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POP MUSIC

The Gospel According to Griffith

June 02, 1996|Jerry Crowe | Jerry Crowe is a Times staff writer

Alert Aunt Bee: Andy Griffith, 70-year-old icon to two generations of television viewers, is running with a younger, faster crowd.

The venerable actor has joined rockers and rappers--from Rage Against the Machine and Alice in Chains to Busta Rhymes and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony--on the upper half of Billboard magazine's weekly list of the nation's 200 best-selling albums.

"I hadn't expected all this," Griffith, speaking by phone from his home in North Carolina, says of "I Love to Tell the Story," his album of gospel songs. "It's apparently selling like hot cakes."

Indeed.

More than 60,000 copies of the album--which includes such gospel standards as "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace"--have been sold in record stores since April, according to SoundScan. This figure is on top of the 600,000 copies Sparrow Records estimates it has sold through a direct-marketing television campaign that started last October.

And Griffith, best known for his long-running roles in "The Andy Griffith Show" in the '60s and "Matlock" in the '80s and '90s, has landed on the pop charts for the first time since 1955, when his comedy track "Make Yourself Comfortable" peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard singles list.

"It's just been an amazing thing to watch the American public respond to this man and this record," says Bill Hearn, president and CEO of Sparrow Records. "I don't know any other way to describe it."

Millions of records are sold each year through telephone and direct-mail orders generated by television advertising, but they don't show up on the charts because mail-order sales are not tracked. Hearn believed that Griffith's immense popularity among viewers made the actor a natural for a TV marketing campaign that would create interest in the album before it was released to retail.

"Andy's a television star," says Hearn, "and we felt that the best way to reach his core audience, which we identified as the 50-and-up crowd, was through direct advertising. The music business in general is not making music for the 50-and-up demographic, so these people are usually disappointed when they go into record stores--and they've stopped going."

Griffith was only too happy to be featured in a series of 30- and 60-second commercial spots that have aired nationally since last fall on a wide variety of cable and broadcast outlets.

The actor initiated the album project about three years ago, when record producer Steve Tyrell was on the set of "Matlock" working with Randy Travis on a track Travis was recording for an episode of the show.

Griffith played Tyrell a song from a gospel album the actor had put out 25 years ago, hinting that he'd love to make another record.

"I never thought anything more about it," says Griffith, who originally pursued a singing career before taking up acting some 40 years ago, "but pretty soon we were up at Sparrow [in Nashville] compiling a list of tunes."

Says Hearn: "We didn't really think we could miss with Andy's huge popularity, but we needed to make sure he could sing. It's not Pavarotti, but he really delivers the hymns in a very emotional, heartfelt way, and that's what's connecting with the people."

Sparrow has already asked for a follow-up, perhaps a Christmas collection, and Griffith is interested. But he's cool to touring.

"I'm really tired," says the actor, who plays a role in the new "Spy Hard" film. "We're trying to rest up a little, to be honest with you."

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Hear Andy Griffith

To hear excerpts from Andy Griffith's album "I Love to Tell the Story," call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5711.

In 805 area code, call (818) 808-8463.

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