WNPT-TV, the Nashville public television station, will broadcast a half-hour documentary on the life of DeFord Bailey , the late Grand Ole Opry star, Tuesday, May 7 at 7 p.m. (CT). A trend-setting harmonica player, Bailey was the Opry’s first black star. He also toured through the then racially segregated South with such Opry headliners as Roy Acuff , Uncle Dave Macon and Bill Monroe .
Bailey joined the Opry (then called the WSM Barn Dance) at its inception in 1925 and remained with the radio show until 1941 when he was fired for refusing to create and play new songs. The demand for new music that year resulted from a standoff between ASCAP, the performance rights society, which by then had licensed Bailey’s most in-demand songs, and radio broadcasters who balked at paying ASCAP’s increased licensing fees. In spite of the fact that he had simply been caught in the crossfire, Bailey was embittered by the firing and refused to appear on the Opry until 1974 when he was finally lured back for the first of four guest performances. He died in 1982 at the age of 82.
Kathy Conkwright, who wrote, produced and directed DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost, says the show contains footage of Bailey performing, as well as interviews with his three children; his biographer, David C. Morton; Grand Ole Opry chronicler and country music historian Charles Wolfe; music critic Ron Wynn and Fisk University’s director of race relations, Ray Winbush.
In choosing Grammy-winning singer Lou Rawls to narrate the documentary, Conkwright explains, “I was looking for the kind of voice that had a back-porch, storytelling quality. I was also very interested in having someone who was an African-American and a musician.” As it turned out, Conkwright adds, Rawls had suffered some of the same kinds of discrimination in his career that Bailey had.
Conkwright says WNPT plans to offer the documentary to other PBS affiliates. She doesn’t know if it will be packaged eventually for home-video sales, noting the considerable licensing costs involved.