Born December 14, 1899, DeFord Bailey was an American country, music and blues star from the 1920s until 1940s. Among his firsts, Bailey was the first performer to be launched on the Grand Ole Opry. Also, DeFord was the first African-American to perform on the show. He is a multi-instrumentalist but playing the harmonica is his specialty.
DeFord Bailey is a grandson of slaves who came from the Bellwood community in Smith County, Tennessee.
At a young age of three, he already learned how to play the harmonica.
In 1902, he contracted polio—infantile paralysis. Because of that, he was confined to bed for a year at which he began developing his unique style of playing. Sometime in September 1918, he moved to Nashville where he performed locally as an amateur.
The Rise to Stardom of DeFord Bailey
On the streets of Nashville, Bailey played. Some say that he was discovered there. Dr. Humphrey Bate, a Grand Ole Opry pioneer, insisted upon presenting and sponsoring DeFord on the Opry. On June 19, 1926, he had first radio appearance on Nashville’s WSM (documented in radio program schedules published in newspapers). He presented his trademark song, “Pan American Blues” on the WSM Barn Dance on December 10, 1927. While the host was introducing Bailey, George D. Hay (WSM station manager and announcer) called out on air. He shouted that the audience listened to music from Grand Opera for an hour. Then, he added that from that moment they will present The Grand Ole Opry. Among all the harmonica blues solo, “Pan American Blues” was the first recording ever.
July 2, 1982, marked as one of the saddest days in the country music industry. DeFord Bailey passed away and his remains lay in Greenwood Cemetery, Nashville.
To honor his achievements and contributions, Nashville Public Television produced the documentary DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost in 2005. The network aired the documentary nationally through PBS. Moreover, Bailey became an inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame on November 15, 2005. On June 27, 2007, the townspeople of Nashville dedicated The DeFord Bailey Tribute Garden at the George Washington Carver Food Park to him. Lastly, The Encyclopedia of Country Music called him “the most significant black country star before World War II”.