Eddie Bond

August 31, 2007 - Bob Mehr

There's a lot of different ways to describe Eddie Bond. You could get fancy and call him a "polymath" or you could just say he's always had his fingers in a bunch of different pies. But no matter how you characterize his exploits, it's clear he's one of a dying breed of old-school music men: a slicked-back rockabilly cat with a country heart, a sharp wheeler-dealer with a silver tongue, a canny trend watcher with a dead eye for talent.

In his 50-plus years as a Mid-South mover and shaker he's been a musician, radio deejay and station owner, cult TV star, wrestling promoter, nightclub impresario, record label head -- even a police chief. In the process he's given early career boosts to everyone from guitar great Reggie Young -- who began as a member of Bond's backing group the Stompers -- to Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, who got their start as the house band at Bond's Diplomat Club. Bond earned his nickname as the "Tennessee Legend Maker" bringing the story of McNairy County Sheriff Buford Pusser to light and launching the career of wrestling royal Jerry "The King" Lawler.

"If it wasn't for Eddie Bond I wouldn't be in the wrestling business," says Lawler. "There's no telling what I'd be doing today. Eddie gave me my first break in pretty much everything."

"Whatever he did, Bond was always one of those really colorful characters," says Memphis musician and rockabilly historian Monsieur Jeffrey Evans.

"Like after he was on Decca Records, he started his own label and called it Deccer -- hey, when you say it from the stage, they both sound the same," says Evans, laughing. "He was always on top of the trends too -- he cut a song about Vietnam in '64 or '65, very early on. So whether it was it was recording rockabilly, country, or topical songs, the guy always had a flair to what he did."

Even the unflattering stories about Bond boasted this same uniquely colorful quality; for years it had been popularly held that he was the person who told a young Elvis Presley he should "stick to driving a truck" -- a legend that Bond says is false.

After a lifetime of activity, Bond, who turned 74 last month, has slowed down in recent years. He's mostly divested himself of his various professional interests and lives quietly with his wife, Gladys, in Bolivar, Tenn. Still, he occasionally turns up to perform locally -- including this weekend's Memphis Music and Heritage Festival -- as well as in the U.K. where he continues to be revered as godhead by rockabilly aficionados.

Born in South Memphis in 1933, early on, Bond flashed the hustle and pluck that would come to mark his career, winning his first guitar -- a Gene Autry model -- by selling the most garden seed in a local competition. As a child, Bond practiced and played until his fingers bled, aping the styles of the country music stars of the day, particularly Hank Williams and George Morgan.

After high school and a stint in the Navy, Bond worked a variety of jobs in town, eventually joining his father as a paint salesman for M.C. Campbell & Co. (later, when he found success in the music business, Bond would buy the company). It was around this time, in 1952, that Bond formed his original band, the Stompers, playing hot country swing music in local bars for several years.

But by the mid-'50s, country was fading commercially and rock and roll was taking off, so Bonds followed the trend. After failing to win over Sam Phillips at Sun, Bond got a deal with tiny Ekko Records out of Hollywood. His first single, 1955's "Talking off the Wall"/ "Double Duty Lovin'," did well enough to attract the attention of Mercury Records, who quickly signed him. Most of Bond's musical reputation rests on the dozen or so blazing rockabilly sides he cut for Mercury between 1956 and 1958, among them classics of the genre including "Rockin' Daddy" "Slip Slip Slippin' In" and "Bopin' Bonnie."

With his first flush of chart success, Bond headed out on tour for an endless stream of one-nighters. "I worked a year with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Warren Smith all that Sun bunch. I was on the road for a year doing that and it was just traveling, traveling, traveling," says Bond. "I had my fill of it pretty quick. So I quit doing that and started on radio."

Bond would land a job as a disc jockey on Memphis' K-WAM. "It was a full-time country station," he says. "They'd just (increased) to 10,000 watts of power so they was blowin' and goin' then." For the next 17 years Bonds would remain at the station -- ultimately becoming its manager -- and using the radio gig as the platform for his show business activities.

Through the late '50s and into the '60s, Bonds continued making music, but returned to his first love, country. He worked with Nashville legends like Webb Pierce and the Wilburn Brothers, recording for several major labels and larger independents. But for most of the next decade Bond would cut singles for regional companies as well as various labels of his own, among them Stomper Time, Diplomat and Advance. He would also produce dozens of local bands and singers for his own imprints, often in the studios of K-WAM.

Another outlet Bonds explored was as a nightclub entrepreneur. Over the years he ran several notable hot spots around Memphis including The Little Black Book, The Eddie Bond Ranch, The Diplomat, and the Southern Frontier, the latter which he co-owned with wrestling promoter Jackie Fargo.

Bond would occasionally promote and MC matches, and through that connection he came in contact with a 17-year-old wrestling fan and aspiring artist named Jerry Lawler. Lawler had been sending caricature portraits of wrestlers to the local TV station, and Bond and Fargo decided to sort of adopt Lawler, setting him up with a small sign painting business next door to their club.

"I worked at the sign paining company and became a gopher for Eddie and Jackie," says Lawler. "Eddie even gave me a DJ slot on K-WAM. Being around those guys is what eventually led me to actually become a wrestler."

Lawler would sometimes accompany Bond to tape his bizarre and brilliantly hokey variety show, which aired every morning at 6:45 a.m. on WHBQ for a decade, before continuing as a regionally syndicated program.

In the early '70s, Bond made another of his discoveries in the form of Sheriff Buford Pusser, the ex-wrestler turned lawman who'd fought an infamous and bloody war against moonshiners and gamblers in McNairy County. "One night Buford and one of his deputies they came to the Southern Frontier," remembers Bond. "He asked me, you ever thought about writing a song about me? And actually I hadn't, so I sloughed him off. But I got to thinking about it and got to together with a friend of mine at the radio station, Jim Climes, and we wrote 'Buford Pusser Goes Bear Hunting With a Switch.' "

The myth-making narrative would form the foundation for a full-length Pusser-inspired album Bond would later cut for Stax's Enterprise label.

Ever the showman, Bond would run with the idea, even serving as the police chief of tiny Finger, Tenn., Pusser's birthplace.

It was also Bond who paired Pusser with Commercial Appeal writer W.R. Morris, author of the book "The Twelfth of August: The Story of Buford Pusser." The sheriff's tale eventually became a major motion picture hit for Bing Crosby Productions, but by then Bond had sold his interest in the project.

In the mid-'70s, Bond began to experience unlikely an career resurgence in the U.K. The country was in the throes of a rockabilly revival and clamoring for stars like Bond to perform. Promoter Dave Travis began bringing Bond over and the two sparked a friendship. He would eventually sell the entire catalog of Stomper Time and his various labels to Travis. Over the last 20 years Travis has released a trove of historically important compilations documenting the music of the Mid-South, under the Stomper Time imprimatur. This includes a recent 40-track career-spanning Bond retrospective called Memphis Rockabilly King.

"It's amazing," says Jerry Lawler. "I go to England to wrestle with the WWE and they have these big rockabilly shops and Eddie Bond is a huge star. He's a bigger over there than he ever was here in the States."

After spending all his life in Memphis, in the late-'90s Bond decided to move to Bolivar, where he still resides. For a time, Bond owned and operated a little club and general store, where he often featured his son Eddie Bond Jr. performing. But the younger Bond died in 2002 at the age of 34 from lupus and his father eventually sold off the club and his other interests.

"I guess you could say I'm semi-retired, well, mostly retired now," says Bonds.

But for those who've known Bond and benefited from the association, he'll always hold a special place. "We did a wrestling show up in Bolivar just a little while ago," says Jerry Lawler. "Eddie and Gladys came and I got a chance to stand up and tell everybody 'There's a guy here in the audience, and if it wasn't or him I wouldn't be here tonight.' It might sound like a cliché but it's true: they really don't make them like Eddie any more."

Back to the "Take Note" Main Page