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Andy Griffith returns to the Grand Ole Opry and his first love: music

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ The way Andy Griffith sees it, his career has come full circle.

After a failed attempt as a professional singer, he went on to create two of television's most memorable characters in Sheriff Andy Taylor and lawyer Ben Matlock.

Now, at 76, Griffith is receiving recognition for his singing. He recorded two gospel albums in the 1990s_ one of which, ``I Love to Tell the Story,'' won a Grammy in 1997 _ and he is recording a Christmas album for release later this year.

He will perform Saturday at the Grand Ole Opry, sharing the stage with songwriter Marty Stuart for a mix of story and song.

``Here at the back of my life, I'm singing and it is very rewarding,'' Griffith said.

The show, televised at 8 p.m. EST on cable's Country Music Television, isn't Griffith's first at the Opry. He performed there in the 1950s and as recently as 1999 with bluegrass great Earl Scruggs, but mainly as a comedian rather than a singer.

As a young man, he was a music major in college and taught music at a North Carolina high school. He dreamed of a professional singing career.

But he had trouble finding work. During one audition the man in charge stopped him during the first chorus of ``Dancing in the Dark,'' called him aside and told him: ``You'll never find a place in theater _ especially not as a singer.''

His first success came with humorous monologues ``What it Was, Was Football'' and ``Romeo and Juliet,'' which were told in a hayseed persona. The monologues led to an appearance on ``The Ed Sullivan Show'' and the leading role in the Broadway production of ``No Time for Sergeants.''

His film debut came in the critically acclaimed ``A Face in the Crowd'' in 1957, and a year later he made a film version of ``No Time for Sergeants.''

But his breakthrough was ``The Andy Griffith Show,'' which began in 1960 and ran for eight years on CBS. The folksy comedy was set in the fictional village of Mayberry, which was based on Griffith's real hometown of Mount Airy, N.C.

``It was about a little town and the people who lived there,'' Griffith said. ``I think that was the secret. People could look in on this little town.''

Griffith was paired with the bumbling but lovable Deputy Barney Fife, played by Don Knotts. The combination was a stroke of comic genius.

``I was supposed to tell funny stories about people in Mayberry,'' Griffith recalled. ``Don called me after he saw the pilot and said, 'Don't you need a deputy?''' I realized Don should be funny and I should play straight man for him. Don made it happen.''

The show never dropped below seventh place in the Nielsen ratings, and it was No. 1 the year it ended. It remains popular in syndicated reruns and has inspired clubs and books, including a cookbook of dishes mentioned in the show.

Griffith's career stalled in the 1970s. Like many actors from successful TV shows, he was typecast and had trouble landing other parts. He appeared in several made-for-TV movies, often as the villain in an attempt to break his Andy Taylor image.

Then, in 1984 Griffith played a prosecuting attorney in the miniseries ``Fatal Vision,'' a role that impressed NBC executives and led to the ``Matlock'' series about a wily Southern lawyer. The show, a crime drama with humor, ran for nine years and revitalized his career.

``That show was very hard to do,'' he said. ``I spent a lot of time on scripts on 'Matlock' and the memory work was astounding. A courtroom scene took eight hours to learn.''

Since ``Matlock,'' Griffith has turned his attention to singing and recording. His first album for Sparrow Records, a collection of gospel hymns and songs, sold more than 2 million copies. His Christmas album will be a mix of holiday standards and stories, including a Grandpa Jones tale called ``The Christmas Guest.''

Not that he has ever been far from a guitar and a song. Whether picking a bluegrass tune on ``The Andy Griffith Show'' or conducting a choir on ``Matlock,'' he blended music and comedy.

``I love music and want to make it a part of everything I do,'' he said.
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