By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Welcome back Bruthas and Sistas, or as the Brothers Howard would say, “Helloo, Hellooo, Helloooo, HELLO!”. I wanna start this week off with a little announcement from my desk in the Classic Wrestling division of The GP. While I had intended this series to be a one-off run, it has been so well received by my friends, in and out of the wrestling community, that I have decided to make it a permanent fixture here. Once this initial run wraps up, it will continue on as a bi-weekly feature. There are just too many great stories to tell to let it fade away.
One of the best stories that I have gotten so far in this series comes to us this week from a man who has traveled the world with the WWF, and played music in some of the most sacred locations in recording history. He has chosen to remain on the sidelines and not seek out the self-glorification that so many do in not only wrestling, but in the world of music as well. I think it’s time to change all that and set a few records straight, if you will, on the career of the man that helped pen the soundtrack to most of our Eighties and Nineties wrestling memories, whether we knew it or not.
The sticky heat of a Kentucky summer will leave dragging your feet and lookin for the nearest shade tree, but the people of Somerset have the advantage of having scenic Lake Cumberland at their doorstep to help keep them cool. John “Hurricane JJ” Maguire was born Somerset in June of 1953, right in the midst of it. He took to music naturally, and at the early age of two he was sitting at the piano tapping on the ivorys. His Mother took notice of his abilities and started him into music lessons. Within the next two years he was already playing complete songs, and consuming music at the rate of a prodigy for his age. By the age of five he was playing classical music and performing at concerts with other children. The humble Kentucky boy told me why this was such a great outlet for him:
“You know, I never was much of a person to draw attention to myself, but the music did it for me.”
He got his first chance at working in a band when he was in just the sixth grade, after he was approached by an older boy who had heard him play the piano. Not being trained for anything but classical music at this point, the youngster was a little reticent about the idea, but had his Mother and Aunt drive him over to where the boys practiced to see if there was something there. Once there, however, he realized that this was the music he wanted to play.
“We played Wild Thing by The Troggs, and I had already been playing around with some chords and stuff. A bass player friend showed me chordal structure, and gave me some technical info. Now, they teach you about musical structure and theory where I went, but pop music is a whole other thing. You know, it’s a whole different ballgame. When they heard me play, they took me right away though.”
In what could be a nod to his future work, this first band he joined had the name The Undertakers, with the drummer of the group proudly scrawling the name of the band in black marker up the side of his white banana style bicycle seat. The young JJ wasn’t sure about that name however, and offered up the name of The Unlimited Sounds, and the trumpet player piped up and suggested they reverse it and call themselves Sounds Unlimited, and they grabbed it and ran. John brought his Baldwin combo organ to the Sounds, and the soul band was off the ground. They fell into sync and quickly became the most popular band in that area, playing the fairs and all the prom dances between 1966 and ‘68 , growing their reputation all the while.
“We played all Motown songs, and sung that type of music. We had horns too, because back then everything had horns on it. I did all the arranging, and helped everyone get everything lined out. We were the top deal in Kentucky as far as the prom bands go, but we had to have our Moms and brothers drive us to the shows, cause we were all still too young to drive. We traveled quite a bit though.”
As the Sixties rolled on a new sound started to emerge, and the electrified sounds of Hendrix, and Clapton grabbed ahold of him. Not abandoning their soul focus completely, The Sounds Unlimited began to work in the music of The Doors, and others to diversify their format. As they grew in popularity, opportunities came along, as they always do, and John decided it was time to try something new.
John traveled to Lexington, Ky., and got hooked up with Doug Breeding, Sonny Lemaire, and Marlon Hargis to form the Second Hand Band. After working the nightclub scene for a couple years this too started to wain some for them, so the band changed it’s name to Powderkeg and headed to Florida to run a series of gigs. Overtime, members of the group started to leave to do other things, and one day the phone rang for JJ, and it was their agent with job opportunity for him with a man named Jimmy Hart, and once they got together, the train left the station, so to speak.
“So I got a call from out agent, and he had been booking lots of acts for us up and down the east coast, as well as working for bands like Chicago. He said, ‘Maguire, I just got a call from a fella named Jimmy Hart.” Well I didn’t know who Jimmy Hart was except that he sang for The Gentrys and they had that hit Keep on Dancing. He told me they were looking for a drummer and wanted to know if I was interested in trying out for the band. He gave me his number and told me to call him. Now, I’d love to be in a band like the Gentrys, and I felt like that was the next step for me, so I gave Jimmy a ring.”
Everything was lined up and John headed out to Memphis to give it a go. He got to his hotel, and started to arrange his items in the room when he got a knock at the door. In what he described as a skinny, Bay City Rollers looking type of character. That was the first time he met the man who would become famous as the Mouth of the South. They talked and Jimmy informed him that they would be doing the drummer tryouts the following afternoon at the historic Sun Studios, owned by Sam Phillips. Now, anyone that has any knowledge of rock and roll at all knows that Sam Phillips recorded some of the biggest names in the early days of R&R, including the original hits of Elvis Presley. For any musician, including John, this was hallowed ground that he was excited to get to not only see for himself, but have the opportunity to play in it’s studios. He went up against the drummer for Jerry Lee Lewis, and an ex-drummer of Ray Charles for the spot. He told me about this experience and how he landed the job:
“When I walked into Sun Studios the first person I saw, after the receptionist was Sam. He greeted me with that big voice of his and asked me if I was there to play with Jimmy. I told him I hope so and it wasn’t long before they had me in the room for the tryout. I had a double bass drum set-up for rock, and they said they wanted me to play “Going Down”, and I was kickin ‘em hard and they stopped me in the middle of the song. Well, I thought I had scared ‘em with the double basses, and they huddled up, talking under their breath so we couldn’t hear. The lead guitarist came back in and told me I had the job and that we were leaving for Florida the following day to open on a tour for Steppenwolf. I said, “Ok, I’m ready. Let’s go.” and that was that, I was in the Gentrys and we were off and running.”
Sam, and his son Knox Phillips, produced the Gentrys for years to follow, and as a side business, were some of the founders of The Holiday Inn hotel chain that saw its peak years in the Seventies and Eighties. I found this an interesting fact, and though I’m sure that I’ll never be able to keep up with the likes of a Keith Richards, I’ve done my share of partying in those hotel rooms.
While in Florida, they received a call from a booker who told them that a club named Big Daddies, who had locations all over the state, wanted to contract the Gentrys to work his clubs exclusively. They took the offer and when their tour with Steppenwolf wrapped up, they took a short break, then went to work touring at all the different Big Daddies locations. On their trips John saw the house that was once owned by John Lennon, and featured as an album later on by Eric Clapton, at 461 Ocean Boulevard, as well as a chance sighting of Silver Screen legend Lana Turner, sunbathing on her boat in a marina near one of the clubs.
This would begin a relationship between he and Jimmy Hart that would last up until this day. One which included JJ going down to Memphis to work with Jimmy and Jerry Lawler on a .45 record that they could sell at the gimmick table, long before there was ever a Wrestling Album, or Fritz decided to let Michael Hayes run music out ahead of The Freebirds. He attended one of their shows at the Rupp Arena, and remembers the evening:
“Jimmy was out in the front selling merch, and the place was packed. I’m telling you, when I went to watch those matches that night before talking to Lawler about the record, and Brother, that damn arena…the Fire Marshall wouldn’t let ‘em sell any more tickets. Mid-South completely sold out the whole Rupp Arena. They really impressed me that night. Lawler put on a great show and the crowd was all in.”
When we started to talk about the wrestling end of his career, John told me one of the best, old school wrestling stories that I’ve heard. For a classic wrestling guy like myself it really rang out to me and I wanted to share it with you all as well, but I’ll let John tell that part of the story:
“In the late Twenties, my Grandfather and my young Father went to the opera house in Lexington, Kentucky to watch wrestling matches. Well Strangler Ed Lewis was making his way down to the ring, and he used to chew gum en route to the ring. A fan slapped him on the back, like they used to e able to do in those days, and he got choked. So they got on the speaker and asked if there was a doctor available to please hurry down. My Grandfather, who was a doctor and had been a field trained medic in WWI, stepped over the rope and grabbed his chest to make him cough it up. He saved Strangler’s life, and he was so grateful that he gave my Grandfather a pair of ringside seats for any show he attended at the opera house.”
It wasn’t long before he got another call from Jimmy Hart, and this time it was to tell him that Vince wanted to talk to him about coming onboard to do music for them. He, of course, said yes and began working with Jimmy on theme music for the superstar’s entrances, as well as other projects inside the company, including the Piledriver album. John didn’t realize it yet, but he had just joined the biggest traveling sideshow in operation. When everyone else was just trying to secure their local market, Vince was thinking National, and when the rest had caught up to him he was already lookin Globally. It was on one of these global trips that we next catch up with John, who decided at the last minute that he was going to go to England to attend SummerSlam 1992.
“I decided the day before they(WWF) were leaving that I was going to fly over and see the show at Wembley Stadium there in England. I had to get my passport arranged and used some connections with the Governor of Kentucky to expedite the process. Well, I didn’t realize that he was going to get me a diplomatic immunity status one. I actually got there ahead of Vince and the rest of them, cause I was on a different flight, but I went straight through at the checkpoints.”
While in England for the event John also made a trip to the AIR studios owned by George Martin and was able to actually play on the same white grand piano as Paul McCartney had used only years earlier. He was also lucky enough to see the Abbey Road studios while he was there, and got to go into the legendary “Dungeon” in the basement where some of the biggest recordings to come out of England in the Sixties were laid down. John told me that if had not been for his ailing Mother, that he would have never left England. When he returned things would once again take off for Jimmy Hart and Maguire.
In 1993 the Thunder in Paradise show debuted and, once again, the team of Jimmy Hart and JJ Maguire went back to work in the music studio and created the theme music for the show, as well as various songs used during its production. This was followed up by the formation of The Wrestling Boot Band in 1995, with Jimmy, JJ, Hulk and his then wife Linda as the quartet. The team of Hart & Maguire wrote all the songs, with JJ playing basically every instrument on there, having the rest of his Boot band mates playing back up to him. It was during this part of our conversation that he told me one of my favorite quotes in this whole interview, when talked about Jimmy Hart and himself in the studio:
“Jimmy walked up to me after we finished up one of the songs on the Boot Band album, and he said, ‘Maguire, you know why I like working with you? Cause you’re self contained, you do it all.’ That will always stand out to me.”
Since his years working with Jimmy and the WWF, “Hurricane JJ” has stepped back a little from the wrestling and focused on his writing. He has several projects in the works from musical endeavors to working on selling a screenplay. John does stay active with his local product there in Kentucky however. Kentucky Zone Wrestling has made JJ their goodwill ambassador of sorts, as he opens every show, welcoming the fans and working the ringside area before the event.
With appearances scheduled for different conventions and gatherings around the country, John has decided to get back into the limelight if you will. I think that it was time to set the record straight on his career and the contributions he has made to the business. While the history books can be twisted to fit the agenda of those writing them, you cannot take away from the legacy he has left behind in music, and wrestling. John has written or worked on compilations of over sixty superstar themes, and I’m willing to bet that most of the ones that you know, love, and can sing along to, have been penned by JJ. The HBK theme, Demolition, Million Dollar Man, Slick, Honky Tonk Man, Road Warriors, Bret Hart, Brutus Beefcake, Dusty Rhodes, Koko B. Ware, Nasty Boys, Rockers, Hart Foundation, and Sgt. Slaughter, among so many others.
I’ve been talking with John for a little while now, but it was a conversation he had with his son that prompted us to do this article. When his son Marshall came home from school one day asking if he was really the “wrestling music guy”, John knew it was time to come forward and set the record straight, so to speak, on his work in the business. I’m glad we had this time to talk and I can see us working together more in the future. He is truly one of a kind, and I’m proud to call him a Brutha. You never know where this crazy business will take you or who you’ll meet. Thats one of the things I love about it most. John summed it pretty good when we spoke last:
“God gave me the talent, and I took it to the greatest show on Earth. I traveled the world with the greatest of all time and unbelievably entertained people of all colors and walks of life. Who knew wrestling was such a powerful force? I did.”
I wanna thank Hurricane JJ Maguire for taking the time to talk with me, and moreover, cementing a lifelong friendship with another amazing personality in the wrestling business, and the music world as well. This week’s edition was kind of a double shot of sorts, with breaking in stories from both of these worlds. John can be contacted for musical and personal appearances on his facebook page, or through his email at email@example.com.
John was very humble about, what in my opinion, he considers meager contributions to the business. I was quick to let him know otherwise. Just like I told him, he was part of a cultural movement that effected not only the Eighties but for years after. The WWF of those days wasn’t just about the in-ring product. It was the cartoon show, the ice cream bars, the music albums….they were all part of the entire experience for the kids and teens that were there to consume it all, and come back for thirds. The great McMahon machine would not have ran without every tooth on every gear spinning in synchronicity. Each and every one was just as important as the rest, in order to ensure the progression of the whole entity. While you can point to superstars that “carry the company on their shoulders”, I believe that from main event all the way down to the curtain jerkers, they were and are still, truly greater than the sum of their parts.
I will see you right here next week, and always remember…. Bruthas, Sistas, Marks, and Maniacs…..no matter what you do to get your foot in the door, when you’re given the opportunity, break it down!! Peace.