The Heavenly Choirs

Part 3 of “Praying the Alphabet” identified music as one of life’s blessings. That led me to do some thinking about the heavenly choirs. Whether there’s one or umpteen I have no idea, but their music is undoubtedly soaring. 

My hometown of Unadilla is well represented by too many singers and musicians to name. I’ll just mention a few high-school friends today, guys who were instrumental in tuning my limited talents.         

During my freshman year, four juniors invited me to join the F.F.A String Band to play piano. My skills were basic, but Charles Jones and Jerry Pickard taught me the essentials. I was taking lessons from Mrs. Mary Frances Beddingfied, a wonderful instructor, but students back then were taught to play what was written. Improvisation was not on the menu.   

At our first band session I was introduced to forming chords and playing by ear. Charlie and Jerry, both gifted on multiple instruments, patiently offered advice and encouragement over the next two years.   

Michael Sullivan was our first bandmate to join the heavenly choirs. He played lead guitar and had a smooth voice similar to country star Jim Reeves. When Mike sang “The Green Green Grass of Home” it was easy to visualize people gathering for a final goodbye. 

Mike would come by my house on Monday nights and give me a ride to our practices in the school’s auditorium. He’d play old instrumentals like “Wildwood Flower” and sing a few as well.   

Harmony Baptist Church is where I still picture him singing “It Is No Secret What God Can Do.” Mike embraced God’s love at an early age and was a stellar example of faithful living.   

Another Jerry, last name McIntyre, played drums and was the second bandmate to climb Jacob’s ladder. Jerry kept better time than a metronome, and his high-speed solo on “Wipeout” was always a crowd pleaser. He was an exceptional athlete whose coordination was evident when he hammered those sticks. 

Jerry also had a splendid voice, something I first learned when hearing him sing “There Goes My Everything.” Jerry performed with confidence, the same way he approached sports and life. That’s why I was brave enough to walk the streets of Atlanta with him late one night.

The band was there for the statewide F. F. A. competition. The two of us somehow ended up navigating among dozens of hippies sprawled on the floor of an abandoned building on Peachtree Street. I don’t think I’d ever seen a hippie up close. I hoped this was a peaceful tribe. 

They were asleep or either had a no-talking rule after midnight. With Jerry in the lead we high-stepped over motionless bodies on blankets, careful not to trip over anyone. That strikes me as a bit foolish now, but seemed like a good idea at the time.

Charles Jones was the third bandmate to leave for a loftier venue. Like his father, Horace Jones, Charlie could tame anything with strings. He played bass guitar and occasionally plucked a bluegrass tune on his mandolin, or joined Jerry Pickard on piano for “Down Yonder.” 

When Charles sang “Johnny B. Goode” the audience couldn’t help but grin and pat their feet. He loved making music and helping folks laugh.  

Jerry Pickard is the only one left of those four, which is a bit sobering. I wrote a column about him titled “Running Toward God.” That’s what he’s been doing ever since I’ve known him.

He moved from piano to rhythm guitar when I joined the group, plus sang some memorable numbers. “On the Wings of a Dove” is one I fondly recall. 

At Charles Jones’ funeral service Jerry played “Last Date” on piano. Then I joined him for a duet of “Down Yonder,” a light-hearted tribute to a fun-loving friend we knew had reached higher ground.

The heavenly choirs don’t need my modest talent, but I’m hoping the F.F.A String Band can get together again. A small stage in the corner of gloryland will be fine. That’s a big step up from a flatbed trailer at a Purina Store opening.

We probably won’t have a full reunion anytime soon, but there’s no way to know. That’s why I made reservations. I’d rather stay below a while longer, but my faith is in what’s above.

I’m confident the green, green grass of home will someday lead me to the streets of pure gold. Music there is undoubtedly soaring. The heavenly choirs can hit the high notes.             

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8 Responses to The Heavenly Choirs

  1. Judy says:

    I love all those songs mentioned, and I can picture your Heavenly band singing your hearts out.


  2. Ellen Hunsucker says:

    Love this article! Sorry for the loss of your friends!


  3. Ann K. Nutt says:

    What great memories. You share them beautifully. Keep up the good work. Give my love to your Mom whom I think encouraged you to write.


  4. vernon twitty says:

    Beautiful, sad, yet hopeful all at the same time. I used to play piano, but just for hymns and yes, what was written. Never learned nor had anyone help with playing by ear. It still amazes me what someone can do with an instrument in making beautiful music. Thanks for sharinng.


  5. Jimmy McAdams says:

    Moving thoughts, my friend.


  6. Cynthia Couch says:

    I loved the heavenly choir blog. Seems like it was yesterday as I visualize all of you on the stages of the auditorium and lunchroom. We had such a great musical upbringing.


  7. Curtis Greer says:

    Another good’un Neil, and I’m looking forward to reaching that plain one
    day, but not too soon. The Bible says that there is rejoicing in heaven
    when a new Saint arrives. My family and I made sure of that day years
    ago. p&B


  8. Marlene says:

    So many fond memories of the FFA Band and the abundance of talent each of you brought to the stage!! I always enjoyed listening to y’all! With GOD all things are possible!


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