Wrestling in Print: Dickson Tennessee Tragedy Cripples Memphis Roster
#PWHS #Article #MaskedDominoes #Dominoes #SamBass #ReubenRodriquez #FrankHester #Memphis #Wrestling #ProWrestling
The Mid-South Coliseum faithful had seen another exciting card in Memphis on the usual Monday night. As the 5,479 were driving home, reliving the many memories from another entertaining night, little did they know that three of the stars would never be seen in the squared circle again. Here is the card that would be etched in their memory forever:
1 - Dennis Hall def. J.C. Dykes
2 - Don Anderson & Don Kernodle def. The Dominoes (with J.C. Dykes),
3 - Frankie Lane & Charlie Cook Vs. Tommy Gilbert & The Scorpion,
4 - Phil Hickerson & Dennis Condrey def. Jackie & Roughhouse Fargo
5 - Southern Championship
Jerry Lawler (c) (with Sam Bass) def. Harley Race
This event, that happened near Dickson, Tennessee, was life-changing to many lives. According to Mark James, the Tuesday afternoon Memphis newspaper was first to reveal the tragic news to the stunned wrestling community. Other newspapers, like the Delta Democratic-Times and the Kingsport Times, broke the story on Wednesday. The July 28, 1976 Delta Democratic-Times headlines read: “3 Wrestlers Die in Crash on Interstate near Dickson”. The news story read something like this:
“Dickson. Tenn. (UPI) Professional wrestlers Reuben Rodriquez and Frank Hester were killed early Tuesday along with wrestler-manager Fred W. 'Sam' Bass and another man as they headed toward Nashville. The car carrying the three men plowed into the wreckage of a car driven by John Carey, 29, of Madison, then was hit seconds later by a fast moving tractor-trailer rig.
Rodriquez, 39, of Los Angeles, and Hester, 37, of Cleveland, Tenn., who wrestled under the tag-team name of the 'Masked Dominoes', and Bass, 41, died in the twisted, flaming wreckage of their late model car. Carey was also killed but truck driver John H. Davis of Gadsden and a companion escaped serious injury…
Authorities said Carey's auto slammed into a section of bridge over the Piney River, knocking out a 35-foot chunk. The car carrying the wrestlers plowed into the already battered Carey vehicle. Then came the truck owned by the National Cash Register Co. It crunched into the mangled cars setting the wrestlers' vehicle and the truck on fire…
It was 1:15 a.m. … a trucker reported the accident on the radio: 'There's a bad wreck on I-40. An 18-wheeler is involved with two four-wheelers, and the tractor-trailer and one of the cars are on fire.'"
Tim Dills interviewed Promoter Jerry Jarrett about his memories about that night. This was the highlight of that interview:
Dills: “The summer of 1976 was a sad time in the area when Sam Bass, Pepe Lopez and Frank Hester died in a car accident west of Nashville. What do you recall about this night?”
Jarrett: “I got a late phone call from the state highway patrol that some wrestlers were killed on I-40. They did not know who and [asked] could I drive down. Well, I called Fargo and Tojo and told them. We lived close enough that me and my wife picked both of them up and drove as fast as we could. We were all in tears when we approached the traffic that was backed up for miles. The police escorted us around the traffic on the shoulder of the interstate. The car and truck were still blazing. During the drive to the site, we had all concluded that it was Jerry Lawler and whoever was with him. It was impossible to determine the kind of car that was burning. We asked how they knew it was wrestlers and the police told us that wrestling gear was down the road from the impact. About that time Jerry Lawler was spotted walking toward the crash scene. We all cried for joy and then suddenly became somber wondering who was in the car. Lawler told us it had to be Sam Bass. We were not sure who else was in the car.
Later that night we talked to Phil Hickerson, who told us that it was Pepe and Frank. Phil said Sam drove like a crazy man from Memphis to Jackson, Tennessee. Phil said Sam was drinking and driving at speeds over one hundred miles per hour. Phil said he kissed the ground when he got out in Jackson and said to himself that Sam would not get home alive. Lawler said he wanted to call Sam's wife. We then called Pepe and Frank's folks. No one has any idea what was on Sam's mind that night or what could have caused him to drive so wild. It was always Sam who stayed on Lawler for driving too fast. Lawler had a terrible reputation for fast driving and this caused the speculation on the drive down that it was Lawler in the crash.
The next day, I returned to the site and spoke to the police about how this tragic crash occurred. It seems that a drunk driver had run into a concrete guard-rail and was blocking one lane and part of the other lane. At the same time Sam had passed a truck at a high rate of speed. Because of passing the truck, Sam was on the stalled car and the truck then ran over both Sam and the other car. Both cars exploded in flames as the truck ran over the top of them. The impact drug Sam's car to the median. Frank and Pepe both were found in the back seat and Sam was driving. This was a very sad day for all who knew and cared for these men.
In your initial post you asked how the promotion handled this situation. I recall this being announced on TV in a low key manner between TV matches. The one thing that did not happen was their deaths were not turned into an angle for that night's card.”
As tragic as this story is, there is much more to this story. There were several personalities that barely missed being a part of the newspapers headlines. The wrestlers straggled out of the Mid-South Coliseum to head to Nashville for the night. There would be a card the next night in Evansville, Indiana but Jerry Jarrett required his wrestlers to live in the Nashville area. Mark James explained to me how Friday night was the only night the wrestlers would stay overnight in a motel. The wrestlers would do battle Friday in Tupelo, Mississippi and then drive to Memphis for Saturday morning TV taping. Call it fate, destiny, guardian angels-timing played a big part in whom would be involved with a fiery crash about 175 miles up I-40.
Phil Hickerson was fortunate he only lived about 88 miles from Memphis in Jackson, Tennessee. It seems he must have been a fourth person in Sam Bass’s car for part of the trip. In the above interview with Jarrett, Phil said when he got out of the car he proceeded to kiss the ground. It was because he was on solid ground and not riding in a car that was swaying on the interstate at over 100mph. He told Jarrett that Sam had been drinking some and Phil even thought to himself that Sam would not make it home alive. About ninety miles later, his fears became a reality. I can only wonder how many times Phil must have regretted not getting Sam, Frank, or Reuben to stay with him that night.
Don Greene had ridden to the Memphis matches with Sam earlier that day. He was involved with his dad in a furniture business and stayed a little longer at the Coliseum to discuss business. This happenstance led to J.C. Dykes asking Don if he would ride with him to keep him from falling asleep at the wheel in his trip to Nashville. Don rode with J.C. that night, or he may have been a fourth casualty in Sam’s car. Wrestler/manager Dale Pierce recalls Don sharing how the wreck was so bad that the bodies had to be identified by their dental records.
Pat Malone, known as the Green Shadow, was a passenger or possibly even the driver of the car J.C. Dykes was in. They were close behind Bass’s car on the way to Nashville. Malone said they chatted via citizens band radio for about an hour on the return trip, "'Bring them on Green Shadow, it's all clear,' was Bass' last CB transmission prior to the accident." Dykes recalled in a Mark James article: "The traffic had come to a dead stop. We could see a huge fire across the bridge and people on the CB were talking about a wreck. When reports came over the radio that three wrestlers were involved, I walked down to the bridge and could see wrestling uniforms and boots scattered all over the road. Then I recognized their suitcases and knew it was my men.”
Can you not feel the emotion in that statement?
Mike Shields, photographer for (Nick) Gulas wrestling, ended up driving Jerry Lawler to Nashville that night. Jerry had a part in a business featuring his face pushing hamburgers, (Slamburgers), and had to check up on a few business matters before proceeding to Nashville. As you read above, Jarrett and others thought for sure Jerry had probably been in the crash. If not for his business venture, Jerry would have probably been in Sam’s car, or chasing him at a high speed.
Cowboy Frankie Lane must have been in the car with Pat Malone as he was on the scene before Lawler also. Lane already knew where Sam’s car was while Jerry was still trying to figure out what had happened as he came upon the scene. Jerry says it was Lane that pointed out where Sam’s car had landed before catching on fire. Jerry recalls how the truck driver later said that Sam was doing 115-120mph when he passed the eighteen wheeler.
It was a bad scene. What the above newspaper article did not say was the first driver’s car had no lights on after crashing into the bridge. Sam passed the truck at a high rate of speed and when he pulled back into the right lane, he was on top of the stalled, no-lights vehicle immediately. Then the truck slammed into both cars. The truck dragged Sam’s car to the median and both of them burst into flames.
As I write this, it has almost been forty-four years since this tragic event took place. Unless you are in your mid-50’s are older, you have no recollection of what I have described. Who were these three victims? I will attempt to give you a short synopsis of each wrestler.
Was the least known of the three. However, his resume is somewhat impressive. In championships, the Dominos were the Southeastern Tag Champions twice. He also wrestled as Siki Samara and twice was recognized as the Southern Junior Heavyweight Champion. As a wrestler, he appeared in California, Mid-Atlantic, Georgia, Florida, American Wrestling Association (AWA), Central States, Gulf Coast. In singles, there are records saying he defeated such stars as: Rock Riddle, Jerry Brown, Bob Griffin, Tarzan Tyler, Karl Von Stroheim, Dick Slater, Scott Casey, Norvell Austin, George Two-Ton Harris, Abe Jacobs. Mid-Atlantic historian Caroll Hall told me how Frank was in the Mid-Atlantic region several years. He would wrestle mainly opening matches, but would be seen in mid-card to semi-final matches as he was given minor pushes from time-to-time.
His real name was Rubin Rodriguez. The Dominos were originally Frank Hester and Cliff Lilly, but Pepe improved the team as he replaced Lilly in early 1976. Pepe was a World Tag Champion for Nick Gulas in Alabama and Tennessee on 3 different occasions with the infamous Big Bad John. Wrestled anonymously a great deal of the time under a mask while mainly being a tag-team specialist. He and Tony Russo were the Los Diablos in the Gulf Coast region. Russo and Lopez were also the Mighty Yankees that were unmasked by the masked Spoilers. Curtis Smith (one of the Infernos) and Lopez were the masked Blue Demons, who were unmasked by the Mighty Yankees. Jimmy Kent managed the Blue Scorpions, which were Lopez and Ricky Sanchez. Lopez had a successful run in Georgia in 1974 as an American Indian gimmick of Jimmy Dancing Bear. He even defeated wrestlers such as Dickie Steinborn.
The Last Fatality Was Sam Bass
His life has some mysterious aspects that will be discussed by this writer at another time. Sam started out as referee as Fred White or Fred Bass. Thanks to Michael Norris, I have a clipping dated November 15, 1961, that talks about Fred Bass refereeing at Fort Whiting in Mobile, Alabama. Somewhere along the line he even managed one of the most infamous and controversial tag teams, on a couple levels, the Hell’s Angels, or as they were known in Arizona, the Comancheros. He managed and wrestled with possibly wrestling’s largest fake family, the Bass Family. Members included: Maw, Paw, Roy, Ron, Don, Dutch, Woodrow, Bobby, Percy, and Sam Bass. That’s ten of them! It is interesting that Dutch Savage in Portland suggested to Ron Bass that he switch his name to Sam Oliver Bass so his nickname would be S.O.B. Ron became one of the best heat magnets after the name change and it led to national stardom after his run in the Northwest Territory.
Sam started from the bottom up: from hauling the ring, to refereeing, to managing and wrestling. In perusing Sam’s too brief career, he seems to be more interchangeable than maybe anyone as manager and/or wrestler. Bobby Heenan, or possibly even Gary Hart, comes to mind, but Sam is first in my mind as I write this. He played both parts on so many cards; he would have an opening match against someone, and then appear later as the manager in the semi or main event. There was not anything polished about his wrestling, just clenched fists and brawling. However, there was a special “believability” about him that reminded you how a normal fan might fight outside the arena; a template of the average “redneck” fighting in an awkward heated scenario. There have been comparisons of Sam being like J.C. Dykes as a heat magnet. I personally see more of Ron Wright in his interviews.
Sam wrestled early in his career in the Gulf Coast area and it was in Billy Golden’s territory that Sam met the future star Jerry Lawler. From the early 70s to his death in late July, he and Lawler made a formidable pair wherever they were seen.
So, what was the aftermath of this tragedy? At least two performers chose “early retirement” soon afterwards. The next night in Evansville it was announced that the Dominoes and Sam Bass had been killed in an automobile wreck the night before. To the shock of J.C. Dykes, the fans cheered, clapped, and said rude remarks. According to Tim Dills’ interview with J.C Dykes’ widow, this happened for the next several nights. This caused bitterness to settle in and Dykes quit the business altogether soon after the tragedy. He spent his last days going to jails telling the inmates the good news of the Gospel. Dills spoke to Dykes in the summer of ’93 before his passing in November. Dykes was not very friendly and emphasized how he had no desire to talk about professional wrestling.
Don Greene began to review his life and was thankful that he had traveled hundreds of thousands of miles in autos as a wrestler and had never been in even one auto accident. He soon put in his two-week notice and retired from the sport.
We know that Jerry Lawler went on and became one of wrestling’s elite in the wrestling field. Many have come and gone, but Jerry has been a top wrestler and announcer for decades. Right after the auto wreck, he soon took Mickey Poole as a manager. Poole just was not a good replacement for the long fixture of Bass, and several other managers followed. The last storyline concerning Sam Bass happened in the Spring of ’94, eighteen years after Sam’s passing. It was during Eddie Gilbert’s next-to-last appearances in Memphis wrestling. Two of Sam Bass’s ring jackets, and Lawler’s Southern Championship, were the focus of the angle. Eddie “owned” one of the jackets, and Jerry owned one and the Southern Championship belt. Memphis history was shared in how Sam was close to Lawler and how he had died in a tragic automobile wreck. Jerry lost and won the belt, but Eddie cut to shreds the Bass jacket he had owned because his father had passed it down to him. There was more to the storyline, but it soon ended.
There, my friend, is the story how Memphis wrestling lost three main-eventers in one night. Does it make you feel emotionally-spent as much as it does me? It is as complete as I can tell it with the facts that are known to me presently. I have several people to say thanks to as they need to be credited in helping me fit the pieces of this event puzzle together in a logical order. They are:
Tim Dills, contributor to the Memphis section of Kayfabe Memories.
Mark James, of Memphis Wrestling History.
Carroll Hall, contributor to the Mid-Atlantic Gateway.
Scott Teal, owner of Crowbar Press.
Thank you top historians that are so generous in sharing your knowledge to a newbie so that Pro-Wrestling’s story can be told. I hope I did honor to your contributions.
Other Articles By Terry Kent
Unique content strictly for the Professional Wrestling Historical Society.
Wrestling in Print: Dickson Tennessee Tragedy Cripples Memphis Roster.
Author: Terry Kent.
Published: May 18, 2020.
Editor: Jimmy Wheeler.
Wrestling in Print: Dickson Tennessee Tragedy Cripples Memphis Roster.
Author: Terry Kent.
Published: May 18, 2020.
Editor: Jimmy Wheeler.