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RIP Grand Ole Opry star Johnny Russell

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Trent-35, Jul 3, 2001.


  1. One of my favorite entertainers passed away in Nashville today, Johnny Russell. He had amazing comedic timing and wonderful charisma, as well as a good voice and a legendary songwriter. I found this obit on him in the Tennessean online. RIP big John, and I saw you alright every time you performed! Trent
    Johnny Russell, whose music and onstage wisecracking made him a beloved figure in country music and a star of the Grand Ole Opry, died Tuesday morning at Baptist Hospital in Nashville. He was 61.
    Mr. Russell had spent the last few months at the hospital battling complications related to diabetes. His last week was marked by visits from dozens of friends and members of the Opry cast that he considered as a second family.
    " Even in his last days, when everyone was stopping by to try and cheer him up, it was he who was making everyone else laugh, " said Garth Brooks. " He was a truly unselfish, sweet man. "
    A public memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Friday at the Grand Ole Opry House. Visitation is set to take place from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. Thursday at Cole and Garrett Funeral Home, 182 W. Main St. in Hendersonville, Tenn.
    Mr. Russell's song credits include the Buck Owens hit Act Naturally, also recorded by The Beatles in 1965, and other tunes recorded by performers such as Dolly Parton, George Strait and Vince Gill. And his comedic timing and penchant for entertaining both in front of and behind the Opry's big red curtain often brought down the house.
    ''He lived for a laugh,'' said the Opry's newest member, Brad Paisley.
    Weighing more than 300 pounds, Mr. Russell often delighted audiences by standing in the spotlight glare, glancing down at his own girth and cracking, ''Can everybody see me all right?'' Backstage, he held court from a chair he considered his own, bantering back and forth with cast members like Jeannie Seely and Gill.
    ''Johnny was so quick, so off-the-cuff,'' Seely said. ''The minute you saw him coming, you smiled.''
    If laughter was at the forefront of Mr. Russell's charm, the songs were never far behind. His solo career took off in 1973 with three charting hits — Catfish John (#12 on the Billboard chart), Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer (#4) and The Baptism of Jesse Taylor #14) — but by then he was already a well-respected songwriter.
    After a brief and commercially unsuccessful late 1950s stint as a recording artist, he landed his first major cut in 1960, when crooner Jim Reeves recorded In A Mansion Stands My Love and released it as the flip side of the smash, He'll Have To Go.
    While the Sunflower County, Miss., native continued to attempt a solo career, country kingpin Buck Owens took Mr. Russell's Act Naturally (co-penned with Voni Morrison) to the top of the country charts for four weeks in 1963. The Beatles recorded the same song two years later, with drummer Ringo Starr handling the lead vocal duties. Starr's version was placed on the flip side of a highly successful 45 RPM single: the 'A' side featured the multimillion-selling Yesterday.
    Mr. Russell visited backstage with Starr last year when the ex-Beatle came to Nashville for a performance at Gaylord Entertainment Center.
    ''I took my son, his wife and my granddaughter,'' Mr. Russell said after the visit. ''My son (John Jr.) said, 'By the way, Mr. Starr, thank you very much for my college education and my first car.' ''
    By the mid-1960s, Mr. Russell was living in Nashville and working at Doyle and Teddy Wilburn's Sure-Fire publishing company. The Wilburn Brothers, Loretta Lynn, George Hamilton IV and Patti Page all recorded his songs, and he put his artist's aspirations on hold.
    ''He was the general manager at Sure-Fire,'' remembered country radio host and television personality Ralph Emery. ''But we worked together on our own play, called The Firebugs, which ran for two weeks at the Circle Theatre in 1965. Johnny was in the play, and we rehearsed six weeks and played for two. We got done and he said, 'You've ruined me. I got out of show business and was happy running the publishing company and being offstage. Now I've been doing this play and people have been applauding, and I want to get back onstage.' ''
    It took a few years, but Mr. Russell made it back. The latter part of the 1960s was marked by numerous relocations, as he hopped between Nashville, California and Mississippi. He occasionally served as a straight man for comedian (and roommate) Archie Campbell during Campbell's Opry appearances at the Ryman Auditorium. Mr. Russell would sit in the audience and heckle Campbell, doing a convincing enough job to get hauled away at least once by a security officer, according to Emery.
    When Chet Atkins — whose own funeral was held on the day of Russell's death — offered Mr. Russell an RCA Records contract in 1971, the big man returned to Nashville to stay. Only a few top hits resulted, but Mr. Russell's unforgettable appearance ( " I'm the biggest star in Nashville,'' he'd often quip) and sharp wit helped to keep him in the public eye. He regularly appeared on Hee-Haw and on Emery's Nashville Now show and even once ended up on NBC's Foulups, Bleeps & Blunders. His songs also continued to be covered by other artists.
    The Osborne Brothers' version of Mr. Russell's Making Plans found favor in bluegrass and country circles, and that song was later recorded by a slew of artists including Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, The Trio and Vince Gill (with a bluegrass band called Here Today). In addition, Mr. Russell placed songs with George Strait (Let's Fall to Pieces Together), Gene Watson (Got No Reason Now For Going Home) and others.
    In 1985, Mr. Russell was inducted into the Opry, an institution he cherished both for its status in the industry and for providing him easy access to a circle of fast friends.
    Opry member Vince Gill found an instant rapport with Mr. Russell. Their personal relationship began when Gill unknowingly sat in Mr. Russell's backstage chair, but Gill said Mr. Russell's music made an impact long before the two men met.
    ''Making Plans was one of the first things I learned to sing and play when I started doing bluegrass,'' Gill said. ''And I loved being in his company. What a good soul.''
    Much of Mr. Russell's final year was spent in the hospital, undergoing dialysis three days a week and receiving treatment for circulation problems. In March of this year, friends including Gill, Seely, Emery, Roy Clark, Ricky Skaggs, Connie Smith, Jean Shepard and Garth Brooks participated in a Sam Lovullo-hosted tribute show for Mr. Russell at the Opry House.
    ''This is a very humbling experience,'' Mr. Russell told the Tennessean at the time. You wonder about your friends, you know…I think I know some of the people who will be at my funeral.''
    In April, both Mr. Russell's legs were amputated below the knee in hopes of improving his circulation. But his condition continued to deteriorate.
    Numerous friends visited Mr. Russell in his final days, including Brooks, Emery, Paisley, Opry general manager Pete Fisher, Loretta Lynn, Sonny James, Billy Walker, George and Nancy Jones and Little David Wilkins. Reportedly, Mr. Russell's humor held out even towards the end. When Paisley entered the room a week ago, Mr. Russell was just waking up. Son John Russell said, ''Dad, do you have anything to say to Brad?'' Mr. Russell then addressed Paisley: ''Hey, when are you going to cut one of my songs?''
    ''I knew it was the last time I'd talk to him,'' Paisley said. ''He seemed extremely at ease, and at peace with it all. He said, 'I've had a great time. It's been a lot of fun.' I said, 'Trust me, Johnny, it's been more fun for us.' '