Andy Griffith, Actor, Musician: 1926-2012

Tuesday, 03 July 2012 02:25 PM Written by 

He personified America at its simplest and most bucolic.  He helped to create a fictional universe--Mayberry, North Carolina--of traditional values, elemental pleasures and gentle good humor and make it a world nearly everyone aspired to live in, if only in their minds and hearts.  Andy Griffith's passing today ends a remarkable career that began in Mt. Airy, North Carolina in the 1940's. His autobiography, I Appreciate It, has been repeatedly touted as nearing release, but no info is available on Amazon regarding any updated release schedule. This is adapted from my ay August 2011 blog Andy Griffith: Behind the Music with added video.  More of Andy's musical side is available on my 2011 Believe Your Ears music podcast including some very rare recordings he did for Capitol.

Andrew Samuel Griffith was born in Mt, Airy June 1, 1926.  That small town would become the kernel of Mayberry, and no doubt will be celebrated for that fact alone forever.  It was not a luxurious childhood.  An only child, his parents, Geneva and Carl Griffith struggled for a time. Carl was a carpenter, however, and was able to provide for the family.  Music would be Andy's ticket beyond the town.  Encouraged by a locla minister, he learned to play trombone and began singing--a natural path to acting and performing locally.

In 1944 he entered the University of North Carolina where he majored in music, graduating in 1948 and becoming a schoolteacher in North Carolina, entertaining at local functions on the side. What moved him beyond all that was his version of an enteraining monologue "What It Was, Was Football," the story of a backwoods country boy's first experience at a college football game. 

A regional label, Colonial Records,  recorded it, and released it credited to "Deacon Andy Griffith."  It sold well enough nationally that in 1953 that Capitol Records purchased the recording and released it.  By that time he was acting, based in New York and wound up landing the role of Will Stockdale in the Broadway military comedy No Time For Sergeants, originally broadcast on TV's old "U.S. Steel Hour," a weekly live dramatic presentation. This is a bit of the kinescope of the original March, 1955 presentation.  This is "Whoa Mule," which he'd later sing on the Andy Griffith Show.  A Broadway production would soon follow, and it was there he met a West Virginia-born radio actor named Don Knotts. 

Griffith would star in the 1958 film version of Sergeants, but his movie debut, in a far less savory starring role came in Elia Kazan's now-classic 1957 A Face in the Crowd, starring Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes, a low-life drifter sitting in an small town Arkansas jail, where he meets local radio host Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), whose program A Face in the Crowd profiles average (or in Lonesome's case, below-average) people. 

The jailbird asking him to sing "Rye Whiskey" is Grand Ole Opry comedian Rod Brasfield, who played a fellow hobo named "Beanie" in the film.  In this compelling scene, Rhodes is creating the persona that would make him famous right on the spot, one of many intense scenes showcasing Griffith's broader range.

It's worth noting the film's cast included some other heavy hitters as well, among them Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa and in her first film role, Lee Remick, with cameos from future 60 Minutes luminary Mike Wallace and the notorious gossip column pioneer Walter Winchell.

In this clip from Face, Griffith, as Lonesome, officiates at a baton-twirling competition in the character's Arkansas home town as they twirl to the sounds of his "rock and roll" record "Mama Guitar." "Betty Lou," (Remick) is the winner he chooses. Lonesome, who'd proposed to Marcia, impulsively marries Betty Lou on the trip. Then all hell really breaks loose.

And here's how the end begins.  If it sounds like the approach of certain political factions right now, it's safe to say this movie predicted all that over half a century before.

And finally, it hits the fan. Bigtime.

This is Andy many years later, discussing how he prepared to shoot the film's climax, where Lonesome literally goes bonkers at his apartment after he's just self-destructed on the air.

On to the Griffith Show.

"Whoa Mule" (or "Kickin' Mule") was a tune Griffith played on the first season of the Andy Griffith Show, specifically on Episode 19 ("Mayberry On Record").  The band with him is the Country Boys which included the White brothers: Roland on mandolin, Eric playing bass and Clarence picking guitar. Billy Ray Lathum is the banjoist and LeRoy McNees (LeRoy Mack)  on Dobro.

Clarence and Roland White gained greater fame with the California bluegrass band the Kentucky Colonels. And in the late 60's, Clarence became a pioneer country-rocker when he began picking a customized Fender Telecaster with the Byrds.

Most of Andy's musical performances on the Griffith Show were with the Missouri-born Dillards as the Darling Family.  At the time the band consisted of Doug Dillard (banjo--Doug passed earlier this year), Rodney Dillard (guitar), mandolinist Dean Webb and bass player Mitch Jayne.  Denver Pyle, (later Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazard) and Maggie Peterson were actors and did the talking. Here, they do "Doug's Tune," a banjo showcase.

Here's Andy, years later,  explaining music's place on his program and discussing both the Dillards and the Darling Family.

He joined Brad Paisley on this sentimental 2008 video "Waitin' On A Woman."

At the end of every Griffith show broadcast, he'd close with a coffee commercial, adding "I appreciate it, and good night."

Rest in peace, Andy.  We appreciate it all.

There's a lot more of Griffith's musical side over at "Believe Your Ears." Click here.

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