An article by Mike Mooneyham
(Published July 30, 2000)
When Gordon Solie talked, people listened. Especially wrestling fans, a generation of which were weaned on the gravel-voiced Solie’s unique call of the action inside the ring and unparalleled commentary on the business.
Gordon Solie was, simply put, the sport’s greatest ambassador and the voice of professional wrestling for four decades. He was the standard by which wrestling announcers were judged, and he humbly accepted the honorary title “dean of wrestling announcers.”
Solie, who had battled cancer for the past year, passed away last week at the age of 70 at his home in Port Richey, Fla. His body was found Friday morning by family members, and it was believed that Solie had died either late Wednesday or Thursday. His condition had taken a sharp turn for the worse several weeks ago.
The loss shook the wrestling community.
Longtime friend Don Curtis of Jacksonville said Friday that he last saw Solie just two weeks ago and had planned to visit him again this weekend.
“What a shock to lose him,” said Curtis. “We had a little party with him a couple of weeks ago. We picked up him up, put him in the car, and drove over to our favorite dining and drinking place.”
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Curtis said the group, consisting of “people who really loved each other,” included Curtis and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Lou Thesz, and Jack Brisco.
Curtis and other close friends confided that Solie had unofficially “given up” after his wife, Eileen “Smokey” Solie, died several years ago.
“When she died, he just didn’t give a darn anymore,” said Curtis. “He would talk about how he wanted to be with his wife. I guess he wanted to be in heaven with her.”
Solie underwent an operation late last year to remove his larynx after doctors discovered a growth on his vocal chords that was reportedly so large it had displaced his heart and lungs. It seemed like a cruel twist of fate when Solie, who for years entertained fans with his smooth-as-silk delivery, was fitted with an artificial voice box.
“He said (last year) that this was ridiculous,” said Curtis. “He was fed up. He hurt all over.”
There were, however, other physical factors that led to the decline of his health, most notably Solie’s well-documented ad diction to cigarettes.
“It was that cotton-picking smoking that got him,” said Curtis. “He was a smoking nut, and you couldn’t stop him.”
Solie’s voice automatically gave career boosts to hundreds of performers, including The Funks, The Briscos, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Mr. Wrestling No. 1 and 2, Tommy Rich, Ole Anderson, Thunderbolt Patterson, Roddy Piper and Don Muraco.
And if Flair was the consummate professional wrestler, it was Gordon Solie who was the consummate professional wrestling announcer. Ironically Flair may have been the last person to talk to Solie before he died. Flair said he told him he loved him at the end of their phone conversation Wednesday night.
“He was a great friend and, in my opinion, the greatest play-by-play man to ever hold a microphone in his hand,” said Flair. “He was a great ambassador for our sport.”
Gordon Solie was, indeed, a class act. He made fans believers. They trusted him. He gave wrestling the dignity of a legitimate sporting event that few in the modern era, with the notable exception of Jim Ross, have been able to come close to replicating.
Solie was perhaps as responsible as any one for WCW. Ted Turner often credited Solie with the success of “rasslin” – as Turner labeled it – on his station. And he would be right.
Turner counted Solie among his valued friends and had many conversations with him at the old Channel 17 studio in Atlanta. Solie was an integral force behind the 1977 emergence of SuperStation TBS, a Turner brainchild, and helped oversee a cable television ratings explosion. “Georgia Championship Wrestling” was the lead- in show to the Atlanta Braves and Solie was its voice from 1974-85, often doing double duty with his popular “Champion ship Wrestling from Florida” program that he presided over from 1960-87.
Many of Solie’s colleagues saluted their friend upon learning of his passing. “He was absolutely the best commentator that I ever heard call a match,” said Superstar Billy Graham. “He was the premier commentator in the business. His words were flawless and smooth as silk. There was no effort to his commentary. He was heads above anyone I’ve ever heard. He was a close friend and an incredibly nice person. We lost the best.”
Veteran announcer Lance Russell, the voice of Memphis wrestling, and Solie had collaborated on many occasions over the years from their respective Memphis- and Tampa-based territories.
“I never stopped learning things from the guy,” said Russell. “It was always great to work with Gordie. He had an attitude that paralleled mine in terms of what we thought about wrestling.”
Russell fondly recalled his stint with Solie and veteran announcer Bob Caudle a decade ago in WCW.
“That was great fun. I loved it. Getting to work with them was great.”
Originally from Minneapolis where he attended high school and college, Solie, born Jonard Sjoblon in 1929, went to work for a small radio station in Tampa, Fla., in 1950, following a stint with Armed Forces Radio.
“I used to do a radio talk show, and be cause wrestling was very big in Tampa, I would interview the wrestlers every Monday night before the matches,” Solie said in a 1990 interview. “Cowboy Luttrall (former Tampa promoter) lost his ring announcer and asked me if I’d like the job. I told him I’d be very interested, and he offered me $5 a night. Since that was 10 percent of what I was making salary-wise, I was quick to jump on the offer.”
Solie, who also assisted Luttrall with publicity and advertising, began doing wrestling commentary on television in 1960. With his inimitable style, Solie gained enormous popularity in Florida and became as well known as some of the top wrestlers on the circuit. His knowledge of the sport and straightforward approach helped make “Championship Wrestling from Florida” one of the top-rated telecasts on the air.
Small in stature but big in desire, Solie was determined to give the fans the best commentary possible. So he learned the ropes firsthand – on the mat.
“I had two great teachers -Eddie Graham and Coach John Heath,” Solie said. “I felt if I was going to do an accurate job of reporting what was going on in the ring, I should at least know what it feels like. And, unfortunately, I found out.”
During the mid-’70s, Solie was asked to take on the additional job of serving as host of “Georgia Championship Wrestling” out of Atlanta, the first “international” wrestling program via the WTBS satellite. It also became the world’s most-watched wrestling show, due in no small part to Solie.
Solie rated a classic best-of-three falls, one-hour world title bout between Dory Funk Jr. and Jack Brisco during the ’70s as the greatest match he ever witnessed.
Solie returned to the NWA in 1989 after working for a Florida-based independent promotion. He joined Ross, Russell, Caudle and Tony Schiavone on the WCW staff.
“I admire Jim Ross and Tony Schiavone tremendously,” Solie said. “Lance Russell and I have worked together over the years, and you won’t find a finer gentleman or any better announcer than he is. And with Bob Caudle, I think we have a very well-rounded team. We’ve got two guys with lots of fire (Ross and Schiavone), and Lance, Bob and myself have the historical background.”
Solie, however, could see that the wrestling business was changing – and changing fast.
“I think, like everything else, the changes have been made for the better. With technology having come along the way it has, we’re able to do things today that were impossible years ago. I’m sure a lot of people will say that it’s not like the `good old days,’ but really nothing’s like the `good ole days.’ Everything changes.”
Solie understood the cyclical nature of the business, but he never quite embraced the fact that the philosophy of wrestling had changed. He once called it a “damn shame” that wrestlers had turned into ‘roid freaks and lamented the lack of respect for the history of the business.
In recent years Solie had worked for New Japan Wrestling as a commentator for overseas tapes and videos, and had served as an official with the NWA/Florida promotion.
The man who put wrestling on the map on TBS was unceremoniously dumped by WCW after “philosophical differences” with then-WCW executive vice president Eric Bischoff, a man Solie later called a “corporate assassin,” in 1995. His last show was a Saturday morning edition of WCW Pro with colleagues Dusty Rhodes and Larry Zbyszko. No attempt was made to promote his farewell appearance, but Gordon got in the final shot.
Responding to a typically sloppy match on that final Saturday, “the dean” said to Zbyszko, “And they wonder why I’m leaving?