John Willingham knew how to make great barbecue, and it was a passion throughout his life

John Willingham and his W'ham Turbo Cooker
John Willingham & the W'ham Turbo Cooker

John Willingham was famous for barbecue and the barbecue sauces and rubs he developed to enhance his great cooking techniques. A creative entrepreneur and inveterate tinkerer, he spent a big chunk of his long life in search of a more perfect way to barbecue. Forty years ago, he designed and received a patent on indirect cooking with the W’ham® Turbo Cooker, which kept the smoke away from the meat but sealed the flavor in.

In 1983, triumph! W’ham® ribs wowed the judges in the Memphis-in-May International Barbecue Festival. Willingham's® River City Rooters placed first in ribs, and the team was crowned World Grand Champion beating out the whole hog and shoulder champions. The following year, the team repeated that success at Memphis in May and later that year, proved it wasn’t just a Memphis thing winning Grand Champion at The American Royal in Kansas City. We still hold the record to this day of the only team to win both Memphis in May and The American Royal in the same year.  Those were the first in a long string of victories, culminating in John’s entry into the American Royal’s Barbecue Hall of Fame, one barbecue’s top honors. Willingham's® cooking, seasoning, and barbecue sauces continue to win top awards every year!

Following the success on the competition circuit and with the restaurants in Memphis he established Whamco, Inc. dba Willingham Associates in 1983 to distribute his line of award winning W’ham® seasonings, sauces and cookers.

John Willingham, left, with Muhammad Ali.

"John Willingham was a true legend of barbecue," said the organizers of the Memphis in May Festival, "winning awards everywhere he cooked, and winning friends at every stop with his own brand of wisdom, humor and kindness." The contest organizers termed him "the most acclaimed barbecue chef in the world."

He knew how to make great barbecue, and a lot more..

John, a former St. Louis Cardinal baseball player, invented more than just a better way to cook barbecue.

Having over 14 patents to his name other notable ones included:

  • A prefabricated construction technique known as the "Wham T" method, used in numerous buildings around the world.
  • A device known as the "Harmonic Stress Reducer," one of which was acquired by Muhammad Ali.
  • And…a nasal spray bottle!
John at the Memphis Legends Trip and Cook in Ireland.

Enduring genius

John died in May 2013, at 80. He's best remembered for his barbecue genius, which you can taste in every Willingham's®  barbecue sauce and seasoning. Cooks who want to make great barbecue know that Willingham's® is a secret weapon.


I Believe

If you don't believe you can,

you won't.

If you always wonder if you should,

You will never know if you could.


if you never try,

you will forever wonder why?

What could have been

But never was


because you didn't try.

Written by John H. Willingham
Dedicated to Ida Vaunceil and Elmer L. Willingham