Charles Wright is arguably one of the symbols of WWE’s much-lauded and edgy Attitude Era, as his character, The Godfather, was an over the top, charismatic personality that would encourage fans to board the “Ho train!” However, long before The Godfather, Charles performed as the bizarre voodoo man Papa Shango, the not so memorable Kama, and was even a part of the memorable faction known as the Nation of Domination with fellow Hall of Famers and legends like The Rock, Ron Simmons, D’Lo Brown, and Mark Henry. He’s had a long and incredibly unique journey, and it’s this unique career trajectory that sets Charles Wright apart from most.
The ever-smiling Godfather recently sat down to speak with SteelChair Magazine in an exclusive interview that looks back at his career in the WWE, the creation and failure of Papa Shango, insight into his close friendship and real-life fights with The Undertaker, working with the Nation of Domination, and so much more in this trip down the career and life of Charles Wright.
You became Papa Shango in your first WWE run, a character that has oddly gained more fanfare in recent years. What was the pitch for that character like, and what was your reaction to it?
“(Laughs) Well, the true story is I had been hired by the WWF, at the time, and Vince hired me and said, “You know what? You have the body of a monster, but you have a baby face.” He said we’re going to hire you, and they wanted me to go home and stay in shape, and he said they’re going to come up with something for me. But he said they have to cover my face. The next call I got from Vince, he said: “I want you to go rent the movie, Live and Let Die.” He said there is a voodoo character in there that they were going to kind of go off of, and I already knew the movie and the character, he was also the 7Up “Uncola” guy, and he had the laugh *does ”Uncola” guy laugh*, and that’s where I got my laugh from.
The next thing I know, I’m out in Vince’s office, and we’re trying to come up with names, and we’re researching things, and he had a few people in the office with us. But we had a good meeting, and we came up with the name Papa Shango. And actually, it’s pronounced “Shan-go,” S-H-A-N-G-O, but I thought it sounded too country to say Papa “Shan-go,” so I just pronounced it Papa Shango.”
Were you hesitant in any way when he told you that this is what he wanted to do?
“No, not at all. Man, are you joking? I’m just happy to be getting a job with the WWF. I would’ve done anything they told me to. That was my big break. I was happy that they hired me.”
No, I don’t blame you for feeling that way. Initially, it felt like Papa Shango was going to be a big part of WWE moving forward, considering you were feuding with Warrior and Hogan. Also, your character was the first person they did the lights off/lights on trick with, correct?
“I remember, man, everybody was worried because they had never turned all the lights off completely, like a blackout. And they were worried about someone getting hurt, or if something happened, if someone fell down the stairs, someone slipped in the bathroom – I don’t know where the lights went out, but it was a big concern. That was the biggest concern, but they did it, and I was the first person that all the lights went out for. Yeah, that was my character.”
Do you remember when you did it and who you did it with?
“No. It was one of those deals where I was lighting people’s feet on fire, and the lights would go out, and all of a sudden somebody, would burst into flames (laughs), and then the lights would come back. They would have the black ooze on their face or whatever, and I’d be standing over them going *does Papa Shango laugh*. It was the voodoo.”
Can you remember the audience reaction because that was a first for the company?
“People were scared shitless, man. I mean, to this day, the kids at that time are now 35, 36, 37 years old; those were the kids that were 8/9 years old at that time. To this day, they go, “Dude, you have no idea how Papa Shango affected me and how scared I was, and you putting the curse on the Ultimate Warrior and making the Ultimate Warrior throw up.” You know, a lot of grownups now that are like 38 or 40 years old, they tell me all the time how I have no idea how afraid they were. I put the paint on and stuff sometimes, and they’ll go to shake my hand, and they’ll actually be shaking. Dude, I was kids ‘Boogeyman’. I was the real ‘Boogeyman’.
I had told Vince, “Let me do something different, let me go after kids,” and I was scaring kids on TV. I was telling kids, “You know, when you go to sleep tonight, you won’t dream of the ocean, you’ll dream of death! You’ll dream of Papa Shango!” I scared the hell out of kids. Mothers used to protest and kick at me in the arenas that I was in because their kids were so afraid of me.”
You can tell by watching the stuff back now, how invested you were in the character, and your performances are really good in that respect. I believe you also said that you read real voodoo books in preparation for the character?
“Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, actually they sent me to New Orleans where I spent – I mean, it’s so long ago, you’re talking about 90/89. They sent me to New Orleans for a short period of time, and I met up with some voodoo people that were real, legitimate voodoo people at old shops. They taught me some stuff, and we got the right literature, and we got the right symbols. The symbols on my outfit and all the things I was saying were real spells. I still have a casting spell book that was given to me, and the spells that I was casting on people and Warrior were real voodoo spells. Of course, I’m not a voodoo practitioner, but they were real spells, and everything I was saying was real.
What happened with Papa Shango is, (sighs) I was going through a bad point in my life. I was going through a bad divorce. I wasn’t in a good place. Sid (Sycho Sid), I think, was supposed to do the job for Warrior or something, and he didn’t do it. Then they were stuck with nobody, so I kind of got thrown to the wolves with Warrior. I was in a bad place anyway, so it’s not really the WWE’s fault. It was more mine. I wasn’t in a happy place, and I was being really mean and negative. It was better that I went home, believe me (laughs).”
I believe you (laughs). I mean, one of the things a character like that needs is to win matches. I was watching a series of Papa Shango matches, and I don’t think I saw one that you won.
“(Laughs) I used to laugh. I said: “I can’t believe I’m making a living losing to people.” You went from the Warrior to Bret Hart to Undertaker, and even though you were losing every night, you were in the main event. So you’re getting paid. So I mean it is what it is. Wrestling, to me, was always my second job, not my first. I wasn’t a big wrestling fan. When I was young, it was roller derby. You probably don’t even know what that is. Roller derby back in the ‘70s was much bigger in California than wrestling was, much bigger. So we were roller derby fans. You know, you had Haystacks Calhoun and Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, you had guys like that. But roller derby was the big thing, so I was never a big wrestling fan.
Wrestling for me was fun, and when I wasn’t having fun, I would leave. That’s why you would see me leave and come back. I always had the strip club called Cheetah’s, where I made my money, so I always had income coming in, so when wrestling wasn’t fun, I would leave. And that’s why you would see me leave, and somebody would call me to ask if I wanted to come back, and I would say no because I’m making more money at home and I’m not getting hit over the head with chairs, getting put through tables, and getting put in caskets.
That’s basically how it went for me, and then I was in the Nation of Domination, and they built The Rock up, and now Rock was out of the group. D’Lo and Mark Henry were kind of paired together, so I was kind of getting lost in the shuffle, and so, my wife and I developed The Godfather. The Godfather had nothing to do with the WWE. It was all me and my wife. We developed the character, and it was successful, and here we are now.”
Before Papa Shango came to an end, you returned to Memphis as Papa Shango and beat Jerry Lawler for the USWA Heavyweight title. What was it like going back there as Papa Shango?
“I swear to you, I swear to you, and I know you’re not gonna believe this, I don’t even remember that.”
“No. I don’t remember how I won it (the title). I do remember being mad because I had to keep going back to Memphis, and I think they had a black guy by the name of Reggie B. Fine, and I think they were trying to do something where they were trying to make me pass the torch to him – wait, I wasn’t The Godfather then. I just remember I had the championship for a minute, and I think they put it on, Owen Hart.”
Yeah, I believe you’re right.
“Wow, isn’t that wild? Then when I had the Intercontinental Championship as The Godfather, the night when Owen passed, they were going to give him the belt. So he was gonna win the belt again from me (laughs). I can’t believe I forgot. Dude, there is so many wrestling matches, and I know it’s hard for people to believe, but people don’t understand that when you do that for ten/fifteen years, you’ve got thousands of matches. So many matches, it’s hard to remember, for me, at least. Like I said, I remember I had the belt. I wasn’t happy because I had to keep going back to Memphis, and they pass it to Owen. That’s all I really remember.”
I’m sure matches kind of blur into the other after a while, so I do not blame you. One of your less talked about characters, perhaps because it was short lived was Kama, The Fighting Machine. But you had a big casket match with Undertaker at SummerSlam ’95. Do you have any memories of that match?
“Nope. Probably because before that match, we maybe had forty or fifty of those matches before [SummerSlam]. I tell you what I remember, I hated going in that damn casket. But my friendship with him aside, just working with Take. I had matches against him as Papa Shango, Kama, Kama Mustafa in the Nation, The Godfather, and The Goodfather. That’s something that needs to be checked. I think I’ve wrestled against Undertaker as more characters than anybody (laughs). So I’ve been in that damn casket so many times, I don’t remember. I remember I couldn’t stand going in that casket. I remember that. I don’t remember one time him going in that casket and staying in.”
(Laughs). I recall seeing an Instagram post of yours where you shared a clip of Papa Shango vs. Undertaker, and Undertaker commented on it writing: “do you remember “we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way!!” Circa 1988-1989?” Can you give me the back-story of that?
“(Laughs) Which means I was beating the hell out of him, and he wanted me to lighten up, so he said: “Bro, we can do this the hard way, or we can do it the easy way,” and he preferred we do it the easy way, you know. I would be like, “Alright, alright, I’ll lighten up.” I used to be really stiff, man, but in a playful way. I was just having fun. You know, I wasn’t a polished wrestler like these guys. I really didn’t have the training that most people had. I literally was in wrestling school for a few months, learned a few holds, was drinking more than I was learning wrestling. I’m telling you in just a few months I knew how to lockup, throw a punch, and maybe a kick. That’s all I knew.
Jerry Lawler saw me and put me right to work, and in my very first match ever, ever was against Jerry Lawler on a Monday night in Memphis, Tennessee, and I went over in the middle, 1, 2 3. And that was my very first match (laughs). So that’s how it’s always been for me, kind of learning on the road, but it was always fun wrestling Taker. People wouldn’t know it, but at night after the matches, we’d go hang out – we used to have a problem, me and Taker. We’d go out and get drunk and hang out at these topless clubs and drink Jack Daniels, and we beat the hell out of each other. I mean, literally, we’d slap and chop and hit each other. And I remember one day waking up, we’re both just black and blue, and one of us said: “We’ve really gotta stop doing this, man.”
I don’t know if you’ve seen his stories on The Last Ride? I don’t know if it’s aired yet, but there is one episode where he talks about me and him fighting in a hotel room over a hat. It’s so funny because I comment on it, and he comments on it, and at the time, we don’t know what each other is saying, but it’s the same exact story. But there was a lot of nights like that, man. Crazy times.”
(Laughs) That’s a hell of a story. There is one more episode of The Last Ride coming, so that’s probably where it’s going to be told.
“That must be it. Wait till you see this story, and it’s all true. The coolest thing about it is, they were at my club here in Vegas, and they filmed this about three years ago. They’re asking me, not just about Taker, but a lot of things that you’ll kind of see me come in and make comments on. I was telling Taker stories, and they were asking me about this story, and I didn’t know they were asking him about this story. So it was so cool, so when they air it, because I’ve already seen it, and I swear, we don’t know what the other’s saying, and we’re telling the exact same story about me and him getting into a fight in a hotel room over one of these *points to his hat* black hats.
I thought it looked better on him than it looked on me, and we ended up fighting, tearing a bathroom door off. Him putting his head through a bathroom door. Going outside and throwing it off the second storey balcony. Me and him fighting in between two beds over who’s gonna take this hat. So you’re gonna have to see the episode to see who actually won and who wore the hat. Either I made him wear the hat, or he made me wear the hat, but we both admitted to who wore the hat. Wait till you see it, you’ll dig it.”
(Laughs) I look forward to that. That’s interesting because normally, when people talk about Taker, they look at him as this leader, but your dynamic with him seems different.
“To me, he’s Mark, man. He’s Big Dog. He ain’t Taker to me. He’s Big Dog. We met each other at about 1988/89, became really good friends, and became brothers. Went through a lot of crap together with women, with fighting and drinking. Dude, believe me, I’ve been through the wars with that man. So I don’t see him as the Taker you see him as, I see him as Big Dog, you know. When we talk, and we text at least once a week, we never talk about wrestling. And if we do talk about wrestling, it’s something (laughs) that happened in Memphis or years ago when we were having fun. And we talk about families, and we both have a love for guns. So I don’t see him as you guys see him. He’s just my brother.”
That’s great to hear. A little later in your career, you developed relationships with a whole new group called the Nation of Domination. A group, I think, is not talked about enough. How and why was the Nation so special to you?
“I made a lot of friendships in the Nation. The first time I met Ron Simmons, of course, I knew who Ron Simmons was, but I had never met him because he was in WCW. Then when he came to WWE, I wasn’t there, so when I came back, and they put me in the Nation of Domination, that was the first time I met Ron. Got to become good friends with him, I mean, to this day he’s one of my best friends. Got to become good friends with D’Lo. D’Lo worked at my topless club for a while. Mark Henry, we talk all the time. The Rock, if I were to see him some place, he would be happy to see me.
Just a good group of guys, man, and all of them did something after the Nation, including The Rock, who is one of the biggest movie stars in the world. We were part of that. We were part of getting him over. You’d think he’d put me in a movie or something, huh?”
(Laughs) Yeah, like a Nation of Domination movie (laughs).
“You haven’t heard the last of the Nation. I don’t have no insider information, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they put some form of the Nation of Domination in the Hall of Fame. I know that this year before they cancelled WrestleMania, they were doing a whole thing on the Nation, and it was cancelled. But I’m sure we’ll get back to it. So I wouldn’t be surprised. Like I said, I don’t have any inside information, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t think they would include The Rock in that part of the Nation, I don’t know, I don’t know how you would do that. I think their biggest problem will be figuring out how to do it without The Rock, but I think it would be probably me, Ron, D’Lo, Mark Henry, and The Rock, of course. I think that’s what a lot of people think when they think of the Nation.”
You mentioned Ron Simmons. Some of my favourite wrestling stories are when people talk about how much of a badass he is and a leader he is. What was it like being led by Ron both on and off-screen?
“Very knowledgeable, man. To this day, I’m always in a good mood, very seldom am I not, but if I’m down, I know I can call Ron, and he’ll be like: *does Ron Simmons voice* “Man, what’s wrong with you? Let me tell you a story.” Once that story is done, you usually feel better. Very knowledgeable. Good, tough, strong, badass, and people who never saw him play football in college, man, you missed something. He was one of the baddest son of a b*****s out there. But good dude, and like I said, we talk all the time.”
Awesome. Of course, you touched on creating The Godfather. I wanted to know how long did you want to be The Godfather? Was that something you always wanted to do?
“Um, all The Godfather is is me. I still wear these hats. I am who I am. I am The Godfather. All you did was you took my character, and you put my real persona on TV. If I’m a pimp or not, I’ve worked at topless clubs, ah that’s neither here nor there. But I am The Godfather, and all Vince did was let me be me. To this day, believe me, if you see me walking down the street, you’d be like, “Shit, there is that Godfather dude from wrestling.” Do I wear the loud colours and stuff? Yeah, I wear different colour hats and glasses. Dude, I’m telling you, it’s me. What happened was, we were in the Nation, and Mark and D’Lo went off as a team, and Rocky went off on his own. So through that, we developed The Godfather.”
I know you don’t have a favourite match, but do you have any favourite Godfather moments?
“No (laughs). You have no idea what it was like being The Godfather. Every day was your favourite moment. Every day was the boy’s favourite moment. Every night was everybody’s favourite moment. Can you imagine having “ho’s” around you at TV and at house shows, I mean, come on, man. Believe me, bruh, I was living the dream, and still am.”
More recently, you were a part of the critically acclaimed Dark Side of the Ring, most notably talking about the Brawl for All and Owen Hart’s unfortunate incident. What was that experience like?
“I’ve been on the show two or three times. Those guys, they’re really cool guys. They’re good guys at Dark Side of the Ring. They tell the true story. The Brawl for All, I haven’t really talked much about that, so that was the first time we talked about that. Yeah, it’s interesting. I don’t have no problems talking about anything.”
In the Brawl for All episode, you mention in the episode that you didn’t take it as seriously as maybe you should have, and perhaps you smoked too much cannabis beforehand…
“Whoa, whoa, whoa – go back. I never said I smoked too much cannabis. I said I had been smoking all day. I got there smoking. I smoked every day. I never blamed it on cannabis. My wife blamed it on cannabis. I should have been at home in the gym, training. I mean, I got a boxing gym in my garage, and I wasn’t doing any of that. I should have been practising takedowns. I should have been practising, and I didn’t do any of that. I legitimately thought that I was tough enough that I could win it just being me. So when I say I didn’t take it seriously enough, I should have been in the gym training, and they gave us plenty of time. I was at home smoking and stuff, but I don’t blame any of it on cannabis. It was just me not taking it as serious as I should have.”
Do you think you would have won it if you trained?
“Um, I wish I would have trained harder for Bart (Gunn). I wish I would have taken it much more seriously because, and I’m not taking anything away from him, he knocked everybody out. I wish I would have prepared better for him, and I think I would have given myself a much better chance if I prepared better for him. I had the guy wrap my hands, and he was telling me, “Bro, you smell like weed,” and I was like, “Dude, I smell like weed all the time” (laughs).”
The other episode of Dark Side was about Owen. Can you share what it was like working with Owen and any memories you may have of him?
“Just a good dude. I mean, everybody’s heard all the stories about Owen. Good guy, ribber, fun guy, great worker, and wrestling against him was a night off. I spent a lot of time with him in Japan. I wrestled for eight months in Germany with him. Just a great guy, man, and it’s too bad he’s gone. If you were lucky enough to wrestle Owen, you had the night off because he was that good.”
Did he ever pull a rib on you?
“You know what I always tell people, if he did, which I’m not saying he didn’t, I didn’t know about it. You wouldn’t know if Owen pulled a rib on you or not because he was that good. So if he did, I didn’t know he did.”
When you got inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016, I’m not sure if I can recall someone enjoying them self more than you did during your speech. You were beaming, and rightfully so…
“I’m beaming now. It’s no different now.”
That’s true (laughs). What was that whole experience like?
“Good time, man. That whole day was a good time. It was a fun day.”
And JBL and Ron did a nice shtick, not finishing the stories they were about to tell of you.
“(Laughs) The funny thing about it is, the ones that they were starting were all true. You have no idea, man. Believe me, man, if you were into wrestling when I was there, you were having a good time.”
I believe that. We’ve talked about your various characters in this interview, which has given you such a unique longevity in this business, as you can pop up as these different characters. Do you think that’s something that is missing in today’s era of wrestling, characters because today it’s more straight-laced wrestlers, which isn’t always what people remember?
“Right, right. Hey, I agree with you. It is what it is. I’m remembered mostly as The Godfather, but a lot of Papa Shango, and then also being involved in the Nation. But it’s mostly Godfather.”
You can also purchase Charles’ merchandise, which ranges from The Godfather to Papa Shango to a new Smoke Train t shirt, on prowrestlingtees.com/charleswright.
The brand new episode, featuring the story about Undertaker and Godfather’s fight premieres today on the WWE Network.
Photos and videos courtesy of WWE.