Our History

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

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 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. Ribs cooked by his “River City Rooters” team placed first, and the team was crowned “The Overall World’s Barbecue Grand Champion.” The following year, the team repeated that success. In 1985, John proved it wasn’t just a Memphis thing. The team placed first in Kansas City’s American Royal barbecue contest (considered by some the grand pageant of barbecue, but we like all the competitions!) for its pork, its beef and its lamb, and was again crowned overall grand champion. Those were the first in a long string of victories, culminating in John’s entry into the American Royal’s Hall of Fame, barbecue’s top honor. John’s cooking, seasoning, and barbecue sauces continue to win top awards every year!

Following the success John had on the competition circuit he established 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."

In 2012, John was inducted into the American Royal's Hall of Fame, barbecue's top honor. The award recognizes contributions to the advancement of barbecue by individuals in the competitive, business and entertainment communities.

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.

His other patented ideas 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.

And

if you never try,

you will forever wonder why?

What could have been

But never was

is

because you didn't try.

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

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