NASHVILLE Each time he walked onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Russell, a big man, would ask, "Can everybody see me alright?"
His friends and fans will see Russell no longer. The songwriter/singer/comedian died here Tuesday (July 3) from diabetes-related complications. He was 61.
A native of Sunflower County in the Mississippi delta, Russell moved with his family to California when he was 12. Though he made early recordings for the Radio label, he established himself as a songwriter first. Jim Reeves recorded his "In a Mansion Stands My Love," the flip side of Reeves' 1959 hit "He'll Have to Go."
After recording for ABC Paramount in the early '60s, Russell's writing breakthrough came with "Act Naturally," co-written with Voni Morrison, who sang in Buck Owens' band. Owens expressed little interest in the song at first but had a change of heart when he heard guitarist Don Rich sing it while the two rode together in a truck. Owens' recording of "Act Naturally," his first chart-topping single, went to #1 for four weeks in 1963.
"I had a date, and the record company I was working for called and told me I had to come to Hollywood for a session," Russell recounted last year. "I called the girl and told her I had to cancel our date. She asked, 'Where you going?' and I said, 'I'm going to Hollywood. They're gonna put me in a movie and make me a big star.' I wrote the song in about 15 or 20 minutes."
The Beatles recorded "Act Naturally," sung by Ringo Starr, in 1965. The B-side of "Yesterday," it went to #47 on Billboard's pop chart. Owens and Starr later recorded "Act Naturally" as a duet, and the song went to #27 on Billboard's country singles chart in 1989. Russell revisited his classic in 2000 with help from Owens, Marty Stuart and Earl Scruggs, giving it a bluegrass treatment on Actin' Naturally.
After moving to Nashville, Russell wrote for the Wilburn Brothers' publishing company, where his songs were recorded by the Wilburn Brothers, Patti Page, Loretta Lynn and George Hamilton IV, among others. His songwriting credits included "Making Plans," a #2 country hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1980; "You'll Be Back (Every Night in My Dreams)," #24 for Russell in 1978 and #3 for the Statler Brothers in 1982; "Let's Fall to Pieces Together," #1 for George Strait in 1984; and "Got No Reason Now for Goin' Home," #7 for Gene Watson in 1985.
Chet Atkins signed Russell to a recording contract with RCA in 1971. Russell's greatest success as an artist was the 1973 barroom anthem "Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer," which went to #4 on Billboard's country singles chart. Russell's other top-20 hits included "Catfish John" (1973), "The Baptism of Jesse Taylor" (1973) and "Hello I Love You" (1975).
Patty Loveless met Russell when she was 15. "He was a down-to-earth person, very giving and open to people," she recalled. "No matter how old I got, Johnny always treated me like a little 15-year-old girl. He was always very supportive, and he was an amazing singer. No matter what he faced, he always had a sense of humor about it."
His natural acting ability landed Russell on numerous TV shows, including "Hee Haw," "Nashville Now" and "The Dean Martin Show."
Russell became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1985 and remained a mainstay, regularly hosting segments with an engaging mix of humor, hospitality and homespun music. "The next song was written by one of my favorite songwriters me!" he often joked as he introduced another of his hits. He presided over Garth Brooks' Opry induction in 1990, and Brooks remained a loyal friend. In March, Brooks, Vince Gill, Porter Wagoner and other friends staged a benefit on Russell's behalf at the Grand Ole Opry House to help with his medical expenses.
Russell's diabetes-related problems led to the amputation of both his legs in April.
"Because of Johnny's modesty, hardly any of us realizes his unbelievable talent and the contribution he made to music," Brooks said. "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. He was a truly unselfish, sweet man."
Russell performed at bluegrass festivals in recent years and appeared at the annual Johnny Russell Day in his Moorhead, Mississippi, hometown. The event raises money for the Johnny Russell Scholarship Fund at Mississippi Delta Junior College.
"I've always loved to laugh, especially at myself," Russell wrote on his Web site. "Probably my greatest satisfaction is to see my audiences give off a good belly laugh. It makes me feel great! I know they're enjoying themselves. And that's what entertainment is all about. That's my job."