Friday, November 21, 2014

DJ DeFord Bailey

DeFord Bailey was the first first African-American performer on the Grand Ole Opry radio program on WSM-AM in Nashville, TN. His first documented appearance on the station was  June 19th, 1926. He was an ace harmonica player. He was also only 4'10" having had polio as a child and weighted all of 90 lbs. You should probably listen to one of his tunes before we move on.


But WSM wasn't the first radio station that found DeFord. It was WDAD-AM. More here. It was run out of a Dad's Auto Accessories, a shop that sole auto parts, bike parts and radio supplies on 8th Avenue owned by L. N. Smith. It's transmitter was used and had been bought on the cheap from WOAN-AM in Lawrenceburg, TN.  The store manager Fred Exum started the station to promote the shop.  But in those days a 150 watt station could be heard for hundreds of miles. DeFord was goaded into participating in a harmonica contest on the station. As you'd expect the

A month later the National Life and Accident Insurance Company founded WSM... a well-funded and far larger station. It' signed on with 1,000 watts. One of the WDAD regulars, Dr. Humphrey Bate eventually dragged DeFord across the street to play on WSM. That's not much exaggeration, DeFord was very concerned about upsetting the bigoted white people of that era. But George Hay, a former WLS alum, was Director at WSM, and Hay liked DeFord's style. DeFord became known as the "Harmonica Wizard."

In 1928, W.C. Taylor of WNOX-AM in Knoxville poached DeFord by doubling his salary. DeFord had been underpaid and was easily wooed. But DeFordtired of Knoxville and WNOX, which then was a small station. He got the urge to leave and discovered that Taylor had promised to return him to WSM should he leave. Technically DeFord was a free man, but.. it was the South. DeFord returned to WSM in February of 1929. He remained there until he was fired in 1941 under somewhat complex circumstances.

The summer of 1941 was the climax of the ASCAP and BMI royalty spat. Radio stations and networks were boycotting ASCAP owned music to avoid a threatened doubling of the royalty rate. BMI had been created hastily to gather some more fiscally amenable content... but artists like DeForest who were playing old-time music had their hits ripped out from under them. DeForest didn't have a second set of favorites in his back pocket and was cut from the roster. He still toured some, and guested on radio programs around the country but his big days were over. He politely rejected a large number of interview and appearance invitations. He did attended some old-timer nights at WSM in the 1970s but died in 1982 before mounting his long-awaited comeback.