DeFord Bailey was a mesmerizing harmonica player known as one of country music’s first African-American icons and linked to the naming of the Grand Ole Opry.
Born on December 14, 1899, in Smith County, Tennessee, DeFord Bailey became an astounding harmonica player who earned a spot on radio's The Barn Dance. He was linked to the show being renamed the Grand Ole Opry and became one of its top stars, though he left the show after a dispute in 1941. Bailey died on July 2, 1982, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame more than 20 years later.
DeFord Bailey was born on December 14, 1899, in Smith County, Tennessee. His mother died when Bailey was quite young, and he was taken in by his paternal aunt, Barbara Lou Odum, who raised him along with her husband, Clark.
Bedridden, Bailey suffered severely from polio as a child, which left him with a curved back and affected his growth. Yet while immobilized, he paid very close attention to the natural sounds of his environment, which would deeply shape his artistry.
Bailey came from a highly musical family and became adept at the harmonica, often referred to as the mouth harp, as well as the guitar and banjo. He performed professionally during his teens and moved to Nashville, working a variety of jobs during his early adulthood. In the mid-1920s, he met fellow harmonica player Dr. Humphrey Bate, a real-life physician who asked Bailey to perform with him on radio station WSM's The Barn Dance. Awed by Bailey's skill, the show's announcer George "Judge" Hay immediately invited the harpist to become a regular performer on the show and would dub him the Harmonica Wizard.
Naming of the 'Grand Ole Opry'
With his harmonica, Bailey made music that sounded like an organic, swerving and swiveling, dancing thing. In late 1927, after a preceding show's classical music performance that attempted to imitate the sound of a vehicle, Hay informed listeners that they'd been listening to "Grand Opera," but would now be hearing the "Grand Ole Opry," calling out Bailey's musical abilities. A historical new name was born with Bailey playing his "Pan American Blues," whose tones viscerally recreated the sound of a moving train.
By 1928, Bailey had made recordings of tunes like "Fox Chase," "John Henry," "Ice Water Blues" and "Up Country Blues." Bailey also wed Ida Lee Jones in 1929, with the couple going on to have three children. (The two divorced in 1951.)
A huge hit on the Grand Ole Opry, Bailey went on to tour with a number of other show icons by 1933. There was initial concern from management that white audiences would react once learning that Bailey was black, but being onstage wasn't an issue. What was a problem were dehumanizing Jim Crow laws, where Bailey was not allowed to eat or sleep in the same venues as his fellow musicians due to race, and thus was often forced to dine alone or sleep outside in a car.
Leaves Show Biz
Following a 1941 decree banning radio artists from playing ASCAP tunes, Bailey was allegedly asked to change his repertoire to new songs, yet wouldn't do so and was let go. Disputes were had over this depiction of events between Hay and Bailey, as Bailey has said that he was generally asked during his history with the Opry not to play new songs, and felt that he was fired over having to one day be paid more fairly.
Upon leaving the Opry, Bailey set up a successful shoe shine business, eventually getting a space with several chairs and employees. Despite being approached on multiple occasions, Bailey opted not to return to the world of performance for concern of being exploited. His son DeFord Bailey Jr. did get involved in Nashville's soul music scene however, and a young musician whom he worked with, Jimi Hendrix, also befriended the family.
Beginning in 1967, Bailey would be moved multiple times by the Nashville Housing Authority, as it acquired the property where he was living as well as where his business was located. In 1973, he met and befriended David Morton, a graduate student and public housing staff member who chronicled Bailey's life and made important recordings of him playing. Morton, along with Charles K. Wolfe, later published the 1991 book—DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music.
Later Years and Legacy
As part of the Old Timers' Show, Bailey returned to the Opry to perform in February 1974; on December 14 of that year, he appeared again in celebration of his 75th birthday. He performed for the last time at the Opry in April 1982, drawing a huge ovation. Bailey died on July 2, 1982, in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Tennessee Folklore Society released a 1998 album of Bailey's work, The Legendary DeFord Bailey: Country Music's First Black Star. And after notable controversy, Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Remembered today as one of the first black stars of country music, DeFord Bailey has also been credited as the first African-American star of the Grand Ole Opry.