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Lee Roy Abernathy
The term "living legend" was coined for Lee Roy Abernathy, the colorful singer, composer, professor, impresario, innovator and entrepreneur from canton, Georgia, who is called "Gospel Music Patriarch" by the History of Gospel Music and whose Hall of Fame School of Music attracts drive-and-fly-in students from as far away as California. Lee Roy has been larger than life in everything he has done during his 71 years from walking weekly to Atlanta to study conservatory music at the age of 15 to writing the first singing commercials and devising and offering the world's only "guaranteed-to-play" piano course.
He can lay claim to writing campaign songs for both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eugene Talmadge, composing one of the all-time-best-selling gospel songs, being the first publisher of gospel sheet music, inventing a typesetting system for setting music and membership in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame since 1973.
Abernathy can boast literally to being "born into gospel music." His father, Dee Abernathy, was a gospel songwriter and his mother, Clara, took him in her arms when the three of them went to singing school three weeks after his birth on Friday the 13th of August, 1913, in the little North Georgia textile village of Atco. He had to stand on a Coca-Cola crate to sing first tenor in The Atco Quartet at the age of five and was tenor for the quartet five years later when they cut their first record with Columbia.
Two years later his singing career was brought to an end for the next 20 years because of impacted tonsils which required extensive throat surgery, but he continued with the group as its piano player when his sister Velma quit that spot to get married. When he was 14, a better job for his father at Canton Cotton Mill took him to the town which was to be his home intermittently and finally thereafter and he joined his father as piano player for the Abernathy Quartet he founded to sing at funerals in the area and accompanied the group at the age of 15 when it recorded "I'm Redeemed" and "Don't Forget to Pray" for RCA Victor. That year he also started his own quartet, the Modern Mountaineers, which made 50 Bluebird Records for $50 each and played an extensive schedule of theater, church and banquet engagements.
That same year a crisis and turning point was reached in his life when he was invited to play piano for The Electrical Workers Quartet in Atlanta which sang both popular and gospel music and he quickly discovered to his embarrassment and dismay that he could not read the pop music. He went back home, closeted himself in a dark room for four days as a failure and emerged with a vow that he would master all kinds of music so "there will never by anyone to set a piece of music in front of me that I can't play." That was the beginning of the development of the force in his life that he calls "PMA" - Positive Mental Attitude - which he teaches to all of his students and defined it in one of his songs in these words: "You can help to change the world if you'll just change, change your attitude."
Abernathy enrolled in the Atlanta Conservatory, taking 30-minute lessons each Saturday for the next three years; and, lacking any other means of transportation, walked the 49 miles to and from Canton each week, often "trotting the last 10-15 miles to get home in time for the play of the Men's Bible Class on Sunday mornings." He paid $5 for each of his lessons by walking from house to house giving music lessons for 25-cents each, an experience which planted in his mind the seeds for his famous mail-order piano course which he began offering 14 years later. At the age of 19 he married Louise Ammons, the 16-year-old daughter of the mill supervisor who later would fire him for tardiness, and the first piece of furniture they bought for their cotton mill village house was a piano - purchased even before they owned a bed.
Taking unemployment with PMA and as a signal to get on with his music career, Abernathy opened Lee Roy's Music Store in Dalton where he taught private music lessons, organized and played in his own quartet and began writing his piano course. He and his father wrote songs together, including "Won't We Have A Good Time" and "My Labor Will Be O'er" and one of his father's solo efforts, "Don't Be Knockin'" was recorded by the Kingsmen. He began making movies of talent shows and gospel singings and was the first to use recording equipment and public address systems at gospel sings; wrote the 1936 campaign song for FDR, "Good Times Are Coming Soon," which had to be shelved after the NRA was declared unconstitutional; wrote Gene Talmadge's famous "$3-Dollar Tag Song" and personally hawked copies at Talmadge rallies for a nickel each, often making as much as $100 a Saturday; recorded the Speer Family's first record in 1936; and conducted the first and only singing school ever taught on radio over Station WBLJ in Dalton.
In 1942 he was the first to introduce piano arrangements of the gospel music and in 1943 published the first sheet music in the gospel world, his own "I'll Thank My Savior For It." Despite ridicule from other gospel groups which sold their songs in books rather than individually, he proved he could sell more of his single copies for 50 cents than they could of their books for only 35 cents. That same year he and Louise moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he organized the Four Tones with which he toured the country doing U.S.O. shows for servicemen. When two members of the quartet were drafted, the group was disbanded and Abernathy went to Atlanta where he joined Billy Carrier, George Hughes and Bill Lyles in reforming the Swanee River Boys, followed by a stint in Richmond, Virginia, playing the piano for the Rangers Quartet featured on Station WRVA. In 1945 he completed his mail-order piano course after eight years of work which, although the subject of many jokes, proved exceedingly popular and profitable and subsequently has been offered throughout the world in every country having dependable post offices available to the general public.
It was during this period that he narrowly missed being a victim of Atlanta's tragic Winecoff Hotel fire, about which he wrote the controversial song, "The Burning of the Winecoff," which received the National Fire Protection Award in 1946. Although Abernathy had a permanent room at the hotel and usually stayed there because of the gasoline shortage, he had been able to go home on the weekend of the fire because a friend had given him a coupon for three gallons of gas.
In 1946 Lee Roy introduced the "Battle of Songs" in Atlanta between himself and the Rangers and Hovie Lister and the Homeland Harmony Quartet. Later that year he joined the Homeland Harmony group which subsequently recorded his hit song, "Everybody's Gonna Have A Wonderful Time Up There," which swept the country under the title of "Gospel Boogie," selling more than five million records and covered by almost every gospel group in the nation as well as by such popular and country singers as Pat Boone, Johnny Mathis and Johnny Cash. He and the group were the subject of much national publicity, including major articles in Billboard and Radio Mirror. In 1947 he and Homeland Harmony appeared on a closed circuit television show in Atlanta for which he quickly wrote a special song entitled "Television" after being asked by the producer to do "something different." That also was the year he wrote his book, "it," which is now out of print but is a classic account of historical gospel events.
Lee Roy and Shorty Bradford, with whom he had worked off and on since 1939, left Homeland Harmony in 1949 to form the Happy Two and make cross-country tours for television shows, recordings, backup work and commercials. It was during this time that Lee Roy wrote the nation's first singing commercials – the most famous of which was "You'd Better Get Wild Root Cream Oil, Charlie." Other memorable ones were for Halo Shampoo and B-Brand Insect Spray. The popularity of the Happy Two brought them an invitation to do a daily television show on WAGA-TV in Atlanta beginning in 1951 and it continued five nights weekly for seven years. At the height of its popularity it was rated No. 3 in the nation by both Neilson and Cash Box and virtually every gospel group in the country appeared as guests on the program during its course. Also during this time he formed several other quartets, including the Miracle Men and the Lee Roy Abernathy Quartet, and he and Bradford traveled more than 5 million miles for concerts and personal appearances throughout the United States and abroad.
In 1958 with a campaign chest of only $500, Lee Roy became a candidate for Governor of Georgia, traveling the byways of the State in a 40-foot road train with a red piano and a Coca-Cola crate for a bench. His campaign song was "Lee Roy's The Boy" sung to the tune of "Casey Jones." He didn't win the race but he attracted a lot of attention and much media coverage.
From 1959 until 1961 he studied for his doctorate in music at Golden Temple, Inc., in Knoxville and pursued other graduate studies in Chicago and Cincinnati. He also invented a typesetting system for setting music and in 1973 was elected to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
A pinched nerve forced him into temporary retirement for three years in 1969, but he is now fully recovered and spending most of his time giving voice lessons 50 to 60 times a week to students who come from throughout the Southeast and as far away as Texas and California. He has constructed a new, modern building complete with the most modern musical, sound and recording equipment for his Hall of Fame School of Music located across from his house in Canton. The bottom floor has a large stage and auditorium where he gives group singing lessons and does concerts. The upstairs is devoted to museum featuring memorabilia of his long and colorful career and artifacts of the history of gospel music.
He has no plans to slow down but gives no thought to the future. Says he:
"I don't ever worry about the future because I've already lived four or five lifetimes."
Note: Abernathy died May 25, 1993.
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