Tributes pour in for Atlanta’s ‘The Happy Preacher’

Elder Cal Merrell, a local legend, dies

Credit: David Goldman

Credit: David Goldman

Tributes are pouring in for Elder Cal Merrell, who was a local legend and fixture at funerals and other events for celebrities, community leaders and everyday Atlantans.

Several people said they couldn’t remember a King holiday without the presence of the man affectionately known as “The Happy Preacher.”

At Monday’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Beloved Community Commemorative Service, Bernice King, CEO of the King Center and daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, noted Merrell’s absence and held a moment of silence.

”Over the past 40-plus years,” King said, choking up, “we were graced with the presence of a very special man and voice in this service. The Happy Preacher. … This commemorative will never, ever, ever be the same without The Happy Preacher,” she said.

A nephew, Carlos Myers of Lithonia, confirmed his death and said his uncle was found in his Atlanta apartment on Saturday. It’s unknown when he actually died. His age was not immediately available.

Social media posts circulating over the weekend and Monday’s King service reflected that his last name also was often spelled Murrell.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church on Moreland Avenue, said he last spoke with Merrell, whom he had known about four decades, a few weeks ago. Merrell had reached out to him to ask whether McDonald would handle his services.

“He knew something,” said McDonald, who said he doesn’t know the cause of death.

He said Merrell was a fixture at several churches, including Ebenezer Baptist Church and First Iconium.

“He was just one of a kind,” McDonald said. “There will never be another Happy Preacher. He was well loved, especially by preachers. I loved his authentic praise. It didn’t matter what church he was at, what venue or whether it was a funeral or worship service. ... The Happy Preacher was going to be praising. He brought his praise with him.”

McDonald said he was amazed at how Merrell knew about everybody’s funeral “under the heavens.”

He said Merrell, as much as a local icon as he was, wanted his own service to be “totally the opposite of what people might think. He didn’t want it to last over an hour. He wanted to be cremated. He didn’t want a whole lot of folks talking over him. He loved a big funeral but didn’t want one.”

The Rev. Darryl Winston said Merrell, a native of Valdosta, leveraged his connections to help a lot of people, including getting underserved youth into college. He left Valdosta when he was 18 and moved to Atlanta.

Winston said Merrell also marched for social justice.

“He touched lives,” said Winston. “There was more to him than his public persona.” He said Merrell would sometimes carry a photo album around that showed him with famous and historic figures.”

Others also took to social media to remember Merrell.

One Twitter user said Merrell was Atlanta’s “first Black Christian socialite.”

Others posted photos or videos of him with his trademark tambourine or praise dancing.

Willie A. Watkins, of Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home, will handle the arrangements, which are pending.

He’s handled the arrangement for civil rights veterans the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis, both of whom died in 2020.

“There was a certain flair about him,” said Watkins. “He was able to maneuver himself around to get pictures with all the stars.”

Watkins said he once asked The Happy Preacher how he was able to speak out so quickly just as the minister was wrapping up at a service or sermon. “He said it was about timing. He watched the minister’s mouth. Just when he was about to close it, that’s when he spoke out. He was right on time with his amens.”

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Another time Watkins said he was getting in the car that took flowers to the cemetery when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.

It scared him for a minute because no one was supposed to be in the car but him.

It was “Happy.”

Watkins asked how he got in the car. Merrell’s response was simple: “ ‘We’re all going to Lincoln Cemetery, aren’t we?’ He made it his business that if there was a service he was going to ride in the flower car or the hearse and nobody had a problem with it. Most of the families were happy.”

What people may not know is that Merrell was a great baker. He made wonderful sweet potato pies and chocolate cake that would melt in your mouth, Watkins said.

“There was an uniqueness to him.”

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.