Charles Key didn't showboat when he played the piano. His job, he said, was to accompany the singers. To let them shine.
"He was the accompanist and that's what he did," said Charlie Waller, executive director of the Southern Gospel Music Association. "He had a soft touch. Like an angel."
In the 1950s, Mr. Key played keyboards for the Harmoneers, a popular Southern gospel quartet out of Knoxville, Tenn. Back then, Warren Roberts of Atlanta hosted "Warren Roberts Presents," an entertainment show that first aired on radio, then TV.
Mr. Key performed on most of the programs, either with a quartet or as an accompanist for Mr. Roberts. He did commercials, too, appearing in skits for show sponsors like White Lily flour.
"He was so dependable, and he could play anything in any key," Mr. Roberts said. "You could say, ‘Charles, let's do Amazing Grace in B-flat.' If you said it was a little too high, he could drop it down. That was one of his great points."
On Friday, Charles Key of Atlanta died at his home of kidney cancer. He was 83. The funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at Briarlake Baptist Church. A.S. Turner & Sons is in charge of arrangements.
In 1944, Mr. Key put his piano skills to use shortly after graduating from high school in Etowah, Tenn. He hopped a bus to Knoxville, Tenn., to join the Harmoneers. The quartet eventually signed a recording contract with RCA Victor Records.
In 1948, Mr. Roberts was manager of radio station WEAS in Decatur when he met Mr. Key. He booked The Harmoneers for an all-night sing. Later, they appeared on his radio show. The quartet members liked Atlanta so much, they moved here from Knoxville.
Mr. Key was a fixture on Mr. Roberts' programs for decades. He stopped touring with the Harmoneers in the early 1980s.
"Over these 60 years, we never had a cross word, and if I would have said one to him, he wouldn't have said much," Mr. Roberts said. "He was a prince of a guy."
In later years, Mr. Key played various venues here and there. He also worked 30 years in various roles with Wachovia Bank.
According to the Southern Gospel Music Association Web site, the musician received accolades that included the 1995 Grand Ole Gospel Reunion Living Legend Award. He has been inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame (2002); the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame (2004), and the the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame (2006).
In 1988, Mr. Waller, the executive director of the Southern Music Association, met Mr. Key at a gospel reunion held in Greenville, S.C. They bonded, so much so that Mr. Waller saw after Mr. Keys and Geneva, his wife of 57 years, when the musician was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2005. The couple has no children.
"He never bragged about what he did," Mr. Waller. "He wasn't Liberace, but he had a touch on the piano. He played precise, gentle and soft. And he never showboated."
Survivors other than his wife include a brother, John Key of Waco, Texas, and a sister, Fannie Mayfield of Etowah, Tenn.
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