One of the most colorful personalities in southern gospel music history, Georgia native Lee Roy Abernathy was a songwriter, pianist, entertainer, publisher, author, teacher, and political candidate. Always innovative, Abernathy invented a music typesetting system, pioneered the use of public address systems in gospel concerts, and wrote the first singing commercials.
Abernathy was born on August 13, 1913, near the small textile mill village of Atco in Bartow County, to Clara and Dee Abernathy. His musically gifted parents instilled a love for quartet music and the tradition of gospel singing conventions in their children. At the age of five, he was performing regularly with the Atco Quartet, for which his father sang bass. Awing audiences with his ability to harmonize, he sang while standing on a Coca-Cola crate. During the 1920s the family relocated numerous times before settling in Canton, where Abernathy’s father, a former sharecropper, found employment in the textile industry, at the Canton Cotton Mill.
By age fourteen, Abernathy had become so adept at playing the piano that he replaced his older sister when she left the Atco Quartet to marry. Studying shape notes under such important gospel music figures as J. M. Henson, he was eager to learn and gain experience, even enrolling in the Atlanta Conservatory of Music.
In the early 1930s he married Louise Ammons, and they had three children, Hugh, Linda, and Susan.
The Great Depression did not hamper Abernathy’s musical pursuits. He founded the Modern Mountaineers, a country band that performed live on Atlanta’s WSB radio and recorded for Bluebird Records. In 1936 he wrote “Good Times Are Coming Soon,” a reelection campaign song for U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the early 1940s Abernathy made a noticeable impact on gospel music. Although he was ridiculed by publishers of gospel singing convention books, he offered the first gospel sheet music in 1943 with his song, “I Thank My Savior for It All,” establishing a new income stream for writers and publishers of sacred music. In 1945 he also finished creating his mail-order piano course, which was eventually marketed to thousands of aspiring pianists.
Abernathy wrote “Burning of the Winecoff Hotel” following the tragic Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta, which claimed the lives of 119 people on December 7, 1946. He had a permanent room at the hotel and, because of post–World War II (1941-45) gasoline shortages, would have stayed there the weekend of the fire rather than returning home to north Georgia. A friend had given him a coupon for three gallons of gas, however, and he left town. While some accused Abernathy of capitalizing on a tragedy, the song garnered him the National Fire Protection award.
In 1947 Abernathy became the pianist for the Homeland Harmony Quartet. A year later he persuaded the group to record what would become one of the best-selling gospel songs of all time, “Everybody’s Gonna Have a Wonderful Time Up There.” Some conservative clergy, however, objected to its jazz beat and insisted that Homeland Harmony omit the number from its repertoire when performing in their respective churches. Abernathy disregarded the criticism, believing that he had written the song as a result of divine inspiration. Later labeled the “Gospel Boogie,” the song was eventually recorded by numerous quartets, as well as by Johnny Cash, Johnny Mathis, and Pat Boone, whose cover of the song rose to number ten on the Billboard charts.
Abernathy’s book, It, a gospel music industry primer, was published in 1948. The following year he and Shorty Bradford toured nationally as the Happy Two, appearing on television and creating commercials. The duo’s daily show on Atlanta’s WAGA-TV began in 1951 and continued for seven years, at one point reaching the national top-three ratings, according to the Nielsen ratings system.
With $500 and a “road train,” complete with a red piano and a Coca-Cola crate on which to sit, Abernathy launched his campaign for Georgia governor in 1958. Finishing a distant third in the Democratic gubernatorial primary behind William Bodenhamer and the eventual winner, Ernest Vandiver Jr., he received much media coverage as he traversed the state.
Abernathy was inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1973. In 1989 he received the Mary Tallent Pioneer Award from the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon. In 1996 he became one of the (posthumous) charter inductees in the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, in Sevierville, Tennessee.
Late in life, Abernathy gave voice lessons at his Hall of Fame School of Music in Canton, drawing students from as far away as California. He died on May 25, 1993, and was buried in Holly Springs in Cherokee County.