By Norma Kirkpatrick
Carl Matthews sometimes plays the piano before Sunday services at Opelika’s First United Methodist Church. His skill at the piano and Matthews’ obvious joy in playing the instrument bring pleasure to his audience. It became obvious, however, that few of his listeners really knew who was playing for them so the Observer sent a reporter to find out about this accomplished pianist.
Mr. Matthews was convalescing at Arbor Springs Health and Rehab Center. As the interview progressed, it became clear he had a most unusual life story. He was born on January 8, 1929 in Lafayette, Alabama. His eyes twinkled as he discussed Beethoven, Bach, and favorite church choral numbers with the interviewer. He expressed that one of his most prominent assets has always been his ability to sight read music accurately and quickly.
When asked how he first became interested in playing the piano, Mr. Matthews recalled fondly that his aunt in Lafayette was the first person in his life to introduce him to the piano. As a little boy, she would sit him in her lap, and put his fingers on the keys, showing him how to make music. There was no piano in his own home, so he started taking piano lessons at her house. Without that aunt, he might never have had the opportunity to become such a skilled musician. She insisted that he have instruction because he was gifted; having the ear and aptitude for music.
Very few musicians have had the caliber of teachers he had throughout his lifetime. While attending middle school in Lafayette, his piano teacher was Mrs. Winifred Roberts. She was very accomplished and had played the piano with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mrs. Washington Pittman, daughter of Booker T. Washington, was Carl’s piano teacher his last year of high school in the 1940’s. She lived in Tuskegee. Carl said he and his sister rode the bus, and got off at a service station; then did a lot of walking to get to Mrs Pittman’s house. His sister soon quit. Mrs. Pittman called Carl her son, and wanted to adopt him. Matthews’ mother did not concur with that idea.
Mrs. Hazel Harrison, Professor of Music at Howard University, was his teacher in the summers during the 1950’s. He also studied for one semester at The American College of Music in Chicago, and completed his college education in Alabama. After graduating, he was chosen to be the first Choral Director at the Darden School in Opelika, which was “brand new” at the time.
Carl Matthews never had a family of his own, but said his sister who lives in Opelika, has a son and daughter. “They are my “little family”,” he said.
Music has given Matthews joy, which he has shared with the lives of so many others. He is truly one of the outstanding professional treasures of Opelika.