“Church is never out until they stop singing” is a saying that has been popular since the late 1800s.“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” is a similar saying that has been used in baseball.
“The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings” is one of the most famous of American quotations, but it’s fairly new. “Church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings” was cited in a 1976 pamphlet on Southern Words and Sayings.
Ralph Carpenter, sports information director at Texas Tech University, supposedly invented an expression at a Texas Longhorns football game in 1975—“The rodeo ain’t over till the bull riders ride.” One year later, at a close Texas Tech basketball game against Texas A&M, Carpenter declared, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” and this was recorded in the Dallas (TX) Morning News on March 10, 1976. Sportscaster and San Antonio (TX) Express-News sportswriter Dan Cook used the “opera ain’t over” expression in a television broadcast, on April 25, 1978, before a Washington Bullets-San Antonio Spurs playoff basketball game. Bullets coach Dick Motta heard the broadcast and repeated the “opera ain’t over” expression, which became popular as the Bullets won the 1978 NBA championship.
[This entry includes research from the Quote Investigator and Fred R. Shapiro of The Yale Book of Quotations.]
22 November 1962, Rockford (IL) Register-Star, “New Form of Opera” by Jim Murray, pg. D3, col. 1:
Everyone dies in the third act. There’s so many bodies sprawled around it looks like an air raid. There’s an old saying, an opera is never over till the last man is dead. And they die loud. It’s the home of the high-C death rattle.
10 March 1976, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “A Cakewalk This Time” by Sam Blair, sec. B, pg. 2, col. 2:
Despite his obvious allegiance to the Red Raiders, Texas Tech sports information director Ralph Carpenter was the picture of professional objectivity when the Aggies rallied for a 72-72 tie late in the SWC tournament finals. “Hey, Ralph,” said Bill Morgan, “this Morgan the league information director, is going to be a tight one after all.” [sic] “Right,” said Ralph, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”
9 May 1978, Galveston (TX) Daily News, “Bullets Looking For One More” (UPI Newswire), pg. 2-B, cols. 1-2:
For his feelings, confident Washington Coach Dick Motta recalled the comment of a Texas sportscaster after the Bullets had the San Antonio Spurs down 3-1 in conference semifinal, one which his team won in six games.
“This guy comes to the end of the story and he says on the sportscast, ‘The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings,’” he said, laughing.
3 June 1978, Washington (DC) Post, “Signing a Free Agent for a Song” by Nina S. Hyde, pg. B1, col. 4:
One day three years ago, Ralph Carpenter, who was then Texas Tech’s sports information director, declared to the press box contingent in Austin, “The rodeo ain’t over till the bull riders ride.”
Stirred to top that deep insight, San Antonio sports editor Dan Cook countered with, “The opera ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings.”
When the San Antonio Spurs were down in a basketball championship series with the Washington Bullets recently, Cook repeated the phrase on the evening television sportscast and thus set off a chain of events that have led it to become a sort of motto for the Bullets.
New York (NY) Times
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
Published: February 15, 1987
I have long been searching for the origin of ‘’The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.’’ Coach Dick Motta of the Chicago Bulls, who popularized the phrase in 1978, has been noted here as a possible coiner, but Daniel S. Knight of Philadelphia, who styles himself spokesman for the ‘’Fat Lady Sings Society,’’ cites the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs: In 1975, Ralph Carpenter, information director of Texas Tech, told a contingent of sportswriters in the Austin press box that ‘’The rodeo ain’t over till the bull riders ride.’’ Dan Cook, a sports editor for The San Antonio Express-News, responded with ‘’The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.’’
In searching for the origin of this gem, I came across the simpler and even more frequently cited ‘’It ain’t over till it’s over,’’ which I presume is a shortening (and philosophic extension) of the adage ‘’The ball game isn’t over until the last man is out.’’
Did Yogi Berra actually say that, or was it a concoction of some anonymous attributer? Reached at his Montclair, N.J., home, Mr. Berra acknowledges the coinage: ‘’Yes, I said that. It was during a pennant race for the Mets.’’
The Quote Verifier:
Who Said What, Where, and When
By Ralph Keyes
New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin
“The OPERA ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings”
An obscure 1976 pamphlet called Southern Words and Sayings included this entry: “Church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings.”
The Yale Book of Quotations
Edited by Fred R. Shapiro
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
U.S. sports publicist, ca. 1932-1995
The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.
Quoted in Dallas Morning News, 10 Mar. 1976. Carpenter was sports information director at Texas Tech University when he uttered this line during a basketball game with Texas A&M. Sportscaster Dan Cook used the expression in a television broadcast, 10 May 1978, before a Washington Bullets-San Antonio Spurs playoff basketball game (Cook has usually been credited as the originator). “The fat lady” was then picked up and popularized by Washington coach Dick Motta. However, a 1976 booklet, Southern Words and Sayings by Fabia Rue Smith and Charles Rayford Smith, includes the saying “Church ain’t out ‘till the fat lady sings,” suggesting an ultimate origin in Southern proverbial lore. Ralph Keyes, “Nice Guys Finish Seventh” (1992), records the recollection of several Southerners remembering similar phrases used as early as the 1950s.
Dallas Morning News
Fat lady first sang in the pages of The News
by Steve Blow
10:09 AM CST on Sunday, November 26, 2006
We all know when it’s over – when the fat lady sings, of course.
But sometimes it’s harder to know when things start – like that very expression, for instance.
You may find it difficult to believe people fret about such matters, but they do. And a major new book drags this newspaper into the mystery surrounding the famous fat lady of finality.
The Yale Book of Quotations aims to become the Bartlett’s for a new generation. It may well do it. One thing is certain: It’s a whole lot more fun.
And that’s where the fat lady comes in.
“For years, that line was most commonly attributed to Dan Cook, a sportscaster in San Antonio,” Mr. Shapiro said. “He used it in a broadcast before a San Antonio Spurs playoff game in 1978.”
But in his search of newspaper archives, Mr. Shapiro came across a “fat lady” quote two years earlier in The News. It was in a March 1976 sports column by Sam Blair:
Despite his obvious allegiance to the Red Raiders, Texas Tech sports information director Ralph Carpenter was the picture of professional objectivity when the Aggies rallied for a 72-72 tie late in the SWC tournament finals.
“Hey, Ralph,” said Bill Morgan (Southwest Conference information director), “this ... is going to be a tight one after all.”
“Right," said Ralph. “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”
Mr. Carpenter has since gone on to the press box in the sky. But it just so happens that Bill Morgan is a friend and neighbor (and in a real small world, he and my mom were sweet on each other back in ‘49 at Laredo’s Martin High).
Bill vividly remembers the comment and the uproar it caused throughout the press box. He always assumed it was coined on the spot. “Oh, yeah, it was vintage Carpenter. He was one of the world’s funniest guys,” said Bill, a contender for that title himself.
Bill’s only quibble is that he didn’t remember it being a basketball game. “My 75-year-old clouded mind says it was at a football game,” he said. “Hell, it could have been a track meet.”
Whatever the setting, that use of the quote stands as the earliest recorded. And Mr. Shapiro said the “fat lady” has since become one of the two most popular modern proverbs.