Each time he walked onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Russell , a big man, would ask, “Can everybody see me all right?”
His friends and fans will see Mr. Russell no longer. The songwriter, singer and comedian died at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday (July 3) at a Nashville hospital from complications of diabetes. He was 61.
A native of Sunflower County, in the Mississippi delta, Mr. Russell moved with his family to California when he was 12. Though he made early recordings for the Radio label, he established himself first as a songwriter. Jim Reeves recorded his “In a Mansion Stands My Love,” and the song became the flip side of Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go,” a No. 1 country hit in 1959-60.
After recording for ABC Paramount in the early ’60s, Mr. Russell’s breakthrough as a writer came with “Act Naturally,” co-written with Voni Morrison. Mr. Russell tried for two years to interest someone in the song, to no avail. Morrison, working as a singer in Buck Owens’ band, gave him an acetate, but Owens expressed little interest in the song at first. Owens’ guitarist, Don Rich, learned “Act Naturally,” and Owens had a change of heart when he heard Rich sing it casually while the two rode together in a truck. Owens’ recording of “Act Naturally” went to No. 1 for four weeks in 1963, his first chart-topping single.
“I had a date, and the record company I was working for called and told me I had to come to Hollywood for a session,” Mr. Russell told country.com in 2000. “I called the girl and told her I had to cancel our date. She asked, ‘Where you going?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to Hollywood. They’re gonna put me in a movie and make me a big star.’ I wrote the song in about 15 or 20 minutes.”
The Beatles, with Ringo Starr on the lead vocal, recorded “Act Naturally” in 1965. Released as the b-side of “Yesterday,” the song went to No. 47 on the pop chart. Owens and Starr later recorded “Act Naturally” as a duet, and the song went to No. 27 on Billboard‘s country singles chart in 1989. With help from Owens, Marty Stuart and Earl Scruggs, Mr. Russell revisited his classic in 2000, giving it a bluegrass treatment on a new album, Actin’ Naturally, for OMS Records. Also in 2000, the song appeared in an ad for video outlet Blockbuster.
After moving to Nashville, Mr. Russell signed as a writer with the Wilburn Brothers’ publishing company, where he had songs recorded by the Wilburn Brothers, Patti Page, Loretta Lynn and George Hamilton IV. Among his chief credits as a songwriter: “Making Plans,” a No. 2 country hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1980; “You’ll Be Back (Every Night in My Dreams),” No. 24 for Mr. Russell in 1978 and No. 3 for the Statler Brothers in 1982; “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together,” No. 1 for George Strait in 1984; and “Got No Reason Now for Goin’ Home,” No. 7 for Gene Watson in 1985.
Chet Atkins signed Mr. Russell to a recording contract with RCA in 1971. “Catfish John,” a Russell composition, went to No. 12 in 1972-73, but Mr. Russell’s greatest success as an artist was the 1973 barroom anthem “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer” which went to No. 4 on Billboard‘s country singles chart. Mr. Russell’s other Top 20 hits included “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor” in 1973-74 and “Hello I Love You” in 1975. He recorded for RCA until 1977, for Mercury from 1978-81 and for 16th Avenue Records in 1987.
Atkins once said, “I think if you could find the definition of country music in Webster’s Dictionary, you would surely see songs like ‘Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,’ ‘Catfish John’ and ‘The Baptism of Jesse Taylor’ as some of the finest examples of that definition.”
Patty Loveless met Mr. Russell when she was 15. “He was a down-to-earth person, very giving and open to people,” she recalled. “No matter how old I got, Johnny always treated me like a little 15-year-old girl. He was always very supportive, and I think he was an amazing singer, a wonderful talent. No matter what he faced, he always had a sense of humor about it.”
His natural acting ability also landed Mr. Russell on a number of TV shows including Hee Haw, Nashville Now, the Dean Martin Show and the Dinah Shore Show.
Mr. Russell became a member of the Grand Ole Opry on July 6, 1985, and he remained a mainstay of the show, regularly hosting segments with an engaging mix of humor, hospitality and homespun music. “The next song was written by one of my favorite songwriters … me!” he often joked as he introduced another of his famous hits. He presided over Garth Brooks’ Opry induction in 1990, and Brooks remained a loyal friend. On March 22, 2001, Brooks and other Russell associates including Vince Gill and Porter Wagoner staged a benefit on his behalf at the Grand Ole Opry House. The show raised $80,000 to help Mr. Russell with medical expenses.
Mr. Russell’s diabetes-related health problems continued to increase, however. On April 17, Mr. Russell had both legs amputated below the knee at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital.
In later years, Mr. Russell performed at bluegrass festivals, and he appeared annually at Johnny Russell Day in his hometown, Moorhead, Miss. Started in 1988, the event raises money for the Johnny Russell Scholarship Fund at Mississippi Delta Junior College in Moorhead.
“I’ve always loved to laugh, especially at myself,” Mr. Russell said on his Web site. “Probably my greatest satisfaction is to see my audiences give off a good belly laugh. It makes me feel great! I know they’re enjoying themselves. And that’s what entertainment is all about. That’s my job.”
Visitation will be from 4-8 p.m. CT Thursday (July 5) at Cole & Garrett funeral home in Hendersonville, Tenn. Services will be held at 10 a.m. CT Friday (July 6) at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.