Learning about the recording career of The Ugandan Giant
RYAN NATION - SLAM! Wrestling
|The Best of Kamala Vol. 1 CD cover
From bellying slapping to toe tapping, the man known as Kamala is still in the ring and surprisingly enough, The Ugandan Giant can also sing.
Born James "Jim" Harris on May 28, 1950 in Senatobia, Mississippi, he has been recording songs over the past few years in between wrestling appearances.
"I started singing around 2003," explained Harris to SLAM! Wrestling from his home in Mississippi. "I always did like music, but I just had never been in it. I had a little old portable radio around the house with a recorder on it. I started doing a little singing and thought to myself, 'Let's try this.' So I bought a keyboard. One thing led to another, and I started doing a little recording here at the house. Now, I have a small studio at my house."
Harris has written over 100 songs and produces all of his music. Currently, he is in the early stages of writing a song for Sony Records. His latest album entitled The Best of Kamala Vol. 1 contains a unique blend of musical styles and tastes. For example, Harris wrote Ashley about his niece who he helped to raise after her father killed her mother.
"Ashley was seven-years-old at the time her mother was killed by her father in 1993," described Harris. "She is 21 now, and I wrote the song for her. She is going to college now and she is doing really good in school. She is living with me. She doesn't have a mom, and her dad is in prison for life. I take care of her and do the same thing a father would do for her."
Harris also spoke about one of his more controversial songs that he has written entitled No Same Pay for the Same Work, which describes the pay discrepancies within the workforce relating to ethnicity especially in professional wrestling.
"I might be criticized for a lot of the lyrics in it," said Harris. "You wouldn't know it unless you've been through it, and I have myself. I have family members and friends that have gone through the same thing. You get a job, and they will pay another person more than they pay you when you are doing the same work. In the lyrics, I say, 'We are doing so much better on welfare' because we know we're going to get that. You make more on welfare than you do at your own job. I have experienced that myself. I have never been on welfare since I've been an adult, but I was raised on welfare. I hope I don't ever have to do it again, so that is kind of what the song means."
Harris believes that his treatment was not just limited to him, but to African American wrestlers in general.
"We never really made any money," added Harris. "I speak for myself because I never did. I don't know about now. For instance Booker T. I don't know what kind of money he makes, but I know when I was there blacks didn't stand a chance on making money. Myself, I had to have a second job doing something else in my spare time when I would come home for a few days. I had an old tractor and I would go and make a garden for people and do a little grass cutting. Now, that's how I survived. Again, I don't know how it [working fulltime as a black wrestler] is now, but I don't believe it has changed that much."
Another song generating some Internet buzz is Push It, with lines like "You kept me poor when you know I put asses in the seats" and "Your drug test's a sham!"
Between recording songs and wrestling on the independent circuit, Harris also has a full-time job as a truck driver.
"I started driving a truck in 1970 before I started wrestling," recalled Harris. "I still drive a truck. I am home every night, but I work all day long, sometimes six days a week when I'm not doing independent shows. I had my own truck at one time, but when I started back wrestling at independent shows plus the price of fuel went up so high so I just let go of the truck. Then, I started driving for a friend of mine that I went to school with. I've been with him for about five years. Everything is pretty secure with him, which enables me to do the wrestling on the side during the weekends. I drive a dump truck now, but it's still an 18-wheeler, tractor and trailer. I haul gravel, rock, asphalt, and a lot of different stuff. It's an interesting job, I really like it."
Harris grew up in a rural area of northern Mississippi during the 1950s and '60s where he worked in the cotton fields.
"I grew up in Coldwater, Mississippi," stated Harris. "I was born in Senatobia, which is where I live now. They are about five miles apart within the same county. I picked and chopped cotton growing up. I plowed with the mule. I did it all."
However, it was an altercation with local law enforcement that led to Harris fleeing his home state as a teenager.
"In 1967, I was 17 years old. I used to do a lot of stuff like breaking and entering. The police officer here said he was tired of me and asked me to leave town. Back then if you didn't leave like they said, you would be found dead somewhere. So, I got on a bus and went to Florida to pick fruit. That's where I ended up for about five years."
At the age of 25, Harris relocated to Benton Harbor, Michigan to look for a job to make ends meet. Instead, he began his unexpected start in the world of wrestling.
"In 1975, I moved from Florida to Michigan," recalled Harris. "I had sisters up there. I was looking for a job. I looked for about four or five months for a job, and I had no money, no nothing. My sisters made sure I had food and stuff like that. They did the best they could because they didn't have any money.
Jim Harris' original demo CD cover, circa 2003: One Way Or Another
"I always did like wrestling on television but never wanted to become a wrestler," continued Harris. "I just got disgusted one day with the guy that was taking me around trying to find me a job. I said 'I ought to go and wrestle.' He said, 'You want to wrestle?' I said 'I should' but I didn't really mean it. He turned the car around and took me to Bobo Brazil
's house, but Bobo wasn't home. After that, he took me to a guy named Tiny Tim Hampton, which was Bobo's best friend. He started working out with me and later on I met Bobo. Then, I moved to Arkansas and started training in Memphis because I couldn't stand all of the snow up in Michigan."
Harris wrestled under such monikers as "Sugar Bear" Harris, "Ugly Bear" Harris, Big James Harris, and The Mississippi Mauler. Much like his start into professional wrestling, his metamorphosis into Kamala also happened by accident.
"I had just moved back home from London at the time in 1982," recalled Harris. "I went to the Coliseum in Memphis to see a guy named the Dream Machine (Troy Roland Thompson Jr.) about getting some wrestling gear because mine was coming from London by sea so it was going to take a long time. When I went there, Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett were looking at me. I guess they were looking at me because of my size although they had met me before, but I had had hair on my head so they didn't quite recognize me. They asked me if I was looking for work. I told them that I was looking for the Dream Machine but wouldn't mind working. They told me to turn around right then, go home and we would speak on Wednesday because they had something for me and it was going to be good. That's exactly what I did. That Wednesday, they wanted me to come to Hendersonville, Tennessee. That's where the Kamala gimmick was born. Lawler did the painting on my face, and it's still very similar today to the same thing he did back then."
A vignette was broadcasted on WMC-TV (Channel 5) in Memphis, which was designed to introduce the character to viewers by depicting Kimala (originally spelled with an 'i' and pronounced ke-mala) walking through the "jungles of Africa" with a spear in hand. [Here's a YouTube clip of it.] Harris quickly debunked past accusations that the gimmick was insulting to him.
"Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett asked me if I wanted to do it and if I was ashamed to wear paint on my face. I told them, 'No, just lay it on there.' They took me out by the pond, and I really enjoyed it. That Monday night, I was at the Coliseum wrestling Lawler."
"At the time Kimala was created, I owned a one-hundred plus acre farm in Hendersonville, Tennessee," explained long-time Memphis wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett to SLAM! Wrestling. "The farm had a low area that was somewhat swampy; therefore, I let it grow naturally and it made a great scene that fit the Africa requirement.
"You may be interested in the creation and how the name Kimala came about," continued Jarrett. "'Sugar Bear' Harris was a huge man, but his work rate was limited to say the least and his interview skills were worse. However, his size and his appearance enticed Jerry Lawler and I to try to create a character that fit his abilities. We decided to cast him as an African who did not speak English. This role covered for his lack of interview skills. Also being from Africa allowed him to function without true wrestling ability. Now we needed a name and a look. I went to my office and began looking through my stack of National Geographic magazines. I came across an article about a Doctor Kimala, who was doing research in Uganda. Kimala The Ugandan Giant was born. Jerry Lawler, being an artist, painted his body and bought the mask, beads, etc. to fit the role. Kimala was a huge success for us and went on to become a huge success everywhere he went. It could not have happened to a nicer or more deserving person."
Although Harris would go on to work for a number of companies and promoters throughout the world, he considers his stint working for Bill Watts in Mid-South Wrestling and later the Universal Wrestling Federation his most lucrative.
"Regardless of what people say about Bill Watts, he was a good man to me and treated me well from my experience with him," added Harris. "I made money with Bill Watts. I have to give credit to him because my money was right there. I saved every dime and bought the house that I'm in and 15 acres of land. If I had waited until I went to some other place like the WWF or any other promotion, I would probably still be living in an apartment or homeless. I haven't seen him in years, but we do talk by e-mail once in a while."
In his autobiography The Cowboy and the Cross, Watts writes, "Kamala, Jim Harris, was just a natural talent. He'd been a journeyman wrestler as James 'Sugarbear' Harris until 1982 when Jerry Jarrett in Memphis turned him into the Ugandan giant. Kamala came to me from Jarrett in 1982. I put him with Skandor Akbar as his manager, and Akbar was a tremendous stabilizing influence. Kamala was an awesome piece of talent, but he needed that stabilizing force."
Harris returned to WWE for the gimmick battle royal at WrestleMania X-7 in Houston. Since then, he has made few cameo appearances and signed a WWE Legends contract in 2005.
"When signing the legends contract, I was very hesitant of signing it because I didn't want to give up the rights to my music and lyrics," recalled Harris. "I made them do me another contract because my music career might kick off one day and it might not. I didn't want them to have anything to do with it. They rewrote the contract into my favor to where I liked it, but the legends deal is not worth nothing. They pay you money up front for doing it, but then you are supposed to draw royalties so they take all of that back. They give you x-amount of dollars for signing the contract. Okay, in the contract it states that the money is recoupable. Let's say you're supposed to get a royalty check for five hundred dollars this quarter. They deduct that from the money they give you for signing, they deduct that until they get it all back. They do that for five years. If it's not all back in five years, then that's their loss but they're not really losing. They want you to think that. With the contract, WWE just owns the licensing rights to the character for five years and not the character itself. The contract expires in about three years."
Earlier this summer, it was reported that Harris was contacted to appear at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto for the May 28 taping of Saturday Night's Main Event, which aired on June 2. Harris clarified the actual chain of events with SLAM! Wrestling.
"The last time I was with WWE was at Monday Night Raw on June 26, 2006 wrestling against Umaga. It was October before I got paid. The pay was so bad, like $400. I said to myself I'm finished with the WWE. I know I won't be getting a full-time contract with them because I'm too old, and that's understandable. They called me and wanted me to do a show in Canada. When they called me, I said, 'No thanks, I'm not interested at all' and they wanted to know why. I said because of my pay and that I waited till October to receive it. I don't live off of wrestling anyway because I have a job, but waiting that long for a check for $400 to do a job to Umaga -- I have nothing against Umaga at all. He's a great guy. I've known him since he was about 12 years old. However, I didn't want to go up there to just say I'm on WWE TV.
"Howard Finkel is the one that called me," continued Harris. "He didn't understand and asked me why I felt that way so I told him. I said, 'I make more money driving a truck than I will going through all of the hassle of being at the arena at 11 in the morning and sitting there until 11 at night just to do a job and wait four or five months for a $400 check.' He told me he didn't know that, and Howard may not have known. He said, 'Let me call some people; don't just close the door right now. He said let me call some people and find out how much you're going to make.' I said, 'You're welcome to do that and call me back if you want, but I'm still not interested.' He said, 'If the money was to your satisfaction, you would.' And I said, 'Yeah, I would be glad to do it.' I don't want to go up there to say I'm in the WWE because that doesn't mean a hill of beans to me. Howard called back and left me a message saying it won't be happening and that was it. I had seen in the legends contract where they want you to make appearances, but I won't make them for nothing. I will never make any appearances unless I receive a contract stating I will receive x-amount of dollars to my satisfaction. I don't believe they will do that because I do not mean anything to them. I don't care if I ever work for them again. I don't care about the publicity. All I care about is the money to put food on my table and that's it. Anything else can go to hell."
With the impending investigation of drug and substance abuse in professional wrestling by the United States Congress, Harris offered his views about the hotbed issue.
"I think they should investigate," stated Harris. "When I was there [in the WWE during the '80s and early '90s], everybody was smoking marijuana and doing steroids. That includes [Hulk] Hogan and all of them. I have a lot of respect for Hogan, but the truth is just the truth. I have seen Hogan put steroids right in his arm, and then I've seen guys giving each other shots. How could Hogan pass a drug test and then some of the lower card guys fail a drug test? Vince [McMahon] had the name and the number beside each person that took the drug test. From my understanding, the lab only had the number so if anybody failed a drug test, then the lab would send the number back to Vince. The lab didn't have the actual name. When the lab sent the number back to Vince, Vince could make the final decision. If a lower card guy failed the drug test, he would fine him. A lot of guys I knew were doing everything from steroids to cocaine every night, and I never heard a one of them flunking a drug test. Myself, I had nothing to hide. They could test me anytime they wanted to. I smoked marijuana twice in my life, and it was in the WWF. I passed all of the drug tests, and I was always there on time. They really messed me over, they wouldn't pay me. I did my job the best I knew how. My motto is if I would have went there and started doing drugs and partying with them every night, I would have made money. If I would had been a part of all of the gay sex going on at the time, then I would have been in and making money."
However, Harris did add that he never saw any drug use during his last few cameo appearances within WWE. Although Kamala will likely never appear in WWE again, he has no intentions of slowing down.
"I stay booked pretty solid," said Harris. "I can still go, and I feel good. I don't move as fast as I used to because I'm 57 years old, but I still entertain and generate a response. I will still wrestle for a little longer, but I'm not sure how much longer to be exact."
Harris then offered a parting thanks to his fans: "I want to thank all of my fans for supporting me for nearly three decades. I have some fans that e-mail me and ask why I'm not in the WWE Hall of Fame. I don't know a lot about their hall of fame, but I probably will never be in it. Back about two weeks ago, I was inducted into a hall of fame in a little place in Arkansas. It brought tears to my eyes because as much work as I did for a big company like WWE, they never thought of me but a small independent company inducted me into their hall of fame in a tiny town. I made a speech there and thanked all of them. Worldwide, I would like to thank all of my fans who have supported me, those who have cheered me and those who have booed me. I did my best to entertain and be interesting to them. They paid their money to get in and see me, and I want them to know that I love them from the bottom of my heart and always will."
July 7, 2001: Breaking Kayfabe with Kamala
Official website: www.thegiantkamala.com
Listen to Push It by Kamala
Visit the SLAM! Wrestling store for more Kamala!
WWE Classic Superstars Series 9 Wrestling Figure: Kamala
Kamala Shoot Interview DVD-R
Ryan Nation would like to remind everyone that the preceding views do not necessarily reflect those of the author or SLAM! Wrestling; however, he would like to ride shotgun with Kamala in his 18-wheeler as The Ugandan Giant sings his songs as they play on the radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.