town in western Mississippi I couldn't sit down and eat with those guys.
MM: What did you do?
BJ: I had to go downstairs, like in the basement, go around the back. The thing I couldn't understand is that they had all black cooks. I had just come in from New York City and had been in the territory for about six months. I couldn't understand who was cooking for the whites. I couldn't understand. I couldn't sit up and eat with those guys. I was riding with Bob Boyer,
Ken Lucas and quite a few others, but I couldn't eat with them.
MM: What was their response?
BJ: They couldn't say anything. We were just transients passing through. That was the rule of their town. You could make your own rules. I was somewhere in Tennessee, and this was later, where this restaurant chain was right on the motel site where we stayed. I couldn't go in there and eat. And this was back in the '70s. The motel was right next to it. To me I suppose I got away with more than the black people there. The black people used to sit on one side, and the whites sat on the other. In Mobile and Dothan, the whites would come to the ticket box in the front, the blacks would go around the black. The blacks had a special section in the building. They couldn't sit at ringside. The people didn't mind because that's the way they were raised. They didn't know any better. They thought that was the way it was supposed to be. They
didn't give a hoot. When me and Frank Dalton worked for the championship in this cotton sack match, all the blacks were on one side. I was a heel then, and I said next week I'm gonna bring my mama here, because my mama can beat Frank Dalton. Just shooting my mouth off on TV. Billy Golden was doing the booking there. He said, `Hey, Burrhead, what's going on here? All these people are wondering if your mama's here.' I told him I was just shooting my mouth
off to get some heat because I was heeling. That night when I jumped out of the ring and looked on the white side, I hollered, 'Mama!' You should have seen those white people look around and try to see a black woman on that side. And then the black people started looking around to see if there was a black woman on that side.
MM: Who came up with a lot of that stuff?
BJ: Billy Hines. He was a carney who came up with a lot of those little angles and stuff. He got ribbed a lot by Jerry Lawler and the rest of the boys, but he was a helluva boxer. That sucker could throw a punch. We turned Panama City on its head. We were supposed to start at 7:30 at that Rainbow Arena, and we didn't get everybody in until about 8:30 or 9 o'clock. He just
let me take over the whole show until he stopped me with a nut shot. The whole house went wild then. They had guys surrounding the ring to keep Billy in the ring, but it was really to keep the people out.
MM: Did you have many problems with the fans?
BJ: No, but they got me in West Virginia once. I was heeling against one of their local guys, and I had suckered him into the ring and beat the hell out of him. The police had to pretend to lock me up to get me out of there. In another town in West Virginia, we were heeling against some local guys and we got juice on them in a wire match. The partner I had was green to the business. The fans threw a chair, and he threw the chair back. The next thing you know the ring was fill of chairs. When the fans throw a chair, you don't throw the chair back. The same thing happened in Selma, Ala., with Sweet Daddy Banks. They closed Selma down for the same reason.
MM: How was it working in Selma during that period?
BJ: That's when I left North Carolina after Black Jack (Mulligan) hurt me. I came back to Alabama. Sweet Daddy Banks was there heeling. He had his blond hair, a white glove and all that stuff. He was talking all kind of trash. The people wanted to know where Burrhead was. They were doing a taping and Sweet Daddy Banks was saying all this stuff, and I walked up and said, `This is my backyard. I'm the baddest dog in this area. You don't come here and talk
about these people.' I went to slap him and knock his shades off, and I was knocking him up and down, and the camera was picking up everything. I told the fans to come on out tonight. This was an added match to the card that night. It sold out. After three weeks of that, the place started turning away people. Some fans threw a chair in there because I got juice. He threw the chair
back out, and some lady swore that he hit her. Bob Kelly and Lee Fields were booking that area. We had 90 percent black anyway. They had their license suspended. They could have got it back but they just let it go because they didn't want to give the blacks too much push anyway. That would have taken away from Ken Lucas, Dick Dunn and The Wrestling Pro.
MM: Rufus (R. Jones) and Bobo (Brazil) never got along that well?
BJ: I don't think so. Bobo was a back-stabber. He was a white man's Uncle Tom. He blocked me out of Japan. Rufus worked there quite a few times, and I went once, but I worked for the opposition. They gave Rufus this big trophy that he was the greatest black man who ever wrestled in Japan. He was so happy about it. But those guys put a rib on him. It really said (in Japanese) that he was the biggest c---sucker in Japan. The writing was in Japanese. The
Boys gave him the trophy. Rufus would always tell them that if you're going to Japan, you have to take your pork chops, because they don't have any pork chops. Rufus was really proud of that trophy. When Rufus came back here, he was in one of the territories and there was a Japanese wrestler, and he was trying to explain about this award. The Japanese guy said (with a Japanese
accent), "Rufus, trophy say you greatest c---sucker." I think Fuji's the one who told me that. Yes sir. There was some times back then. But it was good, clean fun. They boys never took any drugs. There was whiskey and beer and marijuana, and that's about it. No steroids and nothing like that.
MM: And what about Bobo?
BJ: Bobo was just a big-city wrestler. No showmanship. He was the only black guy who was known worldwide anyway. Sonny King and Bobo never got along either. Bobo was for himself and cut all of the black guys down. He and Abby never got along either. That's probably why they never worked together.
MM: I guess the guys today who are filing the racial discrimination lawsuits really have it good considering how things were.
BJ: You're right about that. A lot of places they couldn't stay, they weren't served food and things like that. In Dothan, I couldn't stay in the same motel. I had to go to a black one right across the street.
MM: Billy Hines gave you the name "Burrhead." How did he come up with the name?
BJ: I think because of the commercial when the black folks had first come out with the Afros. I was wrestling as Jimmy Jones. Billy Golden was booking the territory. Billy was watching a commercial on TV, and they changed my name to Cockleburrhead Jones, but it was too long for the promotion. They shortened it to Burrhead. I went to Morgan City, La., that night, and everybody said, "Hey, look at Cockleburrhead Jones." Some of the guys I didn't know. I
said, "No, my name's Jimmy Jones." When I finally got to where I wanted to go in the
dressing room, here's that damn Billy and Jimmy Hines laughing like crazy. "We changed your name, man, to Cockleburrhead Jones." I got mad as hell because I had my wrestling jacket with Jimmy Jones on it. I couldn't wear that out. I had to destroy all my stuff. I didn't want to go out as no Cockleburrhead Jones. After that it caught on, and I just relaxed and let it go.
That's where that started. When I went to North Carolina they kept it up. They kept it up
when I went to Puerto Rico. Carlos (Colon) questioned me as to what that meant, if it was some racial slang or something, which it was, in a certain way. But I told Carlos it was like a pine burr, with the knots and stuff. So he went along with it. But in a way, to a certain extent, it was
MM: Not many people could get away with that today.
BJ: I doubt it. Today you have these black militants who would slow you down.
MM: I'm sure going back to the Gulf Coast reunions in Mobile are a lot different than the way things were 30 years ago.
BJ: I went back and some guys who were sort of isolated against me ... we laugh and talk now.
MM: Time has a way of doing that.
BJ: It really does. It brings you back together. But those were good old days back then. I never had any trouble out of nobody. Nobody tried to stretch me or nothing. All the boys get along good. During the time I was in North Carolina, Rufus and I used to cook for those guys. We knew how to cook that soul food - neck bone and peas and rice, and all that stuff. Rufus had
His own apartment, so we used to cook, and the guys would just by and eat.
MM: Like who?
BJ: All the top guys - Paul Jones, Black Jack and the rest. Rufus would fry those pork chops. When you have to eat out at the restaurants all the time, there's no seasoning in the food. It's terrible. It gets old. So Rufus had his apartment, and those guys were in the motel. They would give Rufus the money, and when we got off at night, we used to go by Tiger Conway Jr.'s
house, because had a Chinese wife, and we used to eat that Chinese food all the time. We used to come by about 2 or 3 in the morning, and all the boys would be there. Yes sir, there were good old times in that good old territory.
MM: Rufus was well-liked.
BJ: He was. He was just down to earth. He got over better in North Carolina than Bobo did. Bobo never got over there. He had no showmanship, no color. He couldn't talk that talk that the people wanted. When you're from the South, you understand the way that Southern people live. My first wife is from Hemmingway (S.C.), and we got married up in New York City. She had a
sister who lived in Washington, D.C. They didn't have family reunions at the time -
they called it family get-togethers. So we went to Washington, D.C. After the dinner, we all went to the park. The kids from Hemmingway who were playing hollered, "Chunk the ball, chunk the ball." The kids from Washington, D.C., went, "What are they talking about?" They didn't know what chunk meant. They knew what throw the ball meant, but they had never heard chunk. When Rufus came with that soup bone, the people up north didn't know what soup
bone meant. I went to the guy one or two weeks before Rufus, but I met Rufus when our family got together when my wife had a birthday party. I went a couple of weeks before he did, and Rufus followed me, and that's how the whole thing came up. My wife was Rufus's second cousin. Rufus was from Dillon, and my wife was from Hemmingway. That was just a hop and a skip away. That's how I met Rufus. He and Black Jack are the ones who got me out to North Carolina. When I was working for old man Vince, that's when Black Jack had come in from
Texas. They didn't have any black guys, because Bobo didn't do any jobs. I was a good bump man and I was about 210 pounds, so they could throw me to the dogs. They just annihilated me. When that bell rang, I didn't see anything but the light up in the ceiling. Black Jack was all over the place, but he was going up against Bruno. He had thanked me for doing the job for him and making him look strong. They had me on TV matches all the time. I used to go to the old Madison Square Garden just to watch the matches, and Arnold Skaaland used to give me $50 just to show up.