I recently re-visited my home church for a special service. Honoring the memory of my uncle, Friel, pretty much anybody who had some connection with him contributed their thoughts, music, and even poetry. It was very inspiring to see how many people showed up, and how many actually participated. Friel had a huge impact on our corner of the world. Heck, he had a huge impact on me. It’s no exaggeration to say he changed my life. Without him, I would probably never have come back to the piano after I quit taking lessons. And whether I had or not, without his example my playing would be entirely lackluster and lifeless.
His style of music was known and loved throughout south Georgia and north Florida. If you think of Floyd Cramer, but add a lot more subtlety and skill, that would be how Friel sounded. Something about his playing just touched people’s hearts.
My childhood was spent, as much as possible, watching and listening to him. He could do things with a piano that I still don’t comprehend. One of my cousins said she quit singing after he passed away, because his playing made her sound better than she was.
She’s right about his playing. Not her singing, she’s a lot better than she thinks. But Friel made everybody sound better. If you were singing, he’d cock his head to the side for a moment, pick a note or two, and suddenly be playing right along. In whatever key you were singing. Whether he knew the song or not. It was an astonishing gift, and never failed to amaze those of us fortunate enough to be there.
I think he was just born with the gift. According to family history, my Mom bought a piano, it was loaded on a truck and Friel, age 7, rode in back with the piano. By the time they got home, he was playing songs on it. My sister has that piano now. That makes me happy, because I know she’ll treasure and care for it.
I’ve also experienced Friels assistance. While playing a song, he sat down beside me and started harmonizing in a higher octave. The sound instantly became fuller, richer, and I’ll forever after wish I could sound that good again. It’s true- he really could make anybody sound better.
At the special church service, Mom had asked me to play Amazing Grace. I learned my styling for this song directly from listening to Friel, and it was a fitting tribute to his influence on my life. I don’t have all the beautiful ‘extras’ he could put into it, but it does have my own style. I love joyful music. While this starts off traditionally, it wraps up joyful. If it makes you want to tap your foot, then you’re hearing it the way it was meant.
I hope you enjoy Amazing Grace, and maybe it’ll have as much meaning for others as it does to me.