Johnny Mercer, Academy Award-winning writer of more than 1,500 songs—including “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Moon River”—estimated that Emma Kelly knew 6,000 songs from memory. Although Emma Kelly achieved local prominence before appearing in the book and movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the book and movie appearances accelerated her national fame.
I saw her perform in a Savanna, Georgia, club. People shouted out song names, and she played them on the piano while singing the words. She was amazing. I don’t believe she missed a one.
Uncle Earl claimed that Mother, who couldn’t read a note of music, got more music out of a piano than anyone he knew who read notes. She hadn’t memorized 6,000 songs like Emma Kelly, but if she heard a song a few times, she’d sit down at the piano, pick on a few keys, then break out a two-handed musical extravaganza.
She also played the ukulele at parties when young, but we couldn’t afford one when I was growing up, so I never heard her play that instrument.
Mother loved all music, but not the rock and roll that emerged about the time I left high school. And I know that she’d be appalled by what they call music today. She preferred the old songs, Irish songs, and modern religious music like “In the Garden.”
We didn’t own a piano for most of my life at home. Mother didn’t have one until I bought her an old upright when she was in her seventies. That piano was never in tune, but she didn’t stop playing until the day she left for a nursing home at three months past her one hundredth birthday.
One of the last videos I have of her, a few weeks before her one hundredth birthday, shows her pounding out tunes on that old upright. She preferred the upright—said you got more music out of that than those modern cut-downs.
Not having a piano for most of her life didn’t keep her away from the music she loved. She possessed a hoard of LPs that she’d enjoy, especially those sung by her favorite singer, Jim Reeves. And when she wasn’t listening to records, she sang as she worked around the house.
Her love of music sustained her through her many difficult years. I’m sure it was a disappointment to her, and it was to me, too, that I didn’t inherit a single one of her musical genes.