FIRST MUSICIAN ON GRAND OLE OPRY,
DEFORD BAILEY, DIES AFTER LONG ILLNESS...

SAT JULY 3, 1982

By WALTER CARTER and RANDY HILMAN

Deford Bailey, the first musician to play on WSM's Grand Ole Opry and the first artist to make records in Nashville, died in his daughter's arms at her home yesterday.

He was 82.

Mr. Bailey's daughter, Dezoral (Dee) Thomas, said he was really gasping for breath when she took him to Baptist Hospital June 7. Doctors told her then that the musician's kidneys and heart were failing, his lungs were congested and "he probably won't make it," she said.

Mr. Bailey was released from the hospital Tuesday and taken to Thomas' home, where he died as she held him and another daughter,

Christine Bailey Craig stood at his side.

"He was such a beautiful little man," Thomas said I'd say, " Hey, old man, how you doin?" He was always dressed up in a three piece suit and hat to match, and he always had those shined shoes. I'd say you could just die right now and we could put you right in the casket, and we'd just laugh. I sure hate to see him go. The legend is finally gone.

WSM's Saturday Night Barn Dance program had been going for two years when, in December 1927, announcer George (The Ole Judge) Hay scoffed at a semi-classical selection that imitated a locomotive and introduced a musician who could make his harmonica really sound like a train, Deford Bailey.

"The way I remember the story, a symphony piece was playing just before the show was about to go on the air, and when it finished, Hay said, " You've just heard some grand opera, now I want you to hear some Grand Ole Opry,"

Roy Acuff recalled last night. "I loved him for his ability. It was an inspiration to hear him play," Acuff said.

Survivors in addition to his two daughters include a son, Deford Bailey Jr., Nashville; 15 grandchildren, and 13 great grandchildren.

Mr. Bailey, he added, stepped up to the microphone with his harmonica and began playing Pan American Blues , which featured his imitation of a fast moving freight train. The name Grand Ole Opry stuck.

Mr. Bailey made records in Atlanta and New York, and when RCA Victor came to Nashville to look for country artists in 1928, Bailey cut five sides for Victor - the first recording sessions ever in Nashville.

Those two achievements - landmarks in the history of country music - are made even more remarkable by the fact that Mr. Bailey was black.

Born in 1899 in Smith County, at the age of three he had infantile paralysis, which stunted his growth - he stood less than five feet and weighed under 100 pounds - and left him with a deformed chest cavity.

Everyone in his family played music - old-time " black hillbilly " music that had one foot in the blues and the other in country and Mr. Bailey learned to play harmonica while bedridden with his childhood illness.

Growing up he worked for theWatson family in Thompson's Station, and when they moved to Nashville in 1918, he came with them.

In December 1925 he entered a " French Harp Contest " on radio station WDAD (which had gone on the air that fall, before WSM) and finished second place.

Dr. Humphrey Bate, a physician who led the first country band to play on WSM, brought Mr. Bailey to the attention of Judge Hay and the harmonica player became the star of the Saturday night program.

In 1928, the first full year of the Grand Ole Opry, Mr. Bailey played 49 of the 52 shows - 20 more than the next most frequent artist.

The range of his appeal was illustrated when Victor released his records in both the race and hillbilly series.

Mr. Bailey worked the road with fellow Opry star Uncle Dave Macon who, in order to get lodging for Mr. Bailey, sometimes had to tell hotel owners that the musician was his valet.

Later, he worked shows with Roy Acuff for six or seven years.

"When I first came to town, he was one of the top stars and was much in demand for personal appearances," Acuff said. " I carried him on my band. I wasn't known and he drew a crowd. They loved him."

Acuff, one of a handful of people still around who remember those early years on the country music show, said Mr. Bailey was never bitter about segregation.

"He never had a bad word to say about it and was understanding," Acuff said last night. "I took care of him when we had trouble finding rooms or places to eat. He was real gentlemanly about it. I would have given anything if things could have been the way they are now. But that's the way it was back then. I tried to respect him as a white boy."

Mr. Bailey was dismissed from the Opry in 1941. In Judge Hay's- A Story of the Grand Ole Opry (published in 1945) he wrote about having to give "our mascot" his final notice.

"Mr. Bailey was lazy, like some members of his race," according to Hay. "We gave him a whole years notice to learn some new tunes, but he would not."

Last night, Acuff gave a different version of the events surrounding the dismissal.

"I wouldn't say he was lazy. It wasn't that he wouldn't learn new tunes, he couldn't learn new tunes. That was the only objection. I know that he was willing to do what he could do and when it came to playing the songs he knew, there was none of them who could top him."

Mr. Bailey took up work at a shoeshine parlor he had opened with his uncle eight years earlier, and he rarely played for anyone except friends after that.

In 1968 he moved into the I. W. Gernert Homes, not far from his shoeshine stand. The stand was leveled for another project in 1971.

He appeared on the Opry in 1974, at an old timers show just before the Opry left the Ryman Auditorium to move to it's present home in Opryland.

He played the new Opry House on his 75th birthday in December 1974.

"On stage, Mr. Bailey seemed to be saving his breath until he played," said a report in The Tennessean . He showed a lot of his old style in IT AIN"T GONNA RAIN NO MORE (the tune he played in the 1925 WDAD contest), THE PAN AMERICAN BLUES AND FOX CHASE."

Mr. Bailey made his last appearance on the Opry stage last April 3, for the Opry's Homecoming Show.

He had not felt strong enough to even go to the show, but he changed his mind. Again, he must have been saving his breath for the crowd, because when he blew his harmonica, according to his daughter, " He had more wind than I would ever have. "

Although Acuff said he does not believe Mr. Bailey's contributions to country music warrants the entertainers place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he said the man is a legendary in Grand Ole Opry history and that he will be remembered for his contributions to the shows.

Survivors in addition to his two daughters include a son, Deford Bailey Jr., Nashville; 15 grandchildren, and 13 great grandchildren.


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