I have an unopened album — you know those vinyl discs we used to play on our stereos back in the last century – among my collection of local memorabilia.
The album is entitled “The Happy Two” and one of the duo is the man who put Canton on the map in the gospel world and an inductee into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
That man, Lee Roy Abernathy, had already made a name in music and cut an album with Columbia Records when at the age of 14 he and his family moved to Cherokee County so his father could find work at the Canton Cotton Mills.
Lee Roy learned to sing at the knee of his father, Dee Abernathy, a gospel songwriter who, along with his wife Clara, sang gospel music in rural North Georgia in the early 1900s.
At the age of 15, Lee Roy accompanied his father and his quartet when they recorded “I’m Redeemed” and “Don’t Forget to Pray” for RCA Victor.
In 1928 he began studying music at the Atlanta Conservatory, walking 49 miles each way for the next three years. He paid for his studies by going door-to-door in Canton and offering his services to teach piano lessons for 25 cents an hour.
When he was 19 he married his life partner, Louise Ammons. The two settled into life in the Canton Mill Village and the first piece of furniture they purchased for their new home was a piano.
In the 1930s Lee Roy began to write his first course of study for piano students.
During that time he and his father wrote several songs including “Won’t We Have a Good Time” and “My Labor Will Be Over.”
In 1936 he wrote a campaign song for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Good Times Are Coming Soon.”
Abernathy also wrote the “$3-Dollar Tag Song” for Eugene Talmadge’s campaign for Georgia governor, which became extremely popular.
The Canton resident toured with the USO during World War II. Also in the 1940s he introduced the first piano arrangements for gospel music.
In 1946 he joined the Homeland Harmony group and together they recorded a song he composed, “Everyone’s Going to Have a Good Time Up There.”
Under the name, “Gospel Boogie,” the song swept the country. Johnny Mathis, Pat Boone and Johnny Cash recorded the song around 1947.
In 1949 Abernathy joined forces with Shorty Bradford as the Happy Two and for seven years they did a top rated national television show at the WAGA studios in Atlanta.
In 1958 Abernathy ran for governor of Georgia, but did not win. During those years he also studied for a doctorate in music.
The record cover that I have has some thoughts about Abernathy written by the Rev. John C. Hamrick, who philosophizes about the reasons Lee Roy loved to perform for entertainment.
“After traveling over 3 million miles in 35 years on the road, I asked Mr. Abernathy (he likes to be called Lee Roy) how he arrived at the word entertainment instead of gospel.”
Hamrick said that Lee Roy’s answer “struck me good.”
Lee Roy said, “When I was saved I gave up all the things I was sorry for, all the things I carried a long face about, all the things that made me sorry for myself, and became whatever I am. A musician, an entertainer or a teacher, none of these things interfere with my sincere desire to make people happy. Sad songs are the greatest detriment to gospel music. Sing no sad songs for me.”
Abernathy said that the message that gospel brings, meaning Good News, means a good time in the Lord.
“A Christian quickly recognizes another, so sing and be happy or cry and be sad, you alone can decide this after knowing Christ as your personal savior.”
There is a lot more to know about Lee Roy Abernathy. For those who would like to learn more about his remarkable life, the Cherokee County Historical Society has a temporary exhibit about Abernathy at the Cherokee County History Museum through July 20. The exhibit is free and open to the public at 100 North Street in Canton. Check rockbarn.org for more information and times.
To hear Abernathy’s music, the Historical Society is hosting a tribute concert to this amazing man on Sunday, July 14 at 3 p.m. at the Rock Barn in Canton. His legendary Southern Gospel music will be performed by the Cagle family. To purchase tickets, go to the Historical Society website.
Lee Roy Abernathy is a Cherokee County treasure who should be remembered and cherished as part of our special history.