10 March, 1979
James Brown was in Nashville recording vocals for his disco’d up 45, It’s Too Funky In Here, when he received a unique proposal. It was country music legend Porter Wagoner, inviting him to appear at the new Grand Ole Opry House, the venerable country music institution’s home since March 1974. Wagoner felt the presence of The Godfather Of Soul could provide a little appeal-widening pizzazz. “It’s nice to have a shot in the arm once in a while to make something exciting happen,” he reasoned. And so it was that on March 10 the Opry got funky, as The Hardest Working Man In Show Business appeared on its hallowed stage.
It was not the first time the Opry had featured a black performer. The earliest broadcasts, back in 1926, had featured harmonica ace DeFord Bailey, who in December 1927 debuted his trademark Pan American Blues on the very show that WSM manager George D Hay announced: “For the past hour we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera but, from now on, we will present The Grand Ole Opry.” Even so, no other African-American performer would form part of the Opry line-up until Charley Pride appeared at the Ryman Auditorium in January 1967. Linda Martell, who became the first black female singer to grace the Opry in August 1969, was followed by The Pointer Sisters in 1974.
Mr Brown admitted he had little time for country sounds in his young days, saying, “When I worked for white people there was always a radio tuned in to country music. It was constantly forced on you.” Later, he changed his opinion, naming Tex Ritter, Lefty Frizzell, and Little Jimmy Dickens – of May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose fame – among his favourite country artists.
The news that Brown was going to play the gig had caused local furore, however. The Memphis Press Scimitar drafted a headline proclaiming: “Invitation To Soul Singer Brings Disharmony to Grand Ole Opry.”
Honky-tonk singer-songwriter Jean Shepard said that she wouldn’t share the stage with Brown, claiming: “It’s 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.” Roy Acuff, the Opry legend who gave President Nixon on-stage yo-yo lessons during his visit in 1974, merely remarked: “I wish I could go out there and speak my mind – but I won’t.”
Come the night, Brown appeared on the seven o’clock portion of the Wagoner-hosted show, followed by Skeeter Davis, one of the performers who welcomed the soul man’s presence. Davis herself had fallen foul of the Music City hierarchy some years earlier, when she’d criticised the police for arresting some evangelists in a local shopping centre.
Brown, who worked with Porter Wagoner’s band because of a refusal to let him use his own horn section, opened with a version of Hank Williams’ iconic Your Cheatin’ Heart, then delivered soulful takes on Georgia On My Mind and Tennessee Waltz, before closing with a typically action-packed Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, doing the splits, tossing the microphone and showboating at his utmost. At which point the audience booed, because Brown had ditched country propriety and brought on extra musicians.
There were complaints that Brown had performed over his allotted time, though Wagoner, who recorded the slot, confirmed that it lasted only 17 minutes. But this was all the time it took, it seems, to inflame those inclined to be inflamed.
“I could throw up. The next thing you know we’ll be doing a strip out there.”
Piano-playing Del Wood, the Opry regular whose Down Yonder had sold over a million in 1951, insisted to the Nashville Banner: “It’s not an anti-black issue. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not racial. We’re proud of black country entertainers like DeFord Bailey, O.B. McClinton and Charley Pride. But I’m against James Brown’s music on the stage of the Opry and what it stands for. I could throw up. The next thing you know we’ll be doing a strip out there.”
Despite all the brouhaha, Brown was happy to appear at country music’s most revered venue, and informed the Augusta Chronicle that it was one of the high points in his career.
“They treated me like I was a prodigal son… so nice I felt guilty,” he told Don Rhodes, author of the 2008 JB biography, Say It Loud! “I felt I got as much praise as a white man who goes into a black church and puts $100 in the collection plate.”