411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2007: The Rock and Roll Express
Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson may not be brothers, but they certainly had such similar upbringings in the business that it’s hard to tell. Both were born into the business. Ricky’s father, Paul Morton, was a longtime southern referee while Gibson’s older brother Ricky helped him get into wrestling. For both men, wrestling was a family affair.
Morton started out setting up the rings for his father, but he soon found himself being forced into the ring by a strike. His opponent that night was Tojo Yamamoto, a ring veteran who knew how to make rookies look good. When promoter Nick Gulas saw how polished Morton was in his first match, Gulas knew he was onto something. He hired Ricky on the spot to work with a number of his veterans who were also impressed with Ricky’s work ethic, professionalism, and smooth ring presence.
Ricky started working as a part of more tag teams as he gained experience and popularity. He learned tag team formula under his veteran partner Bill Dundee, the man who would eventually help the Rock & Roll Express to superstardom. He even wound up teaming with future superstar and genius booking mind Eddie Gilbert in Oklahoma. When Gilbert moved up to booker in Kansas City, Morton teamed with his mentor and long-time friend Ken Lucas.
The two wound up back in Memphis as one of the top tag teams, usually only falling below the card to Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee. As Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler began to part ways, Jarrett realized he needed a back up team in case the Fabulous Ones decided to stay with Lawler. Morton mentioned the name “Ricky Gibson” to Jarrett, and the rest was history. Well, not quite…
Jarrett saw the potential in a quality wrestling tag team by putting the two together, but his marketing strategy needed a little help. Because Ricky and Robert had the same first initial, Jarrett dubbed them “The R&R Express.” Sure, it’s a clever name, but it sounds like a vacation tour.
Fortunately, another phenomenon was emerging at the same time — hair metal. The new generation of fans wasn’t listening to Ronnie Milsap or Conway Twitty. They were listening to Alice Cooper, David Lee Roth, and Foreigner. So, Jarrett did what any self-respecting promoter would do — he piggybacked on popular culture. Memphis created a number of music videos for the newly dubbed “Rock ‘n’ Roll Express” to help create a rock star vibe around Gibson and Morton.
And for the most part, it worked. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express became the “it” tag team thanks to their appeal to teenage girls and women in the audience. The Rock ‘n’ Rolls were seen in a way that wrestlers before them rarely had been before — as sex symbols. Gibson & Morton posters were just as likely to adorn a Memphis teenager’s walls as Jon Bon Jovi or Ted Nugent.
It didn’t hurt that the Rock ‘n’ Roll’s had tremendous chemistry with one another and that they had perfected the art of the baby face-in-peril formula tag matches that would become synonymous with their name. To this day, internet writers refer to a babyface taking a beating from the heels as “playing Ricky Morton.”
In Memphis, though, the Fabulous Ones were nearly legendary in their appeal, so Gibson and Morton were relegated to the second-tier, losing to the big heel teams while scoring wins over the jobber-to-the-stars and patchwork teams. With Memphis having an overload of a certain kind of wrestlers and Bill Watts’ Mid-South territory being stocked up on big ugly heels, the two promotions agreed to exchange talent.
Mid-South would be very different for the Rock & Roll Express. In a land of big, lumbering bruisers, they were a refreshing splash of sugary sweetness. Their quickness made them stand out among the usual Mid-South stalwarts, and their small size made the women fearful that something very, very bad was about to happen to them.
With booker Bill Dundee behind them, the Ricky and Robert vaulted to the top of the Mid-South tag rankings. Their act was like nothing Mid-South had seen before, and they finally were able to move out of the shadow of those Fabulous Ones. In a bit of an ironic twist, when the Fabulous Ones moved into the territory a few years later, they found that they couldn’t measure up to the reputation of the Rock & Rolls.
Bill Watts, always a visionary promoter, realized that he could position his new babyface tag team against his top heel team, the Midnight Express, and laugh all the way to the bank. The Midnights had arrived on the Mid-South scene only a few months earlier and became the most hated team in wrestling thanks to their feud with Magnum TA and Mr. Wrestling #2, which saw the Midnights and their obnoxious manager Jim Cornette tar and feather the popular Magnum TA.
Watts decided to build the Rock & Rolls into a fitting rival for the Midnights by putting them in a feud with dastardly Russians, Krusher Kruschev (future Demolition tag teamer Barry Darsow) and Nikita Koloff. Ricky and Robert were seen as pretty boy rock and rollers (and really, what could be more American?) fighting valiantly against the evil, bruising Russians who were stronger and more cunning.
The feud must have worked because by the time the Rock & Rolls squared off against the Midnight Express, they were two of the top drawing tag teams in any territory. Their feud shattered old Mid-South gates and culminated in one of the most heated “Loser Leaves Town” matches ever. The Midnight Express would depart for World Class before heading to the revitalized George territory under Jim Crockett.
Thanks to one of those NWA supershows, the Rock & Rolls caught the eye of NWA Champion Ric Flair, who was always loyal to Crockett. It was Flair who immediately went to Crockett and told him to hire the Rock & Roll Express on the spot. With both the Midnights and the Rock & Rolls in the same territory once again, it wasn’t long before they were feuding over the NWA World Tag Team titles. As with Mid-South, the Mid-Atlantic/Georgia region found itself revitalized.
The Rock & Rolls would feud off and on with the Midnights, the Russians, the Freebirds, and the Andersons, drawing big money with each team along the way. Finally, as fans began to figure out the formula and larger-than-life characters began to take the place of quality matches, the Rock & Rolls became obsolete.
As with most tag teams, they were faced with the prospect of breaking up in Ted Turner’s WCW. It was an ill-advised, ill-conceived, and poorly executed breakup. Ricky Morton “sold out” to the York Foundation and became “Richard Morton.” The biggest problem seemed to be that Ricky didn’t bother to dress, look, or wrestle like a heel.
With his unmemorable heel run petering out, Ricky rejoined Robert, this time on a regional level in Jim Cornette’s Smokey Mountain Wrestling. Cornette was an old-school mind who wanted to recapture some of the Rock & Rolls’ magic, so he had them feud against his new team of the Heavenly Bodies. While it never recreated the money that the feud with the Midnight Express did, it was still respectable for the territory. The Rock & Rolls would also take part in a race-baiting feud with the Gangstas.
Their last big national exposure came in 1998, with the WWE’s “NWA Invasion” storyline, which was quickly swept under the rug. Unfortunately for Ricky and Robert, the northeast never really accepted their act, and it didn’t help that they were feuding with an imitation Midnight Express of Bob Holly and Bart Gunn.
The Rock & Rolls went back to the Indy circuit, doing occasional reunion shows with other Mid-Atlantic stars. They even made an appearance in upstart NWA:TNA, turning heel on top tag team America’s Most Wanted.
They never were able to escape the memory of their feud with the Midnight Express, though. At Ring of Honor’s “Midnight Express Reunion” show, it was Ricky Morton showing up as a heel to spoil the fun in a reversal of roles from their heyday.
Why the Rock and Roll Express were selected…
While the Rock & Roll Express are nearly 20-years past their prime, their influence is still felt today in formula tag matches from every promotion. Today’s wrestlers like James Storm and Jeff Hardy owe a direct debt to the style of Ricky Morton, and it is their embrace of popular culture that helped wrestling move from regional attraction to mainstream phenomenon.