By Mike Mooneyham
Feb. 23, 2003
He’s performed in front of thousands and traveled around the world, but it was his rural Berkeley County roots that helped prepare Burrhead Jones for a career in professional wrestling nearly 40 years ago.
“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” says Jones, who didn’t let his hardscrabble youth discourage him. His humble beginnings provided a sturdy work ethic that would serve him well in later years.
Those years would see Jones take his place on the professional wrestling circuit, a black man battling the odds in a business that mirrored a segregated society. A generation before pay-per-views, high-dollar contracts and “sports entertainment,” pro wrestling was a life of one-night stands, going up and down the road, making six bucks and spending four, a life of spilling blood on canvases and breaking bones in smoke-filled arenas and dingy union halls.
It was more than a wrestling life. It was an odyssey through a tumultuous period of American history, and Jones views it in warmly human terms.
The experience gave Jones, an original and colorful character, the chance to bask in the spotlight of a profession that seemed tailor-made for him.
To many longtime fans, especially those weaned on Mid-Atlantic wrestling, Jones has become a cult favorite.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“Burrhead so often likes to joke that ‘there’s only one Burrhead Jones, and there’ll never be another cotton-pickin’ other.’ There is no question about that,” says longtime fan Andy McDaniel of Summerville, who helped organize a 1998 reunion that honored Jones and other former wrestling stars. “He’s a hero from the past, a true legend who didn’t just portray a role. He was that character.”
Jones, born Melvin Nelson 65 years ago, grew up in a small clapboard home built in the early 1900s on land that his ancestors owned, near what is today Carolina Nurseries Inc., off U.S. Highway 52 in Moncks Corner. In those days, the 600-acre horticultural smorgasbord was endless rows of tobacco, corn and cotton fields where Jones spent his afternoons and evenings picking cotton for two cents a pound when he wasn’t busy plowing his own family’s fields with the help of his grandfather’s ox.
“My grandfather used to cut the plow handle off so I could reach it, so I figure I was only about 7 years old at the time,” Jones recalls.
His grandparents lacked formal education, Jones says, but they were honest, family-oriented, hard-working people concerned about raising their children and trying to do their best.
“They had a good sense of humor and knowledge. They had what they needed to get them through that time. You didn’t need a high school education to pick cotton. You didn’t need an education to plow.”
The family farm provided most of the necessities, and there was little need for cash.
In the summer, cooking and washing were done outdoors in large iron pots over open flames. Shucking corn, shelling peas and picking greens were often family affairs, performed in the coolest place they could find, usually the front porch or underneath a big oak tree. The men slaughtered hogs in winter, and the kill often was shared with family and neighbors.
“We were one big family, about five or six different houses in the same neighborhood. When anything happened in the community, someone would go to the church and ring the bell. When folks heard that bell ring, they’d go to the church to find out what happened since we didn’t have any telephones back then.”
Jones’ grandmother made quilts to keep the family warm on cold winter nights. Sometimes, neighbors would jump in to help, distributing quilts around the community.
“They’d make quilts out of old clothes. They’d cut two bamboo sticks, put the quilts on the sticks and lay them across two chairs at each end. Two or three people would get on each side, they’d get a good old church song going, hum it and go all day long.”
“I’ve had every patch in my clothes except an okra patch,” laughs Jones. “That cover we had on us was about two feet thick. We had everything on that bed to keep us warm … Life was beautiful. We never had any money, but we had happiness.”
Although he looks back at his early days with fond memories, life was far from easy for Jones.
His father skipped out six months before Jones was born. His mother moved to Charleston when he was only 2 to “better her conditions,” although he would spend time with her and his future five siblings whenever he could find transportation to the city. The arrangement left Jones in the primary care of his grandparents, along with a number of aunts and uncles who lived in the area. That family, he says, provided him with strong values.
“We didn’t have much, but we’d have Christmas,” says Jones. “I just couldn’t wait until Santy Claus came down the chimney. We always had marbles, something to play around in the yard with.”
But it didn’t take Jones long to figure out that some of his gifts came with a not-so-hidden message.
“When they spent money on you at Christmas, it would usually benefit them, too,” he says. “I remember getting a little red wagon. But come to find out, that was a working vehicle. That little red wagon would be used to go into the woods and cut firewood. There was a purpose for everything. I got a bicycle; they put a basket on it. I didn’t have anything to put in the basket, but I quickly found out that its purpose was for hauling groceries from a small mom and pop store three miles away.”
“We didn’t have electric lights,” says Jones. “There were no modern-day luxuries. The bathroom was about a block away from the house. We started out with a one-seater and moved up to a two-seater.”
What Jones did have was love and support from a family that abided by one standard, the Golden Rule.
“The priorities back then were church, work and school. We used to go to church three times on Sunday – Sunday school, the morning service and the evening service. Church played a very important role in our lives.” Church was a place they could tap their feet, clap their hands and sing with spirit. It was a social refuge, filled with laughter and shouts of Amen. The preacher, Jones says, had no formal training, “he just got the call.”
Jones looks back, not through rose-colored glasses, but with a dose of realism. “It was the way of the times,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was history.”
And although there was racial prejudice and inequity, Jones always remembered his grandmother telling him to be patient.
“She told me to love my neighbor. If I was treated unfairly, she said, the Lord would take care of it … in His time, that the Lord would make a way somehow.”
And somehow, the Lord always did.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Jones quit school in the 10th grade to help support his family. He wasn’t even 10 when his grandfather died, so at an early age Jones assumed the responsibility of providing a steady income to assist his grandmother. That included working on other farms and plantations, as well as tending his family’s crops.
Grandmothers, mothers, children all working for their very existence is a picture that’s firmly embedded in Jones’ mind. He can recall his own grandmother picking two- to three-hundred pounds of cotton a day. She could carry a bucket of water in each hand and one on her head for a mile and a half, Jones says, “singing a good old hymn-song while she did it and praising the Lord.”
In the summertime, the heat could be blistering, the fields sizzling like a steam iron, he says. “Sometimes, they wouldn’t even stop for lunch, just for maybe a quick snack. When you talk about a day’s work, you were talking about 12 to 14 hours.”
A lot of what he learned about discipline, hard work, caring, honesty and dependability came from those fields, he says.
Bill Gethers, 64, grew up four houses away from Jones and attended a four-room schoolhouse with his childhood friend. There were hardships, he agrees, but nothing they couldn’t endure.
“We learned some important things about life. I can still remember all the good times we had together … Everybody was family there.”
In the simple setting of his farm home, Jones says, there was peace, joy and harmony, despite the backdrop of racial inequality beyond its walls.
“There was prejudice at the time, but we never looked at it that way. Me and the white kids would go hunting and fishing after school. We’d do things together. The only thing we never did is go to school together. But as I got older, my mind started to expand. Friends who were older went away and came back. I knew right then there was a better way of living.”
It was that desire to achieve better things that prompted Jones at age 17 to go in search of new horizons. In 1955, Jones moved to New York, carrying only a shopping bag and the hope of a steady paycheck.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Jones says. “I left the cotton field with a sack on one arm Friday afternoon, and by Saturday afternoon, I was in New York City. I had little education and little experience. I didn’t even know how to use a telephone because we never had one.”
A few months later, he found a job making $40 a week at a vegetable packing plant in Greenwich Village. It was the most money he had ever seen. Admittedly naive to “city ways,” he laughs when recounting one of his first experiences on the job.
“My boss told me to go across the street and get the time, a bagel and a cup of coffee. I wondered why he wanted the time, since a clock was right up there on the wall. But I didn’t want to look stupid, so I went on anyway. I came back, brought the coffee and the bagel. He asked me where the time was. I told him that it was 10 after eight. But he was talking about The New York Times. Back then, though, I didn’t know anything about the newspaper. I was strictly a farm boy right out of the woods, and I didn’t know anything about big-city life. I guess I was gullible.”
The bright lights and fast-paced life of New York City was, indeed, a different world for a young man who still yearned for the starry nights and gentle pace of life back in Berkeley County. But there was no turning back.
“After I left home, I had to change my life around 110 percent because everything was completely different to me. I had never seen any building higher than one-story tall until I went to New York City.”
Jones’ life would change forever after an uncle took him to the old Madison Square Garden for a professional wrestling show. He says from that point on, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
Fortuitously, Jones had a job as an elevator operator at a four-story military surplus store on 42nd Street, less than a block from a gym frequented by pro wrestlers. He began using his lunch hour to join them in workouts, and a trainer there agreed to teach him the ropes.
At a shade under six feet tall but weighing only 160 pounds, Jones was too light for the pro ranks. Over the next several years, though, he would bulk up to a solid 210 pounds.
“No drugs, just high-protein milkshakes,” he says, along with some grueling workouts that “separated the men from the boys.”
“It was like you see today on (the World Wrestling Entertainment show) ‘Tough Enough,’ except it was a good bit tougher,” he says. “If you hurt yourself, the trainers would push you to go on. There were very few blacks in wrestling. A lot of things I didn’t believe about the business I found to be true. You really could get hurt.”
Jones was in his late 20s before his wrestling training finally paid off, when he was hired by promoter Vince McMahon Sr. to work some shows for his Northeastern-based World Wide Wrestling Federation, a predecessor to today’s WWE.
It was a brave new world for a young man who had never before even seen a wrestling match on television. He was now part of a spectacular and colorful show, one that took him to cities he had only read about and gave him the opportunity to meet characters from all walks of life.
BIRTH OF BURRHEAD JONES
Although Jones had refused to allow race to define his childhood, it had been a way of life in the South. Blacks were constrained daily by “Jim Crow” laws that enforced segregated elevators, buses, water fountains, restaurants and housing, all made legal by a set of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1800s that would remain valid for 70 years.
“We all knew our role,” Jones says. “We didn’t step across the barrier. At the time, I didn’t know there was anything better out there because my mind was just focused around the little area I was raised in.”
Most of Jones’ early ring work brought him back to the South, where black grapplers weren’t allowed to mix it up with white wrestlers. Too often, blacks were called on to reinforce negative stereotypes.
Claude “Thunderbolt” Patterson, 61, another pioneer black performer who first crossed paths with Jones in Atlanta during the early ’70s, recalls the struggles blacks faced during that period.
“There were a lot of double standards because of your color. But I never saw Burrhead complain about anything. He always had a smile on his face and a joke to tell.”
Wrestling under the ring name Jimmy Jones, “because it was simple and easy enough to spell,” the man who had been known as Melvin Nelson was forced to bounce from territory to territory looking for black opponents to work with.
Jones wrestled in scores of venues throughout Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana, and even had to work as a referee when his stable of black opponents ran out.
He says it was wrestler Billy Hines, promoting in Panama City, Fla., at the time, who came up with the idea of Jones going up against a white wrestler. The two devised a plan where they’d get into a pushing match after Hines accused Jones of being a biased referee. Hines set up a match between them the following week, vowing that he would destroy Jones and inciting the crowd of rabid fans.
“The matches that night in Panama City were supposed to start at 7:30, but people were still in line at 9 o’clock trying to get into the building,” Jones recalls “Billy took everything I gave him until it was time to stop. He hit me below the belt, and the house went wild. We had a near-riot, and the promoter had to call the match to keep people from getting hurt.”
The two worked the successful program for several weeks. As Jones’ popularity soared, so did his bookings.
Jones remembers sitting in a Baton Rouge motel room when he heard a commercial announcing the debut of a wrestler named ‘Cockleburrhead Jones’ at a show in Morgan City. When he arrived at the arena, fans were pointing at him, calling him ‘Cockleburrhead.’
“I wondered what the heck they were talking about. Billy Hines was laughing his head off. He told me that he had changed my name. I was a little mad in the beginning, because all my ring attire had ‘Jimmy Jones’ on it.” Hines explained that an Afro hairstyle commercial had played while they were filming promos, and he thought it would be a catchy name for Jones.
“My Afro would get all tied up in knots and looked something like a pine burr, all fluffed up,” says Jones, adding that the hairstyle had become popular and that those with Afro cuts were sometimes called “cockleburrheads.” Although some initially interpreted his name as a racial slur, Jones says it never bothered him, and it made him money and a memorable character.
“The name stuck with me from one end of the world to another. It was a good-luck charm to me.”
WRESTLING IN THE DEEP SOUTH
During the ’60s, Jones saw a different side to race relations in the North, and he says he wasn’t shocked to see that things had changed little in the South, where in some one-horse towns he could wrestle, but wasn’t allowed “to sit down in the cafeteria and eat with the boys.”
He recounted an incident when he and a group of white wrestlers stopped at a restaurant in west Mississippi.
“The waitress brought glasses of water to the (white) wrestlers. I told her what I wanted. She said, ‘Sorry, sir, we can’t serve your kind.’ I said, ‘I didn’t order that, Miss, I don’t want none of my kind, I just want a hamburger steak.'”
Jones, still trying to get a meal, went to a kitchen in the basement.
“Here were these people with their aprons that looked like they hadn’t been washed in six months. One lady had her lips full of snuff, one guy had a jaw full of chewing tobacco, and one guy had a jug of corn whiskey behind the counter. I tried to see if I could find a white cook. I asked them who was cooking for the white folks. They said they were.”
“I can’t eat with my friends, and you all are cooking for the white folks, too?” Jones asked.
“Son, you must not be from around here,” replied the elderly man, who offered Jones a slug of his moonshine.
Jones himself endured a number of stereotypical gimmicks during that time. Billed “from the cotton fields of Louisiana,” he once dragged a cotton sack to the ring for a match with a wrestler named Frank Dalton in Baton Rouge, La. He worked a match in Montgomery, Ala., in which the loser got tarred and feathered. “I looked like the bird on Sesame Street,” he says. “They used molasses, and I swallowed one of the feathers and almost choked. But I got $25 extra in my envelope.”
The angle worked and played to sellout crowds for weeks. It all was no worse, Jones reasoned, than some of the gimmicks promoters saddled other wrestlers with. The bottom line was to make the fans feel emotion and keep the turnstiles clicking.
The business, though, ultimately accorded Jones the respect he had earned. In many ways, he says, the wrestling profession was like the family he had left behind years earlier.
“Wrestling is one big family that sticks together. I’ve gotten to meet many interesting people along the way. I never sensed any prejudice among the boys. Traveling was a great experience for me. I may have a 10th-grade education, but I’ve got a Ph.D. in common sense and knowledge. I can hold a conversation with anybody, no matter what level they’re on, no matter if it’s the president of the United States or a wino in the gutter. The experience of life and traveling around the world, meeting people from different walks of life, has given me that gift.”
NEW LIFE, NEW CAREER
Jones enjoyed one of his most successful runs in the business teaming with a cousin he met in New York several years before turning pro. He and Carey “Buster” Lloyd, a Dillon native who would later become Rufus R. “Freight Train” Jones, one of wrestling’s most popular performers, worked out at the same 42nd Street gym.
The two first teamed in New York in the late ’60s and again in the mid-’70s for Charlotte-based Crockett Promotions, becoming one of that company’s top acts. One of their most memorable matches saw Burrhead Jones take a seemingly vicious beating at the hands of “bad guy” Black Jack Mulligan in a 1976 bout televised in Raleigh, N.C. It was a textbook angle that is still talked about in wrestling circles today. “Burrhead really got instant recognition with that angle with Mulligan,” recalls 16-time world heavyweight champion Ric Flair. “He was a good worker, a great guy, and always in a super mood.”
Jones held numerous titles during his career, but one of his biggest victories came during the late ’70s in New Brockton, Ala., where he defeated a young 6-5 giant with 24-inch arms, a beach bum tan and a comic book cleft chin named Terry Boulder — later to emerge as superstar Hulk Hogan.
He began winding down his career in the late ’80s, although he worked occasional matches well into the next decade. He left his home in Montgomery to return to the Lowcountry in 1991 to take care of his ailing father, the same man who had deserted him before he was born.
“My dad was in bad health,” says Jones. “I had never seen him, and he never got to actually see me, since he was blind.”
Like a faithful and dutiful son, Jones tended to his father until his death at age 78 of cancer.
“I got him everything he needed to make him comfortable. He never gave me a glass of water his entire life. That’s where the saying comes in that you never burn a bridge behind you because one day you may have to come back across it.”
Jones, who had pared down his ring schedule, also landed a non-wrestling job, at Standard Warehouse’s branch office in Bushy Park. For the past 11 years, he has worked as a forklift operator. Plant supervisor George Hearns jokingly calls Jones his “security chief.”
“If you want to know what’s happening, ask Melvin. But he’s one of the hardest workers we have. He’s quite a colorful character.”
“There is a stop sign in every walk of life,” Jones 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.”
Miraculously, Jones adds, his wrestling career resulted in only a few injuries, including a broken ankle and dislocated elbow.
“I’ve got a bad knee from wrestling, but that’s attributed to guys like Ric Flair and Black Jack Mulligan,” he jokes. “I’m glad that I was born and raised on the farm because it taught me how to work and take care of myself. I’ve never been sick a day in my life. I praise the Lord for that.”
One of the crowning achievements of Jones’ career was his induction into the Lowcountry Wrestling Hall of Fame in a 1998 ceremony at the old County Hall in Charleston.
“It was one of the highlights of my life,” says Jones, who also was awarded the Pioneer Award at last year’s Gulf Coast Wrestling Reunion in Mobile, Ala. “Very few black wrestlers, at least in the early days, had made themselves known worldwide like I had. There were no halls of fame for black wrestlers back then.”
Today, Jones lives in a mobile home that his late father owned less than a mile-and-a-half from his childhood home. There, he owns five acres of land, a small portion of the 190 acres that was split among family members when his grandparents died.
Through the good times, bad times, and the enormous changes he’s seen, Burrhead Jones has remained steadfastly optimistic. When looking back over the past six decades, he sees a life of joy and simple truths.
“A person can make anything out of life that he wants to. God has given me more than I ever expected. I thank my family for raising me the way they did. I will always respect them for that. I came through that time, and I’ve still got my sense of humor. I’ve been there and done that. I really am living the life of Riley.”