Piano at heart and soul of Nell King

Published 8:33 pm Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Nell King’s not saying how many years it has been since she started playing piano for funerals. She will say, however, that some of the elderly ladies in the Corinth community would get permission from her mama and daddy to pick her up at school and drive her to the funerals.

“Back then, not many people way out in the country could play the piano so I was the only thing available,” King said, laughing. “That’s how I got started – as the only thing.”

King said she must have been born with the desire to play the piano.

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“Even when I was very young, I wanted to play the piano more than anything,” she said. “We didn’t have a piano, but my aunt did. However, she didn’t want me banging on her piano. But I wanted to get my fingers on her piano so bad.

“We lived off Highway 29 but you could see the road from our house. We would sit out on the porch and play cars and trucks as they went up and down the road. Every now and then, I would see a Jesse French or an E.E. Forbes piano truck go by and my heart would ache for a piano.”

King was in school in Perote, and there was a piano in the auditorium where chapel was held each Friday.

“Sometimes at recess, I would go in there and pick out things on the piano. I learned to play a few chords with my left had while I played the melody with one finger.”

When King was in seventh grade, the most wonderful thing in the world happened.

“An E.E. Forbes piano truck came up to our house with a piano for me,” she said. “My daddy had paid $50 down on the piano and was left with a balance $50. I don’t know how he paid the balance off, but I had the piano that I had wanted for so long.”

A kind and gentle soul, Maybelle Rumph, rode the school bus from Perote to Inverness to teach piano lessons.

“I was at Inverness School by then and was able to take lessons from her. That’s all of the training I had until I went to Troy State College,” King said.

But King had an “ear’ for music and could play almost anything after hearing it only a few times.

“Playing by ear is a gift,” she said. “You can play from your soul.”

When King married in 1954, still not many people in the country played the piano, so she continued to be in demand for funerals. She would play for funerals in country churches in Pike and Barbour counties. When children came along and King didn’t have a baby sitter, she would take them along.

“Churches back then had side doors,” she said. “I would get there early to test out the piano because sometimes the pedal wouldn’t work or the keys would stick so I needed to get the feel of the piano. Since I was there early, I would pull the car up near the side door, and I could watch the children while I played for the funeral.”

The custom in most of the country churches was for the family and congregation to view the body at the close of the service. It was a very emotional time and often family members would faint. So, King learned to stay focused on providing appropriate music even amid distractions.

For King, playing for funerals and other “social” events was a blessing and she always “felt good about doing something for somebody.”

“People have offered to pay me for playing for funerals but I never take it,” she said. “I tell them that I’m not going to have it. Playing the piano is what I can do for others and it’s what I want to do.”

King has been the pianist for Loflin Baptist Church for 40 years and the Lillian D. Green Nutrition Center for 12 years. She now plays for Banks Baptist Church.

“There’s a funny thing about playing for Banks Baptist Church,” she said. “Jean Barr, who taught me piano at Troy State, is my substitute. We laugh about that. Jean is Methodist and plays for the Methodist Church in Banks. If I have to be out, she will play for the Baptist church after her church is over.”

Barr taught King to read music and she’s good at it. But she prefers to memorize a piece rather than play from “the book.”

“I can’t get to the soul of the piece or express it the way I feel it unless I memorize it,” she said.

Whether she’s playing by ear or from memory, King feels the music. Her heart and soul are in the music she plays. Every time she sits down at the piano, the same excitement rushes over her that she felt that day the E.E. Forbes piano truck came bounding up that sandy road in the Corinth community with a little girl’s dream inside.