The Champion

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

“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.”

John (second from left in the photo below, along with other inductees in 2012) 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.


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

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

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.


A nasal spray bottle!

Enduring genius

Later in life, he got more active in Memphis and Shelby Country politics, serving as a Shelby County Commissioner from 2002 to 2006 and later ran twice for mayor of Memphis.

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. John’s wife of 57 years, Marge, today continues to produce and market the products. Cooks who want to make great barbecue know that Willingham’s is a secret weapon.