So how does a young, shy son of a gospel singer ever get to where I am today? Some call it luck. I call it God’s providence as He led me from very humble beginnings where singing in front of a crowd never was even a consideration. I was petrified of singing in public. Though my father was such a natural on stage, his son was quite the opposite. I was so shy that singing just wasn’t a consideration for me at that time. So at age 7, I began studying the piano.
My teacher, Ms Pernie Wiley, was a disciplinarian who was quite old, very sweet but very strict.I don’t think she was ever married. She saw I had talent and she wouldn’t let me get away with anything. If I didn’t practice, she knew it. I not only had to play the right notes, I had to hold my hand properly on the keys. I had one lesson a week and all we studied was classical music. She probably didn’t even know who Elvis was! We would work on scales and arpeggios first and then the last 15 min I would play the song I had practiced that week. After three months, we would have a recital with all her students each playing the song they had learned and I would get to play my song. Being shy was hard enough. Being a perfectionist made it even worse! I might have played 99% of the right notes but I would remember those little mistakes I had made and that kept me frustrated. The encouragement I received from my family and my friends actually kept me motivated to continue my study of the piano. It has been an invaluable tool that I was later able to use as pianist and baritone singer for my father’s group, The Memphians, while I was a student at Memphis State University. Playing piano and singing at the same time is like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. I stayed in that group while I finished school and paid for my education with the money we got from singing. Our group made two records and they both won awards. In 1965 the NEFF (National Evangelical Film Foundation) awarded us as best quartet of that year. We had a weekly television show in Memphis and toured all over the US in the summers and locally on the weekends when school wasn’t in session. Later on, when I joined the Imperials, those 12 years of piano instruction served me well as I ultimately became vocal arranger for the group. That’s another story for another day.
So don’t despise the day of small beginnings because you never know where it will lead.