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VOL. 42 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 30, 2018

Deford Bailey’s legacy shines on in grandson

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Carlos Deford Bailey, The Music City Shoe Shine Man, is a pretty good harmonica player, but he’s nothing compared to his Granddaddy Deford Bailey, the first member of the Grand Ole Opry and the first to play on the radio broadcast.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Using the shoe polish-stained, time-worn shine box his grandfather made in 1914, the Music City Shoe Shine Man works a sheen from the “Pink Elephant” auto lot exec’s shoes.

“You see, first I prep them – get them cleaned up so that the dirt on them isn’t polished right back into them. Then I apply the first coat of polish,” Carlos DeFord Bailey says. “And then I give them a spit shine.”

Well, actually it’s not spit, but water from a little metal bowl – inside his grandfather’s aged-oak shine box – from which he rescues a few drops of water and spatters them judiciously on freshly shined, light-brown loafers. He then buffs until he’s satisfied.

Kevin Ratliff, sales manager at University Motors out on Charlotte – “I just always call it the Pink Elephant,” Carlos says – glowingly endorses the new life Carlos has brought to his loafers on this cold March afternoon.

This used car lot – you probably have seen the Pink Elephant out front, beckoning folks to leave the traffic nightmare that is Charlotte Avenue and stop in to at least look at a “new” used car – is just one of the car lots Carlos works as an “on-call” shoe shine man.

Although he’ll polish anyone’s shoes, Carlos’ most significant batch of customers are those he encounters during his regular schedule of spending Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday hauling his shoe shine box into car lots grouped by geographic proximity.

He visits downtown one day, hits the Rivergate area one day and spends another day at the lots near what we used to call “The Hickory Hollow area.” He knows car salesmen like their shoes to shine as brightly as their knowing smiles and the seats of their polyester trousers.

Oh, and if the weather is nice and the sun is shining and he’s feeling pretty good, Carlos polishes off his week with a Saturday ramble to other lots and locations.

“Sunday’s the Lord’s day,” he adds. “I go to church, then we eat and then I study (The Bible). Right now, I’m reading ‘Revelations.’ A lot of people skip that. But it’s part of it.”

Most Thursdays and Fridays, Carlos can be found in his little shop tucked away at 102 Woodmont Blvd. on the edge of Belle Meade.

But generally, even then he is “hustling,” as he greets the few customers who step into his shop and also cheerily answers phone calls from folks needing an emergency shoe shine. Bam! Carlos hops into his white, 2005 Ford Ranger – “The Shoe Shine Mobile??”– and wheels off to save someone’s day.

Wearing what marketers cleverly label “walking shoes,” I’m not a shine candidate on this snow-spitting day spent with the Music City Shoe Shine Man.

“See what kind of difference a spit-shine makes?” Carlos asks, looking up from the “Pink Elephant” sales manager’s loafers. Mission accomplished, he loads brushes, polishes and various shoe-shine potions back into the wooden box made and used by Country Music Hall of Fame member DeFord Bailey, the first performer, the first member of the radio cast of The Grand Ole Opry, the first person to record for a major label in Nashville.

Earlier in the day, I toured what could rightly be called a museum to Carlos, his father DeFord Jr. (a blues musician and kind gentleman I was lucky enough to know, who died in 2013) and to the man he refers to as “Granddaddy.”

DeFord Bailey, who died in 1982, was a shoe-shine magician and a musician who knew his way around a harmonica, banjo and a guitar (which he played upside-down and left-handed – a style Paul McCartney also used, by the way). DeFord also manipulated a yo-yo, sang through a megaphone and beat out the rhythm with bones and sticks.

DeFord was a small man who suffered polio as a child. And he wasn’t a guy beating his chest – with neither bone nor stick – for recognition. He quietly went back to anonymously shining shoes after a rancorous split with the Opry in 1941.

Carlos explains it wasn’t until Granddaddy died that he realized the musical and cultural importance of the little man.

“But I knew he sure could blow,” adds Carlos, who in the last few years has worked on perfecting the harmonica so he can accompany himself while singing. He doesn’t claim to “blow” even close to the perfection of what he heard from Granddaddy in between customers at the shine shop.

“Granddaddy had a shop with nine chairs,” Carlos says, noting that each one generally held someone enjoying a shine.

That shop is long gone, but it was in the northwest corner of the intersection of 12th Avenue South and Edgehill Boulevard, just at the edge of our blindly gentrifying “12 South” neighborhood.

Carlos Deford Bailey still uses the shine box his grandfather, Deford Bailey, built in 1914. It’s next stop is the Country Music Hall of Fame.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

That space where the shine shop stood now is part of a parking lot in a strip center that includes Operation Stand Down – a non-profit, veterans-helping-veterans organization that offers such items as shoes, socks, clothing, toilet paper and employment encouragement and also tends to the health and hygiene needs of Nashville’s burgeoning brigade of homeless, hollow-eyed post-9/11 heroes. Down-on-their luck veterans of all wars are welcomed. But their numbers rapidly are dwindling.

Across Edgehill from that parking lot is sprawling, public housing development Edgehill Homes – one of the desolate brick hives that gradually are being replaced by colorful dwellings that faux-cheerily punctuate the “It-City” landscape.

A historical marker, across 12th Avenue from the projects, pronounces that the great DeFord Bailey spent his final years in this neighborhood. He lived in MDHA-funded Gernert Studio Apartments, a treasure that houses retirees and great story-tellers (I’ve found that out in frequent visits over my many decades in Nashville.) Carter-Lawrence Elementary is in the northeast corner of the intersection.

If you can’t yet figure out the location, you’ve surely seen the polar bear statues near the Gernert complex. The marker is a few yards away.

Carlos started hanging out, prepping shoes, at the shoe shine shop as a kid, watching his dad and Granddaddy, learning so he could work in the family business.

“When I was maybe 12 years old, I told Granddaddy that one day I was going to have my own shoe shine shop.

“Granddaddy told Daddy that if I ever did open one, he should give me this shoe shine box,” says Carlos, nursing the stained, crate-like contraption he totes when on his rounds. “It’s the original oak. Sometimes some of the wood gets loose and I have to pound it back together.

“When I quit shining shoes, this is going into the Country Music Hall of Fame,” he explains, as he frees a heavily stained, polishing cloth from around the handle/foothold of the box and lets it unfurl. “This cloth has never been washed,” Carlos adds. “I had one before that I washed and bleached, and it never did work as well after that. So this one, I’m just hoping it will last” for the rest of his career.

Carlos became the Music City Shoe Shine Man in 2000, thanks to a song by that title he and former manager Ron Deni wrote.

“I was shining shoes at Jim Reed Chevrolet when I met Ron. He said ‘I knew your grandfather and I’m going to write you a song.’ I used to go to Jim Reed’s on Monday, every Monday. Still do.” (Actually, the old Jim Reed building at 1512 Broadway now is home to Downtown Nashville Hyundai – but those folks need shoes shined, too.).

Carlos Deford Bailey polishes the shoe of Kevin Ratliff, sales manager at University Motors on Charlotte Avenue. He takes his craft on the road three days a week.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“Music City Shoe Shine Man” was recorded by Carlos, a rare African-American honky-tonk hero. “And I been going by that name ever since.” He holds up a CD, containing that song, with the subtitle “…when the stars need a heavenly shine, they get mine.”

Most of those stars and powerbrokers met Carlos when he worked from his shine stand in the corridors and concourses of BNA. “There were five or six of us out there at the Nashville airport,” he recalls, adding that he was there every day, brushes, polish and shine cloth prepped for business.

Travelers – some perhaps unaware they needed shines – would self-consciously gaze down at their shoes, then ascend into Carlos’ chair.

Some of Carlos’ stars – Little Jimmy Dickens, Charley Pride, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt and “I believe that’s Grandpa Jones, without his hat” – decorate the walls of his West Nashville condo.

Carlos doesn’t hesitate when asked if he has a favorite. He simply leads me to a framed, 8-by-10 color glossy with its bold autograph.

“I did Porter Wagoner’s boots a lot. He was real nice, a friend,” he says, hoisting the autographed photo of the never-met-a-stranger fellow who was almost as famous for his Nudie and Manuel suits as he was for the pure-country voice and sensibilities taken from us in 2007.

While out at the airport, Carlos also buffed up the Tennessee Titans. “They’d stop and get their shoes shined on Fridays when they were getting ready to catch their plane” to whatever NFL stadium where they were playing that Sunday.

“Coach Jeff Fisher (the long-tenured head coach who finally was fired in 2010) got his shoes shined there. He’s my friend.

“And I got to know that quarterback, No. 9, who would always stop for a shine. Too bad what happened to him, and it was just after he opened his new restaurant on Jefferson Street.”

He is referring to fearless QB Steve McNair, who spent most of his magnificent career as a member of the Oilers/Titans organization.

McNair put his Gridiron9 restaurant on Jefferson Street to help in the rebirth of that historic-but-decrepit pathway through the heart of what long before served as black Nashville’s downtown. July 4, 2009, not long after he opened the restaurant, McNair’s fatal flaw and mistress with a gun caught up with him.

“It was after 9/11 that we all had to move from the airport,” Carlos recounts. The days of free-and-easy access to the airport’s corridors were ended when hell-bound slugs flew airplanes into the Twin Towers of Lower Manhattan.

“I been out in the field shining shoes since then. I made a career out of it. Through my singing and my shining shoes, that pretty much takes care of what I need.

“The more you think about something good, it’ll happen, everything by the grace of God.”

“I have a quota. Once I hit $150, I pretty much call it a day.” Shines are $8, but most of his customers give him $10 or even $20.

Early on one afternoon I spent with him, he was chewing on peanuts to stave off his hunger until he could get home where his mate, Doll, was preparing a bass dinner from fish freshly caught by one of the Music City Shoe Shine Man’s friends.

“I eat real food, not pig feet and pig ears. I’m a fish and chicken man. He points to his wedding ring. “Doll and I never got married, but we both wear these.

“We been together 21 years. She’s a real lady.” No wedding ceremony, perhaps, but “we jumped the broom. For real.”

Love flavors his voice, eyes brighten, when he answers the phone. Doll is calling to talk about the timing of the fish dinner she’s preparing.

DeFord Sr. not only passed down the love of shining shoes; he also passed down a love of music to his children and grandchildren. “Granddaddy didn’t talk much about himself. He was real soft-spoken. He mostly would talk to us about doing music, tell us to ‘try to work for yourself, stay motivated.’”

DeFord Bailey Jr. was recognized near and far as a blues performer who toured with B.B. King and James Brown, among other legends.

“Jimi Hendrix (who lived, smoked pot and deconstructed blues guitar-playing in Nashville in the 1960s) played in Dad’s band,” Carlos adds.

“Dad’s been gone since 2013. He raised all 10 of us on his music career” and, of course shoe-shine tips.

“When he came off the road, he started playing bass for Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, then Greater Bethel AME on South Street” until prostate cancer took him, according to his proud son.

“I began to start singing when I was 5 years old,” Carlos remembers. “My brothers and I had The DeFord Bailey Young Generation. We were together for years, playing R&B. Bubba, my oldest brother, went on the road with Dobie Gray.”

Bubba now plays drums at Inglewood Baptist Church, Carlos says.

“We’re going to get back together. We been hitting it.” A song Carlos wrote – “I Want to be With You” will be a sure-fire hit after the brothers record it, predicts the Music City Shoe Shine Man

And he has continued to play whenever he can with his own outfit. The Carlos DeFord Bailey Band has played in Printer’s Alley, has toured and “we do a lot of local things, private parties, and I like these street festivals.”

That six-piece band, by the way, does not do the R&B you might expect. It’s mostly honky-tonk from this front man and his musical outfit.

“I wore myself down on Broad Street,” he says, noting a long turn amidst our neon-tourist-facade, where he played at Tootsie’s, Legends Corner, Cadillac Ranch, the Wild Horse and even the Hard Rock.

“I do a little mix of things, Dobie Gray ‘Driftaway’… and who was that guy who sang ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay?’ Otis Redding. I did that.”

“But most of mine is country. I wrote some, but I’ve done a lot of covers, ‘Hey, Good Lookin’, that kind of stuff,” he explains.

He used to go by Carlos Bailey but began billing himself as Carlos DeFord Bailey to remind people of lineage and legacy.

With visible melancholy, he says his shoe-shining days are about done. “Maybe one more year. I’ve been bending over, doing shoes, the same routine so long, I got sciatica. And right rotator cuff is messed up from shining shoes.”

But he’s not going to give it up easily.

“I’d rather be shining shoes and being a local joker. I’ve had a lot of visions. Big dreams. I’m doing my thing.”

Day’s about done. Rain and snow are the enemies in the trade he learned at Granddaddy DeFord’s shop.

“Goin’ home now, Mr. Ghianni…. Why don’t you come on out for some of that bass Doll cooked-up?”

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