Arts and Entertainment Columns

Ramblin’s Roads: James Brown performed at the Grand Ole Opry 44 years ago March 10

Nobody seemed to complain when Paul McCartney, The Pointer Sisters, Carol Channing, Ann-Margaret, U.S. President Richard Nixon or U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, made guest appearances on the stage of the “new” Grand Ole Opry House off Briley Parkway in Nashville, Tenn.

This grainy image is from the Library of Congress’s website of James Brown’s Grand Ole Opry concert. Photo taken by Les Leverett. From the Country: Portraits of an American Sound exhibition, 2014, made possible by Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Space for Photography.

But when it was announced that James Brown of Beech Island, S.C., planned to perform on the Opry on March 10, 1979, as the guest of country music legend Porter Wagoner, all hell pretty much broke loose; especially among several other Opry artists and fans who knew nothing about Brown’s love of country music.

The Opry had moved five years earlier from its long-time home of Ryman Auditorium with 2,362 seats in downtown Nashville to the 4,000-seats modern building just off Briley Parkway.

So the management was looking at interesting ways to boost attendance at the new Opry House, new Opryland theme park and new Opryland Hotel.

Ragtime piano playing Opry cast member Del Wood was quoted as saying of Brown’s invitation, “I could throw up,” but insisted it wasn’t anything racist, and she liked black traditional country artists O.B. McClinton and Charley Pride.

Opry member Justin Tubb, the son of “Texas Troubadour” Ernest Tubb, said that if it was Ray Charles performing, he would be in the wings waiting to hug him when he came off the stage.

Jean Shepard, whose husband (Hawkshaw Hawkins) had been killed with Patsy Cline in the 1963 plane crash, said it was “a slap in the face to those people who drive thousands of miles to see the Opry and have to be subjected to James Brown.”

She vowed not to perform on either of the two Opry shows airing that night if Brown was on that show.

Apparently only Skeeter Davis, who usually sang her million-selling hit single “(Don’t They Know It’s) The End of the World,” publicly supported Wagoner’s decision to invite Brown with the blessings of WSM Radio President/CEO Bud Wendell and Opry General Manager Hal Durham.

Photo of James Brown in 2001 courtesy the James Brown Family Foundation Facebook page

Brown ended up performing on the Opry’s 7 to 7:30 p.m. segment sponsored by Shoney’s “Big Boy” restaurants and broadcast live over WSM-AM radio station.  He later would attend an after-show dinner in the Opryland Hotel.

He was introduced by Dolly Parton’s former duet partner Wagoner who had opened the segment with his comical hit “Ole Slewfoot,” and he used Wagoner’s band.

For 17 minutes, Brown went full-out to entertain the packed audience in the 4,000-seats auditorium even with his trademark splits and microphone tosses.

He was smart enough to include the traditional country songs “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Tennessee Waltz” and “Georgia (On My Mind),” but he also did a full version of “Get Up Off That Thing” and a medley of his soul music classics “Cold Sweat,” “Can’t Stand It” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.”

There might have been a couple of standing ovations, but basically he received the same polite applause most Opry guest artists still get today.

Nevertheless, James Brown himself had a great time that night and felt like it had been a personal accomplishment.   

How do I know that?  The Godfather of Soul talked about it with me personally several months later back in Augusta. 

“They treated me like I was a prodigal son,” he said.  “They treated me so nice.  I felt I got as much praise as a white man who goes into a black church and puts $100 in the collection plate.”

Brown would tell me on a couple of occasions that one of his favorite all time artists was Little Jimmy Dickens and would repeat the words of a Dickens’ hit saying, “Take an old cold ‘tater and wait!”   You can come across an online video saying that Brown once shined Dickens’ boots during one of the Opry star’s many Augusta appearances.

“I always have loved country music ever since I was a kid and listened to the radio in Augusta,” he said.  “Country music really is just the white man’s blues.”

Brown also loved ‘50s country stars Lefty Frizzell and Opry star Cowboy Copas, who, ironically, also was killed in the same plane crash with Jean Shepard’s husband.

James Brown’s statue on Broad Street. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News

He told me that it was Porter Wagoner’s keyboard player who had toured with Brown for two years who arranged the connection with Wagoner.   

“Porter used to walk behind the mules plowing up the fields and singing to himself,” Brown related.  “A guy heard him announcing himself like he was on the Grand Ole Opry and told him, ‘That’s the closest to the Opry you’ll ever get.’  I can relate to that.  My own daddy told me that I’d never make it by singing.  My own daddy told me that.”

Brown noted that he had recently recorded his own version of Bill Anderson’s classic ballad “Still.”   Anderson would later tell me that he was deeply honored and especially touched that fellow South Carolina-native Brown had mentioned Anderson’s name on the recording.

“I love Minnie Pearl,” Brown additionally would tell me.  “We were on the ‘Joey Bishop Show’ together.  I co-hosted the Mike Douglas Show one time when Johnny Cash was a guest.”

Brown grew up watching the movies of western singer and Grand Ole Opry star Tex Ritter.  That made it even special when Ritter’s son, “Three’s Company” TV star John Ritter, heard Brown live over the WSM broadcast while driving in Nashville and turned his car around and came to the Opry house to say hello.

Summing up his Opry appearance Brown said, “I thought it was one of the best things I have ever done in my life.  It was definitely a high point.”

One more thing.  Brown told me in finishing the interview that he loved talking about his love of country music and that special night at the Grand Ole Opry.

“Good interesting conversation is hard to come by,” he said.  “It’s almost as good as being with a good woman.”

Don Rhodes has been a by-line journalist since 1963 writing for his Chamblee, Ga., High School newspaper and two weeklies in Decatur.  He has worked for Morris Communications Co. since joining the Savannah Evening Press in March of 1967.  He also has authored four national books, four regional books, national magazine articles and album notes for several music artists. 

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