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Country Hall salutes ‘Harmonica Wizard’

September 1, 2005

By Chris Morris

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – When country music
pioneer DeFord Bailey is officially inducted into the Country
Music Hall of Fame in the fall, he will become just the second
black performer to join its august 95-member ranks, joining
2000 inductee Charley Pride.

Bailey’s name will enter the Country Hall’s rolls November
15 during the Country Music Assn.’s awards ceremony at New
York’s Madison Square Garden. It will be close to 80 years
after country’s “Harmonica Wizard” and first black star made
his 1925 debut on the Grand Ole Opry, the venerable weekly
showcase on radio station WSM in Nashville.

“It’s been a long time coming, but we kept the faith,” says
Carlos DeFord Bailey, DeFord’s grandson, who has followed in
his elder’s footsteps as a “Music City shoeshine man” and
country musician.

Says CMA executive director Ed Benson, “They’ve all been
lobbying to get DeFord Bailey into the Hall of Fame for a
number of years, but our process is immune to lobbying.”

Better late than never.

After nominations from a 12-member nominating committee and
two rounds of voting by a 350-member panel of selectors,
Bailey’s place in country history is secure.

Born outside Bellwood, Tenn., on December 14, 1899, Bailey
taught himself to play the harmonica while recovering from a
childhood bout of polio that left him with a hunched back and a
stunted height of 4 feet, 10 inches. He learned to make his
harp bark like a dog, moan like a freight train and cluck like
a chicken.

Moving to Nashville with his family in 1918, Bailey became
a regular on local station WDAD in 1925. Late that year,
another WDAD musician asked Bailey to join him on a new WSM
show, “Barn Dance.” The program was modeled after “Barn Dance”
on WLS in Chicago and featured its former host, “Judge” George
D. Hay.

It has been said that Bailey’s specialty train-rhythm
number “Pan American Blues” inspired the announcer’s
off-the-cuff remark about “grand ole opry,” which led to the
renaming of the show.

“His significance was being the first African-American
playing on the Grand Ole Opry,” Carlos Bailey says. Adds
Benson, “He did a lot to create an ongoing interest in the
harmonica as an instrument.” Harp players like bluesman Sonny
Terry acknowledged Bailey’s influence.

He was one of the Opry’s most popular early attractions.
When the program inaugurated a touring show in 1933, in an era
when mixed-race performances were verboten, Bailey became the
first artist to break the onstage color barrier.

Except for a four-month detour at a Knoxville, Tenn.,
station, he starred at the Opry for 15 years. In 1941, Bailey
was fired after being innocently caught in the middle of a
music licensing dispute between ASCAP and its newly founded
rival, BMI. That year, he opened a shoeshine parlor on 13th
Avenue in Nashville. He seldom looked back at his music career,
though he guest-starred at the Opry a few times before his
death in July 1982.

History is finally catching up with Bailey’s
accomplishments. The past 15 years have brought a major
biography, a CD of mid-’70s performances and a PBS documentary.
But the Hall of Fame induction might be the pinnacle of
recognition.

Says Carlos Bailey: “When I was young, I just knew him as
Granddaddy. I didn’t know I was around a legend.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter




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