Thursday, August 11, 2011

Grand Ole Opry Star Billy Grammer Passes Away

My friend and wise Grand Ole Opry historian Byron Fay had this touching biography on his website earlier today on the passing of longtime Opry star Billy Grammer:

The music industry and the Grand Ole Opry lost another legend as Billy Grammer passed away earlier today. Billy was a great Opry member who has been more or less retired in recent years. He was also one of the nicest men there was. The following biography on Billy is from "The Encyclopedia of Country Music", and was written by Walt Trott:

"Gotta Travel On" put singer Billy Wayne Grammer on the musical map. Adapted from a 150-year-old British folk tune, that October 1958 release landed him on a trio of charts: country (#5), pop (#4) and r&b (#14). In addition, the million-selling record was the first hit for Monument Records and its founder, record producer Fred Foster. A 1961 release, "Bonaparte's Retreat" b/w "The Kissing Tree," is estimated to have sold 500,000 units.

The eldest of thirteen children, Grammer began playing guitar at five and from an early age played locally with fiddler father Arch Grammer. Billy Grammer made his radio debut on WJPF-Herrin, Illinois, in 1940. After military service in World War II he worked for Connie B. Gay at WARL-Arlington, Virginia. There Grammer performed on Jimmy Dean's CBS-TV show (1957-58). Grammer joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1959, remaining there until he lost his eyesight.

He designed the Grammer Flat Top Guitar, donating his first model to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969. The agile guitarist's sophisticated licks garnered numerous studio sessions with artists such as Eddy Arnold, Louis Armstrong, and Patti Page, and inspired other guitarists, such as Roy Clark. In 1965 Grammer had his own syndicated TV series.

Deeply religious, Grammer delivered the invocation for the Grand Ole Opry House opening on March 16, 1974.

That completes the biography. But I will add a correction. Despite his eyesite problems, Billy did not give up his Opry membership. He would appear at the Opry every once in a while, although after 2006, he did not appear again until he celebrated his 50 year as on Opry member in 2009, and he was always with his wife, Ruth, who usually stood by next to him on stage. (They were married in 1944). Even during his last Opry appearances, on Friday February 27 & Saturday February 28, 2009, when Billy was honored for his 50 years as an Opry member, Billy's voice was great as was his guitar playing. What I remember most about that Friday night, was that Billy did his great hit, "Gotta Travel On", and he extended it into about a 10 minute number. He was very gracious and really enjoyed himself that night.

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