- NAME: DeFord Bailey
- OCCUPATION: Songwriter, Guitarist
- BIRTH DATE: December 14, 1899
- DEATH DATE: July 02, 1982
- Did You Know?: DeFord Bailey has been credited as the first African-American star of the Grand Ole Opry as well as one of the first black stars of country music.
- Did You Know?: DeFord Bailey was a wizard at playing the harmonica and was most notable for mimicking the sound of locomotives.
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Smith County, Tennessee
- PLACE OF DEATH: Nashville, Tennessee
- Full Name: DeFord Bailey
- Nickname: Harmonica Wizard
Best Known For
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.
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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.
"I'm an old man now. But they never will get out of a harp what I can. ... Trying to beat me blowing is like trying to outrun a Greyhound bus! I got notes harder than Mohammed Ali can throw."
"If I don't blow my harp, I hurt. God put that on me to make me play. He wanted me to use my talent."
"I could make it on my own. I walked out of [radio station] WSM with a smile. I told myself, 'God gave every man five senses and I'm going to use them. I ain't gonna work for another man as long as I live.' I'd work for myself."
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.
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.
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.
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Browse our collection of African-American firsts in music and dance, including Al Jarreau, Cleo Laine, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Herbie Hancock, Marian Anderson and DeFord Bailey. Explore full biographies, photo galleries, videos and more, only at Biography.com.
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