This week will mark a special moment in the history of the Grand Ole Opry as it was 75 years ago this week, on February 19, 1938 that Roy Acuff became a regular performer on the Grand Ole Opry. While the Grand Ole Opry may or may not mark the occasion, I thought that it is an important enough milestone to mention.
Roy Acuff first appeared on the Opry in October 1937 but the appearance did not go well. David Cobb, a WSM announcer at the time said, "I sincerly did not want to say anything to hurt Roy's reputation, but I said the sonner he found another way to make a living, the better it would be for him." Pee Wee King also had some memories about Roy's early visit to the Opry, and in getting him to come back. "My manager, Joe Frank, was the one who gave Roy his first big boost. He contacted Roy and said, 'Man, you're missing the big boat. You don't have to be stuck in a little town like Knoxville. Come on down to Nashville. You can go national.' Roy was skittish about leaving Knoxville, especially since he'd been turned down by the Opry once."
Roy came back to Nashville and was offered another chance to audition for the show. This was on February 5, 1938 and David Stone picks up the story. "There was a gap in the program. Someone stopped too early or didn't show up. I crooked my finger at Roy. He came out and I introduced him, and Roy said he was going to sing 'The Great Speckled Bird.' Come Monday morning, the powers that be wanted to know who was the guy singing about the bird. But as the morning went on, the lanky guy who was head of our mail department called up and said, 'What are we going to do about all these letters coming about something to do with a bird?' We went down to the mail room and there were several stacks of mail just for Roy."
Roy Acuff also had some memories. "You didn't get on the Opry for singing a song or having a hit number. They didn't ask you if you ever recorded. They didn't care. You had to be a showman. The only way you could get on was to have something to show and prove it. When I came back, I was supposed to fiddle, and I did. But I sang 'The Great Speckled Bird' that night. The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The next day, we had to be in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, then I went back to Knoxville, and in two weeks they sent my mail. It came in bushel baskets." Roy also said, "I was hired by the Opry as a fiddle player. Country music in the late 1930s was mostly instrumental. I never would have lasted as a fiddle player. I've stuck around all these years because of my singing."
At the time, the biggest stars on the Opry were the Delmore Brothers and it was through their request that David Stone offered Roy a spot on the Opry and WSM. The letter that David wrote back to Roy, dated February 10, 1938 said, "I am in receipt of your telegram that you will be here for programs starting the 19th. I will book you for a spot on the Grand Ole Opry, and also a series of 7:00 a.m. programs starting Monday February 21st.
When Roy came to the Opry, his band was called the Crazy Tennesseans. The group included Clell Summery, Jess Easterday, Imogene Sarrett and Red Jones. Because of the objections of David Stone, Roy changed the name of his group to the Smoky Mountain Boys.
What is also interesting about Roy coming to the Opry is that Harry Stone was the person who actually hired Roy, and not George D. Hay. Hay was on leave from the show in 1937 and early 1938 and during the time he was gone, Harry Stone took over active management of the Opry and began to hire professional entertainers for the show. Those included Curly Fox and Texas Ruby and Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys. What is interesting is that when Hay returned to the show he would constantly have disagreements with Pee Wee over the western style music that he played, along with the slick presentation that his group had, and with Roy. Hay's issue with Roy is simply that he felt Roy was not good enough to be on the Opry, and he had already been turned down once.
While Roy has always been associated with the Grand Ole Opry, he did have his differences with the management, one of which led him to leaving the Opry in 1946. Roy made some salary demands to management, feeling that since he was the biggest star and host of the Prince Albert Show, he should be paid more than the others. Rather than give in to his demands, the Opry hired Red Foley to come in and take over the Prince Albert hosting spot and Roy left the Opry. Roy spent his time away from the Opry touring, and in 1947 after an extensive tour on the West coast, was was hospitalized in a Nashville hospital. Among his visitors were Harry Stone and Ernest Tubb. From Roy, "Harry said, 'Roy, the Opry is losing many of its people, and it looks like maybe we're going under if you don't come back and be with us. Come and help us out. We wish you would change your mind, and come back.' I replied, 'Harry, if I mean that much to WSM and the Grand Ole Opry, I will come back and to everything I can to help the Opry at all times.'"
When Roy did come back on April 26, 1947, it was not as the host of the Prince Albert show. Red Foley, who turned out to be very popular as that host, kept the slot and Roy was given the Royal Crown Cola segment to host. He also came back at a higher rate for his appearances than union scale. Roy would remain a member of the Grand Ole Opry until his death in November 1992, and as he said he would do, he did everything he could to help the Opry at all times.
In looking back to the February 19, 1938 show that marks Roy's hiring as an Opry performer, also appearing on the Opry that night were DeFord Bailey, Dr. Humphrey Bate, Crook Brothers, Delmore Brothers, Curly Fox and Texas Ruby, Fruit Jar Drinkers, Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys, the Gully Jumpers, Jack Shook and His Missouri Mountaineers, Lakeland Sisters, Robert Lunn, Kirk and Sam McGee, Uncle Dave Macon, Sarie and Sally, and theVagabonds, among others.
The Opry doesn't seem to spend much time looking back at it's history. I wish that they would as there are so many important events that have influenced where the show is at today. While the little 8 minute video that they show before the show is nice, they could do so much more. Pete Fisher and the group can start by making special mention of Roy Acuff and the 75th anniversary from when he joined the Grand Ole Opry. No man has influenced the show more and we could use some of that influence today.