The First Star of the Grand Ole Opry
by Aashid Himons and the Reverend Keith Gordon
On June 23rd, 1983, Roy Acuff-- King of the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music, stood by the grave of the Opry's First Star.
Who was the first star of the Opry? Most people would think it was a familiar great like Jimmie Rogers or Uncle Dave Macon. But contrary to popular belief the Opry's First Star was none other than the legendary "Harmonica Wizard," DeFord Bailey-- a Melanized American born and raised 40 miles east of Nashville.
Acuff had gathered with Bill Monroe, King of Bluegrass Music, and others at Nashville's Greenwood Cemetery to unveil a commemorative monument for Bailey's grave.
"If his name is ever on the ballot, he'll have one vote from Roy Acuff," Country's King said in reference to a drive to induct Bailey into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But Acuff passed away before he could cast his ballot for Bailey.
His absence from the Hall represents an injustice of monumental proportions. While the other Grand Ole Opry Stars reaped the financial rewards as the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music grew into a multi-billion dollar industry, Bailey was virtually penniless when he passed away on July 2nd, 1982.
The harmonica master joined the Opry when it was still known as the WSM Barn Dance. It was renamed the Grand Ole Opry by popular Radio Announcer George D. Hay in 1927. WSM had just become a part of the fledgling NBC Radio Network and, in response to a network broadcast of Conductor Damrosch's "Musical Appreciation Hour," Hay quipped, "Friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the 'earthy'."
Hay then introduced one of the Barn Dance's most frequent and popular performers, the man he dubbed the "Harmonica Wizard"-- DeFord Bailey. After a typically great performance of his classic train song, "The Pan American Blues," Hay mouthed the phrase that would become music history. "For the past hour we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on we will present The Grand Ole Opry." The legendary Opry and Bailey, it's first star, were born.
Bailey's road to the Opry was a difficult one. Born in 1899 in rural Smith County,Tn., he was the the grandson of a freed slave who had fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. After his mother died when he was only a year old, his father's sister Barbara Lou and her husband effectively became his foster parents, caring for him throughout the rest of his childhood. As a boy, he grew up around a musical family, a passion he passed on to his children and grandchildren, who are also musicians.
"It ran through the family," says his son, DeFord Bailey Jr., a multi-instrumentalist himself.
Bailey learned the traditional tunes of what he would later call "Black Hillbilly Music" from his grandfather, aunt and other family members. He learned to play the harmonica while still a baby, and it remained his favorite instrument, but he was a multi-talented musician, able to play banjo, guitar, mandolin and even a bit of violin.
Bailey had toyed with the idea of making a living performing the music he loved so much, and in 1925 he received his first big break. Radio had come to Nashville in the form of station WDAD, owned by a radio supply owner named I. N. Smith. The store was managed by Fred "Pop" Exum, a radio enthusiast and fan of Bailey's who quickly asked him to perform on the air. Though the station was small by any standards, broadcasting at a mere 150 watts, it's signal reached out hundreds of miles through the night air, drawing fan mail from such far-flung locales Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York.
WSM Radio, owned by National Life and Accident Insurance, hit the air a month later. It was here that Hay, lured to the station from WLS in Chicago, began the Saturday Night Show of Authentic Folk and Country Music that would become the Barn Dance. The line-up would include many WDAD regulars, who would play at both stations on Saturday nights.
One of these regulars, Dr. Humphrey Bate, a respected country doctor and a well known musician, talked Bailey into joining him at WSM one night. Arriving after the show was already in progress, Bate told Hay that he wanted the young harp virtuoso to play. At Bate's insistence, Hay begrudgingly agreed. After Bailey's Performance, Hay was elated at the young man's talent and added him as a regular to the show. He appeared every week, bringing in large quantities of fan mail, as well as telegrams and phone calls with special song requests. Bailey carried the shows during the early years, offering a balance to other performers such as Uncle Dave Macon and the McGee Brothers. He had the soul of a Jazz Artist, often improvising on the spot-- each performance different and equally special. His popularity led the enthusiastic Hay to choose him as one of the Opry acts to be recorded by Columbia Records during a session in Atlanta, early in 1927.
These sessions proved to be ill-advised and unproductive, leading Hay to cancel the deal and instead contract with the Brunswick Label to record in New York. The two New York sessions would yield eight songs, including "Pan American Blues." The songs were released in 1927 as part of Brunswick's "Songs From Dixie" Series - the only recordings by a black performer among the series. They were also issued by Vocalion, Brunswick's sister label, and several were also reissued in 1930, again by Brunswick.
Though evidence exists that the records were commercial hits, Bailey saw little in the way of royalties. As David C. Morton relates in his excellent biography, DeFord Bailey, A Black Star In Early Country Music, he was supposed to receive $400 cash for the recordings, as well as a two-percent royalty on each record sold. Hay took 25 percent of the cash payment for arranging the sessions and paid out the remaining $300 in weekly increments of $10 - which supplanted the $7 he was paid for his weekly Opry performances. He also received three royalty checks totaling $128 for the songs, less than half, by any estimates, than he should have been paid.
A year later, Hay set up the first recording session to ever take place in Nashville, luring the Victor label to town to record his Opry Performers. Bailey took part in this historic session, cutting eight new songs in four-and-a-half hours. Three of these cuts would later be released by Victor-- the last, "John Henry" in 1932. Reissues of the material were released as late as 1936.
Although Bailey saw little gain from these recordings, their influence on a generation of harp players can still be felt today. No other harmonica player during those early days of recording and radio was captured so well on vinyl. His success led to a rash of "field" recordings of other black harmonica soloists. After the disappointing payoff-- he received a lump sum of $200 for the Victor Sides-- Bailey never really tried to record again after 1928.
During the '30's, Bailey toured constantly with several bands, playing tent shows, county fairs and theaters across the country, always returning to the Opry Stage for Saturday Night's Performance. Segregation forced him to eat and sleep separately from his fellow white performers. The five dollars a day he received for performing barely paid his travel expenses and was usually significantly less than what the white performers were paid. Often, he was cheated in the amount paid him or offered whiskey as payment - which he politely refused, being a teetotaler. Despite this treatment, his was the star that attracted crowds out to the shows during the depression.
When Roy Acuff came to Nashville in 1938 as an unknown, Bailey gave him his first break. He agreed to help publicize Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys by touring with them over the next couple of years, directly lending a hand to Acuff's future stardom. Bill Monroe also utilized Bailey's talents and drawing power to publicize his band.
The spring of 1941 saw him start his sixteenth year with the Grand Ole Opry. Even though his airtime had been reduced, he still appeared as frequently as any other artist. Within a couple of months, though, in May of 1941, the Opry's First Star was fired in a mystery often covered up or neglected by Country Music Historians.
Through the years, authors have offered many theories about the dismissal, ranging from racism to the official party line - that he wouldn't learn any new songs.
"Like some members of his race, DeFord was lazy, writes Hay in his account of the Opry. "He knew about a dozen numbers, which he put on the air and recorded for a major company, but he refused to learn any more." Actually DeFord knew dozens of traditional songs which he had grown up playing and had written many more.
"It's a terrible thing for the company to say terrible things like that about me," Bailey told Biographer Morton. "I can read between the lines. They saw the day coming when they'd have to pay me right, and they used the excuse about me playing the same old tunes."
"I told them years, I got tired of blowing that same thing, but I had to go along with them, you know. They held me down-- I wasn't free." "That part I know is wrong," says Bailey Jr. of his father's refusal to learn any new songs. "He learned to play different songs even after I had grown up."
Sadly, the man who taught his children to "keep a clean heart and things will follow," remains in obscurity-- a footnote to the history that he helped write. Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen declared December 14, DeFord Bailey Day, to honor the birthday of this musical legend, but at the Opry, his status has been forgotten.
"All those stars have gold and bronze framed pictures on the wall," says the younger Bailey. "Dad's picture is nowhere to be seen."
Tracey Dooling contributed
research assistance to this article.