April 20, 2011
All in the family: The Gilberts story
By RYAN NATION - SLAM! Wrestling
Few families are as synonymous with Tennessee wrestling as the Gilbert family, and the Cauliflower Alley Club recently honored three generations of the Gilbert family with the prestigious 2011 Family Award.
The Gilbert family wrestling legacy started with the late Arlie F. Gilbert. Hailing from Lexington, Tennessee, Arlie Gilbert wrestled in the carnival circuit throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He went on to become a pipeline supervisor and passed away in 1998 at the age of 87.
In an interview with SLAM! Wrestling, Tommy Gilbert shared fond memories of his father stating, "He was my idol, he was a fantastic person, wonderful family man and never spoke an ill word against anyone. Everyone that ever knew him, liked him."
Born January 15, 1940, Thomas "Tommy" Edward Gilbert Sr. developed the wrestling bug at a young age.
"I was about 14 when I saw a match with Gorgeous George and Buddy Rogers," recalled Gilbert. "With knowing that wrestling was in my heritage, I knew from that day on that pro wrestling was my goal. My father supported the idea as long as I finished school."
Trained by Memphis wrestling legend Al "Spider" Galento, Tommy Gilbert began wrestling in 1969. Gilbert wrestled both as a singles wrestler and as a part of multiple tag teams. He won singles titles such as the NWA Southern Junior Heavyweight Championship, NWA Southern Heavyweight title and the NWA Florida Television Title. Gilbert also held one half of several tag team championship titles including NWA Tennessee Tag Team Championship and NWA (Mid America) Southern Tag Team Titles. Gilbert partnered with several Tennessee mainstays including Sputnik Monroe, Bearcat Brown and Eddie Marlin.
Longtime Memphis promoter, Jerry Jarrett, discussed the Gilbert family with SLAM! Wrestling. "My memory of Tommy Gilbert is that he was first, a great wrestler. I teamed Tommy with Eddie Marlin and got lucky because they became instant box office success. Tommy and Eddie Marlin were viewed by the fans as blue collar; therefore, most of our hard working fans could identify with them. They were not a glamor team like the Fabulous Ones, nor were they considered to be world-beaters, but both were viewed as tough as nails, and the fans also knew that they would give their opponents all they wanted in the ring. I could always depend on Tommy Gilbert and Eddie Marlin to keep the attendance up in between programs with Tojo Yamamoto, Jackie Fargo or Jerry Lawler."
Both Tommy Gilbert's sons, Eddie Gilbert and Doug Gilbert, would also ply their trade in the squared circle.
Thomas Edward Gilbert Jr., better known as "Hot Stuff" Eddie Gilbert was born August 14, 1961. Like his father before him, Eddie became enamored with professional wrestling as a young age.
According to Eddie's mother, Peggy, "From the time he was in the second grade, his only thing was being a wrestler. His dad and I both tried to talk him into being anything else."
Eddie began fantasy booking as a young child. "When he was a very small child, when most children were outside playing; he was in his bedroom at his desk making matches," Tommy Gilbert explained to SLAM! Wrestling. "We still have old writing pads in our attic where he booked imaginary matches with real wrestler's names, at real name arenas, and would work out the angles. He was probably in second or third grade then."
Jarrett also added, "I really can't remember what age Eddie was at the time, but I know he was in the early high school years, and he might have even still been in middle or junior high school. One night, he asked if it would be out of line if he brought me some wrestling programs that he had been writing. I told Eddie I would love to take a look at his work.
"The very next week Eddie brought me a stack of handwritten wrestling programs that were clear, precise, detailed, and clever," continued Jarrett. "He went into detail about the television shows and then the arena matches and how they would each play off each other. Several days later, I told his dad, Tommy, that he should steer Eddie toward the creative side of wrestling because I felt he had a real feel for the business."
As Eddie matured, his asked his father to train him to become a wrestler.
"At about 14, Eddie started wanting me to work with him," recalled Tommy Gilbert. "We would go into the den, and I would hold him down until tears came in his eyes. His mother would start screaming 'let him up.' That was to try to discourage him, but he kept coming back for more and I kept trying to point him toward another career. After I saw that he wasn't going to change his mind, I helped him."
Eddie started off in the business writing articles and taking ringside photographs before transitioning into a professional wrestler. Originally billed as Tommy Gilbert Jr., he made his wrestling debut in 1979 in Malden, Missouri.
In an interview conducted by wrestling journalist Roger Deem with Eddie at the start of his career, he stated, "My first goal is to become as fine a wrestler as my father is. That alone will take years. My second goal is to become the first man from Tennessee to win the NWA Title."
Professional wrestling aficionado Dr. Mike Lano recalled Eddie's early days wrestling in Missouri with SLAM! Wrestling. "Tommy was very proud as I recall, introducing Eddie to Kansas and Missouri fans who took to him immediately," stated Lano. "The late Terry Justice was a huge fan and historical student of the game, and he formed fan clubs for both, particularly concentrating on Eddie. Eddie deferred to Tommy at all times while in the Midwest along with legends he worshipped like Pat O'Connor, Harley Race and Ray Stevens. Young Eddie was a chip off the old Gilbert block in asking questions of his idols."
Longtime Gilbert family friend and recipient of the 2011 CAC Red Bastien Friendship Award, Darla Taylor, also shared her memories of the Gilbert family. "Sapphire [Juanita Wright] and I were best friends," explained Taylor. "We probably went to Kansas City during those few months that Eddie was there probably at least once a month. We became very good friends with him. Periodically, he would go back to Memphis for a while, and then we would go to Memphis to visit him and Tommy.
"When Eddie was starting out, he was always a babyface. He used to tell me, 'Darla, I just want to be a heel so bad.' I said, 'Eddie, you can't be a heel. You're too damn cute.' Eventually, he was able to be a heel. That was the type of wrestler he wanted to be most of his career. He said it was fun. That was his dream."
In 1982, Gilbert headed to the WWF and mostly appeared on the bottom half of the card. His life changed the following year when he was involved in near-fatal car accident near Allentown, Pennsylvania, after a TV taping. He suffered severe injuries to his neck, arms and back. Eddie would then go on to hone his wrestling skills in the Memphis territory.
"Eddie graduated high school and began wrestling for us," explained Jerry Jarrett. "Tommy had done a great job getting Eddie ready because he was a natural from his first match. I was very flattered one night when I was talking to Eddie about his career. I encouraged him to remember that active wrestling was fun, but would not last very long. I suggested that if he got into the creative side of the business, it could last a lifetime. Eddie reminded me that I had first been a wrestler, and he wanted to know every side of the business like I did. I relied on Eddie for ideas for the matches he was involved with."
Upon returning to Tennessee, Eddie really found his niche as a cocky, upstart heel with a turn on tag team partner Tommy Rich that helped him earn a main event against Jerry Lawler. Since he yearned to be top gun in Memphis like Lawler, "that was a dream come true," he said in a 1992 interview with Paul Adamovich. Moving to Bill Watts' Louisiana-based promotion, Gilbert partnered with wife Missy Hyatt, a combination of beauty and sneakiness that shot to the top ranks of wrestling. The "Hot Stuff" name, taken from a Donna Summer song, was always on his mind. "I wanted to be a heel," he said. "And I thought, 'OK, everybody's got a nickname. Why can't I be 'Hot Stuff' and why can't that be my song?"
"It is a family business, so I went to the Mid-South Coliseum with my dad every Monday night, beginning in kindergarten all the way to Madison Square Garden with my brother in the 1980s," he explained to SLAM! Wrestling. "It's all I knew from early on, so of course I wanted to be like my grandfather, father and brother."
Doug admitted there were expectations to live up to the Gilbert family name when stepping inside the ring. "Yes, there was pressure," stated Gilbert. "Anytime you have to live up to the standards that my dad and brother set, there is going to be pressure. I never felt any pressure from any of the boys, but I'm sure they thought I was given more opportunities because of my family name. As for the fans, I think all of us were different wrestlers and gave the fans what they wanted."
Doug would soon establish himself as both a singles and tag team wrestler. In fact, both Doug and Eddie would win the Eastern Championship Wrestling World Tag Team Championships for a short time in 1993. Both Eddie and Doug would go on to work in what was left of the territories including the Memphis based United States Wrestling Association (USWA). One particular angle in 1990 involved the Gilbert brothers wreaking havoc both inside and outside of the WMC-TV 5 television studio.
Lawler recalled the memorable angle in his 2002 autobiography It's Good to Be the King... Sometimes writing, "I did a great, though nearly fatal, work with Eddie. We did it in the parking lot of the TV station in Memphis. What we did was have me get run over there one morning by Eddie Gilbert. It was all filmed, and we were going to use it as an angle to work off. But when he ran into me, he was going a little faster that he might have, and I flew up and hit the windshield. It broke and I flew over the top of the car. Eddie's brother, Doug Gilbert, was in the car and he said he thought I'd been killed."
Eddie held multiple championships including the Universal Wrestling Federation tag titles with Sting and the USWA Unified World Heavyweight Championship; however his knack for booking continued to grow. He booked for companies such as the Continental Wrestling Federation and Eastern Championship Wrestling. Sadly, Eddie Gilbert passed away on February 18, 1995 in Puerto Rico. He was just 33. As a result of his untimely passing, a lot of "what ifs" remain.
"Had Eddie lived and been fully healthy, I think he and Doug would still be very prominent in the biz," stated Lano. "Eddie would've spent time in WCW as well as WWE doing creative genius work. Eddie's biggest strength in the ring was his mind. No one had absorbed so much and from all the best people at the time during his too brief life. There was only one Eddie Gilbert, and I wish this business had been better overall to him."
Today, Tommy Gilbert lives with his wife Peggy, who is an alderman for the city of Lexington, Tennessee. Tommy described the toll the industry can take on a family by stating, "The business is very hard on families. You have to be away from home so much. If you have children, you miss a lot of their lives and important events in their lives."
Doug Gilbert still wrestles regularly for independent organizations such as NWA Main Event Wrestling and NWA Top Rope Wrestling. He currently lives with his wife, Melissa, of nearly 11 years in Lexington.
"From start to finish, all the Gilberts worked hard and gave the people all we had to give," added Doug. "Personally, it means a great deal to be inducted, especially as a family, to a hall of fame that includes wrestlers I grew up watching. I wish my brother could be here to accept with me and my family, but I know he'll be looking down and be proud."
-- with files from Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson
Ryan Nation holds a Bachelor of Science in English-Journalism, and he is currently working on his Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication. E-mail your memories of the Gilbert family to firstname.lastname@example.org.