Jim Johnston, the longtime creator of many of the most iconic wrestling theme songs of all time, has somehow managed to stay out of the limelight over the years. Today we shine a spotlight on his magnificent 32+ year career with WWE while taking a close look at the creative process behind creating these songs and what led to his disappointing departure from WWE in 2017.
How did Jim Johnston start his career with WWE?
In 1985, Jim Johnston was living in Connecticut where he would regularly visit his favorite restaurant. It was the only sushi spot in his area, a local establishment where everyone was considered family. One of the regulars he frequently bumped into was Brian Penry, an art director for WWE at the time. In conversation, Penry explained that Vince McMahon was looking for him to produce a video for cable TV big wigs and asked Johnston if he would be willing to help contribute some music for the project. Johnston obliged. Vince, being very happy with Johnston’s work, arranged a time for the two to meet. This meeting would mark the beginning of a 32-year tenure with WWE.
Historically, the incorporation of theme music with wrestling entrances wasn’t common practice until the 1980s. Before then, there were only sporadic cases of music being used. In the early 1950s, female champion Mildred Burke often entered to theme music, while Gorgeous George used “Pomp and Circumstance”, a song which was later famously used by Randy Savage. Sgt. Slaughter, who has claimed to have introduced the idea to Vincent J. McMahon, entered to the “Marines’ Hymn” at a Madison Square Garden show in the 1970s. British wrestler Big Daddy had been using “We Shall Not Be Moved” as his entrance music in the 1970s in the United Kingdom. However, the practice did not become widespread until the 1980s, when the Fabulous Freebirds, Hulk Hogan, the Junkyard Dog, and various World Class Championship Wrestling performers began using rock music for entrance themes.
Entrance music didn’t become common practice until the 1980s. Before then, wrestlers used to walk to the ring accompanied only by the roar of the crowd as can be seen in the following footage from the classic between Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham at Madison Square Garden on October 13, 1975:
Signature Sounds of WWE that Jim Johnston Created
In any genre, music invokes an emotional reaction and defines what one feels; whether it be heard on the radio, in a movie, play, or a live wrestling event. Johnston had a brilliant way of summoning emotions that perfectly fit each wrestler the theme was attached to. The Undertaker and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin are prime examples of this.
Throughout his tenure with WWE, Johnston composed over 10,000 pieces of music, and one of his albums – WWF The Music Vol. 3 – even reached platinum status, selling over 1.2 million copies in the United States. Johnston-produced songs were the signature sounds for many of WWE’s biggest superstars including Goldust, Bret Hart, Owen Hart, Brock Lesnar, Mankind, Mr. McMahon’s “No Chance in Hell”, Triple H, Kurt Angle, Ultimate Warrior, DX, The Rock, and the aforementioned Stone Cold and Undertaker.
Ahead of the 25th anniversary of Monday Night Raw, Newsweek spoke to Johnston about his years of scoring and helping define WWE and its superstars. In this interview, he admitted that working with Vince was “unusual” and that there was very little conversation about the music needed before creating his pieces. Vince would tell him a few headline points about a superstar and that would be enough to work with. Vince always had the final say on things which never bothered him. This working relationship developed into a long history of producing content that made both Vince and the talent happy.
Johnston also emphasized his dislikes about working in a large corporation. He did not care for the backstage politics, and there were specific individuals that he did not care to work with but he didn’t go into further details about that.
“Steve Austin was always very appreciative of my efforts, and of other producers in WWE who would put together his videos and vignettes, and he went out of his way to thank me.”
Out of the thousands of songs Johnston produced, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s Disturbed/Glass Shatters theme song was his favorite. When it came to creating the iconic song we know Austin for today, Johnston was shown a few vignettes of him in advance. He recalls getting the feeling that Austin was an ass-kicker who came in and raised hell and left. Austin needed something that screamed disaster was approaching and no one knew what would happen next. He immediately pulled out his guitar and started finding the right tune. He began using driving notes that resembled danger.
In a 2018 interview with Sports Illustrated, Johnston opened up about the writing process for this song.
“I thought of a car accident, only because of the horrible sound it makes. Then I went to the glass, but the sound of the glass was so thin that I needed to make it bigger, so I added the car crash.”
The opening of the song is a car crash, explosion and glass breaking. The track took twenty minutes to make and he would record the first version just eight hours later. Johnston is always examining his work; however, for Austin, he knew this was perfect.
“Right away I said, ‘I get it. That’s Steve Austin. That was the best part of the job, creating a theme that fit the character. As soon as you heard Steve’s, it felt like it had already been his theme for years.”
Johnston also explained that WWE superstars have very scarce input regarding what they would like their entrance music to be which make his job a bit difficult at times. Despite that, Johnston always went off his gut and he always did a extraordinary job using just the vignettes given to him in advance. Everything thereafter was completely up to him.
Despite not having a lot of communication with the talent personally, one man always acknowledged his efforts- “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
“Steve was comfortable saying thank you, which was a little uncommon,” Johnston admitted. “He was always very appreciative of my efforts, and of other producers in WWE who would put together his videos and vignettes, and he went out of his way to thank me. Steve was very pleased with the song and always told me that it quickly allowed him to get in the right mood and into character.”
Another one of the most iconic theme songs produced was The Undertaker’s. While speaking about The Phenom’s entrance theme music, Johnston recalls it being a completely different animal. The Undertaker was presented as a “Dead Guy” and Johnston was clueless about what that was supposed to mean. Was he a spirit? Would we ever see him on live television? Johnston brainstormed for over a day and finally decided on what his music would sound like. The audience would see him as something grim, and that’s what he created.
“I wrote it on a piano in a delicate, high register, and once I had that, I figured, okay, it must have a large church organ, a huge choir, and then I thought about the bell tolls. I knew I needed the biggest bell in the world, so I used three different bells and a few other noises to make it feel like it was the bell from the center of the earth. [That theme] has stood the test of time.”
Johnston opens up about his departure from WWE
While Jim Johnston holds his tenure in WWE with respect and gratitude, he broke down what led to his departure from the company. He elaborated on the distance that grew between Vince and himself during the last few years within WWE revealing that as the company grew, they were not able to carry on the same relationship they both desired. He also shared his opinions of where the musical direction was going and how this led to his frustration and unhappiness in his role.
John Paul Alicastro and Michael Conrad Lauri of the impressive CFO$ began taking over where Johnston had given so much of his heart, and this made Johnston feel no longer needed. As for what he thinks of their music, Johnston candidly shared, “I’m not working with [CFO$] so I don’t know what their directives are. All I can react to is what I’m hearing. I’m sure they’re talented guys but what’s being produced feels too homogenous. It’s just music that plays—it doesn’t feel like each guy is themed. All the women have a dance music kind of thing. And it’s lots and lots of loud sound effects.”
Johnston says that he felt his talents were no longer needed, and so when Vince gave him the release papers, he was ready and felt it was best for everyone in the company. His last and final music to record was for the “Lone Wolf” Baron Corbin who debuted right before his departure with WWE in 2017.
Life after WWE
Despite creating many of the most memorable wrestling theme songs over the years, Johnston never considered himself to be a fan. That said, he has great respect for the business.
“Just because John Williams did the scores for E.T. and Star Wars does not automatically make him a giant fan of aliens or space travel,” explained Johnston. “I would categorize myself as a non-wrestling fan. I see the appeal, and there are times when I could get excited about it, but I wrote music for what I was hired to write. I threw myself into what I was writing.”
He had to learn many different instruments during his 30+ year career with WWE, and if there was one he was not experienced in, he took time to master it. Despite his many contributions in the entertainment industry, he feels he is not fully recognized because of an aberration in WWE production.
“Vince’s shows have no credit roll. While a lot of fans know about me, and I have a great appreciation for that, people in the industry don’t. So [with departing from WWE], it’s a new process for me to self-promote myself. I love orchestral scoring and scoring films, so I’m trying to go in that direction, as well as getting songs out for people who don’t write their material, particularly country artists.”
With the myriad of contributions Johnston has given to the wrestling business over the years, a future WWE Hall of Fame induction only makes sense and would be a justified way of cementing his legacy. It’s only a matter of time too until Johnston’s talents are recognized and utilized outside of the wrestling world. With a studio in his home, Johnston awaits his next opportunity to share his passion and musical talents with the world in whatever capacity he can.