The 50th Anniversary of “The Andy Griffith Show” was October 2010
Although Andy Griffith may have left Mayberry far behind, as the old saying goes, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” No matter how far Andy has gone in his life, he never left his roots far behind.
When he was a child in Sunday School in Mt. Airy, North Carolina where he was born and raised, Andy claims, “I would sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ so loud that everybody would notice.” Today Griffith is still belting out hymns, and in his own words tells how he got from point A, well, back to point A again.
“In February 1952, I went to New York and auditioned for the ‘Fred Waring Chorus’ as a trained classical singer. I didn’t get the job. Then I auditioned for a theater named ‘The Papermill Playhouse’ in New Jersey — again as a trained classical singer. Not only did I not get the job, but while I was singing the first chorus of “Dancing in the Dark” the man in charge of the audition stopped me and called me aside and said, ‘Your voice is over-brilliant, almost unpleasantly so. Forget it — you’ll never find a place in theater — especially not as a singer.’
I left New York and went back home to North Carolina and that spring wrote my first few jokes and my first comedy monologue. That summer I performed it in a night club (the old Shrine Club at Nags Head. North Carolina). It was the story of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.” I got laughs.’
I’ve now been in show business 44 years — twice on Broadway. That man was right, though, I didn’t make it as a singer. ‘
I never really sang again until this past year at 69. I was invited by Steve Tyrell of Tyrell Music Group and Billy Ray Hearn of EMI Christian Music Group/Sparrow Records to sing this collection of fine old gospel hymns. Not so much as a classical singer, just as someone who knows and loves these old sacred songs. I do believe my voice sounds better than when I was young — maybe it’s like old wood and wine — improved with age.
The evolution of my career as an actor, showman and now singer, was not quite that simple.
“I was born and raised by two fine people — Carl and Geneva Griffith — in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. I went through grammar school and high school there and was not a very good student. I really didn’t have a lot of motivation or direction until I turned 14.
I loved the big bands and swing music that I heard on the radio and in movies. One day I saw a movie, ‘Birth of the Blues.’ It starred Bing Crosby and of course, it had Dixie Land Band. At some point Jack Teagarten, one of the great trombone players, took the slide off his trombone and played with a water
glass on the end of his slide. I thought that was the neatest thing.
I had been looking at pictures of horns (clarinets, saxophones, trumpets and trombones) in Spiegel Catalog for months — not knowing how — but hoping to get one. It was seeing Jack Teagarten with his trombone that made my decision. My father was dead set against my ordering it. He couldn’t afford the $36.00 instrument.
A job opened up through the National Youth Administration for a 15-year-old boy to sweep out the high school for $6.00 a month. Nobody applied so I said I was 15 and got the job. That bought the trombone and two instruction books. Then one day I heard (through my father’s foreman at the furniture factory) of a Moravian minister on the north end of town who taught music.
The long and short of it is — he taught me to play the trombone and every other horn he had in his church. When I was 16, he started teaching me singing. His name was Reverend Edward Timothy Mickey and he was the direct cause of my going to college.
I entered the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a pre-ministerial student with a major in sociology (which I hated). Having finished Latin, Greek and on my way to Hebrew — I went to see the Bishop of the Moravian Church in Winston-Salem to ask him if I could major in music and still be a minister. He said no. And that I could not serve God by singing Light Opera. (I don’t know where he got Light Opera.) But anyway, I changed my major to music and of course did not become a preacher. I did owe the church $80.00 which I eventually paid back.
After graduation I took a job teaching high school choral music in Goldsboro, North Carolina. I was director of the choir at the First Baptist Church there and for a while I conducted the community chorus.
I taught for three years and was not good at it — better than I would have been at preaching — but still not good.
Then I went to New York for that fateful audition.
The man who told me my voice was awful didn’t know what a great favor he was doing me. Although I had trained all those years to be a singer, I believed him. I didn’t know what I would do, but something or Someone was guiding me. I often say, “Mr. Jesus will lead me to it.” I guess that’s it.
I have had 44 good years so far as an actor and entertainer in show business — on the stage, in night clubs, on film and television. And now I get the opportunity to record I Love To Tell The Story – 25 Favorite Hymns — as a singer for heaven’s sake.
It really wasn’t that simple. Like they say, “I’ll try to make a long story short” — as short as I can.
In the fall of ’52, I started entertaining civic clubs – Rotary, Kiwanis and the like. My partner was the woman I was then married to (she has since passed away). She would sing and dance and I would handle the comedy – $75.00 plus 10 cents a mile and a free dinner before the show. We got work.
Once she accepted two jobs for the same group. We only had one show. She and our piano player worked out some songs. I pulled out some old jokes. But then, on the way to the job from Chapel Hill to Raleigh which took 45 minutes, I made up a new monologue. It was later called “What It Was Was
Football” and was a country fellow’s description of the first football game he ever saw – having no idea what was going on. It got laughs and I kept doing it.
One day I did it for some group lunch in Chapel Hill. I got $25.00 and lunch — no mileage. After it was over, a man came up (Orville Campbell) and said he had a small record company and did I want to record it – you bet.
I recorded it in September, 1953, and it sold — so well that one day a man from Capitol Records (Hal Cooke) saw a long line of people outside a store in Charlotte. They were buying my record. Capitol bought the master — gave Orville and me each a $5,000.00 advance (I paid off all my debts in one
afternoon) and signed me to a contract.
On January 4, 1954, I signed with the William Morris Agency and became a professional entertainer. My first job came almost right away. It was the “Ed Sullivan Show” — to do the football monologue. He wanted me to sign for 16 or 18 shots but William Morris would only give him 4. His show was on Sunday night, and I was so bad he called Monday morning wanting out of the other three shows.
My next job was in a New York club called “The Blue Angel” — I “died” twice a night for three weeks and four days. Many a night I would walk the streets of New York and wonder, “What happened” I used to get laughs.”
The next job was as Eddy Arnold’s comic at the Olympia Theater in Miami–in between movies–four shows a day. Eddy was very kind and gave me the time and space to get my nerve back. I will always be grateful to him.
Starting then, I worked almost all the time. One day I read a book — No Time for Sergeants by Mack Hyman. It was a number one best seller and was to be produced for television, Broadway, and a movie. My accent was right and I was the first one to audition. I played the lead (Will Stockdale) in all three versions.
No singing – but I was having a really good time as an actor.
Before “Sergeants” was on Broadway, Elia Kazan was trying out “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” somewhere, and a friend of mine, R. G. Armstrong was in it. He was having dinner with Kazan one night and “Gadge” (Kazan’s nickname) told him of a movie he was going to do about a bum who sang the blues — got on radio then TV – and became a megalomaniac (a real danger to society). Gadge asked R.G. if he knew anyone who could play the part. R.G. said, “Andy Griffith can.” And that was my first step toward my playing Lonesome Rhodes in “A Face In The Crowd” – directed and produced by Elia Kazan and written by Brad Schulberg. It was a hard job and I loved it. I will never forget it.
Notice I said Lonesome was a Blues Singer — I did sing three tunes and one of them was “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” That would be 1956 — a little singing.
The movie version of “Sergeants” came out the next year. I worked here and there and went back to Broadway.
But 1960, I’ll never forget. We began “The Andy Griffith Show.” The producers, writers, cast and crew all cared for each other and our show. It ran for eight years and for me it was like getting up in the morning to go home. Our friendships still prevail.
The show became “Mayberry RFD” and I worked at this and that, a movie for theater, “Angel in My Pocket” and some television movies. There were a couple of sicknesses–broke my back and had a condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. I got over both in time. I met my wife, Cindi, and by the time our record I Love To Tell The Story comes out, we will have been married 13 years. It has been and will be great. I did several TV movies and several appearances–Cindy helped me. We do everything together. It’s great for us and our work.
We started the series “Matlock” in 1986. It ran for nine years. It was very difficult for the first three years, but when Joel Steiger took over it became a real joy. And when Fred Silverman moved the show to shoot in Wilmington, North Carolina, it was heaven on earth.
And then at the ripe age of 69, ‘Mr. Jesus’ let me become a singer again. So that’s full circle and I hope those who listen to this record, I Love to Tell the Story, will enjoy it and be blessed by it as much as we who played and sang on it were. Thank you.”
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