This melody grows quiet

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Beloved pianist Betty Jean Chatham is retiring after a career spanning 60 years of teaching, playing and even touring internationally, but, most of all, touching lives right here at home.

By Lisa King

A woman of music, a woman of Christ, a woman of community.


Betty Jean Chatham has been described in all these ways by many in Shelby County.

Chatham, who is set to retire after a 60-year musical career of much distinction, with a last concert on Sunday at First Baptist Church in Shelbyville, has been an inspiration to so many people in the community, and not just musically, said former student John Shannon, who was also her assistant director of the longstanding Life Singers choir.

“Looking back, I can say that we all appreciated what she taught us, and not just music-wise, but also spiritually wise,” he said. “She was all about making good music in honor of Christ.”

Shannon said the way the Life Singers came about is a good example of Chatham’s love for her community.

“In 1971, First Baptist Church came to her and wanted her to start a youth choir, and she said, ‘I’ll do it, but I want to open it up to all youth in the community.’ That’s how it came about. She saw a much larger vision that touched many more people in the community than if it had just been only for First Baptist.”

Chatham is known far beyond the boundaries of Shelby County for her musical talent on the piano, having performed hundreds of concerts around the world both secular and non-secular music, including touring the United States for nearly 20 years in the 1970s and 1980s with the Life Singers.

One of Chatham’s four daughters, Martha Pryor, spoke of growing up in a musical atmosphere.

“Music was a constant, comforting, normal presence in our house,” she said. “I woke up with it; I went to sleep with it. Whether it was the classical station on the radio, my mother playing at the piano, one of us kids practicing, or various Shelbyville children coming over for lessons, it was always there.”

For two of five children raised by Betty and the late Dr. Don Chatham – there’s Donn Chatham, Sarahbeth Farabee, Martha Pryor, Emily Chatham and Jeane Burk –  growing up in that of scenario led to careers in playing and teaching music, respectively.

Emily Chatham, a violinist in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, said her mother was always an inspiration to her.

“She is an amazing person,” she said.

Burk teaches music at a Christian school in Austin, Texas, and formerly led a children’s choir at the Austin Opera.

Betty Jean Chatham has played with many famous people, including Myrtle Hall and Cliff Barrows, with the Billy Graham Crusade, and Grady Nutt, of Hee Hawfame, a former Shelby Countian who was a noted evangelist as well as comedian.

Chatham has made hundreds of recordings, both her own arrangements as well as much-loved hymns.

Pryor said she could not even begin to guess how many students her mother has taught over the past 60 years, spanning teaching tenures at places such as Georgetown College, St. Catherine College and Kentucky Southern Baptist College.

“They would number in the thousands, I am quite sure,” she said.

“Our father was extremely proud and supportive of her, too,” Pryor said. “In the 1960s, mother became well known in the Southern Baptist community, world wide, and traveled internationally. Daddy, my grandmother and auntie held down the fort when she was away playing concerts.”

Chatham said she will never forget the first time she played abroad, in Tokyo, at concert halls, playing classical music.

“We did a concert in city hall in Hong Kong, and that concert grand [piano] had been made in Hamburg," she said. “After we finished the encore, two men were waiting to take it back to a special room."

That first trip, they toured Japan and Hong Kong, playing also in seminaries and colleges. 

"I also played four years for Air Force chaplains at four different bases in the United States and the Philippines," she said, "The soldiers were a very good audience. Altogether, I've performed in 17 countries, and that is something for a small town girl. I've been very blessed.”


Life Singers legacy

Pryor said, “My fondest memories are of my time in Life Singers. It was a magical, spiritual time in so many teens’ lives.”

Betty Chatham, who attended reunion of the Life Singers in 2010 in Shelbyville, said simply, “I loved those kids.”

She recalled some of the wonderful places where they sang, including the Washington National Cathedral, as well as churches all over the United States, from New York City to Connecticut.

“It was a great time in my life,” she said.

For all of her mother’s fame, Pryor said she is most proud of her mother for taking the time to make a difference in the lives of young people.

“She took kids from the community, kids of multiple faiths, black, white, some struggling, some not, but all in that awkward teen stage, and ministered to us,” she said. “She shared her love of music, teaching even those who didn’t know how to read music, and showing them that they could sing. She was like a potter molding clay.

“She took a rag-tagged group of ornery but eager teenagers, and opened up a whole new world, one filled with music, faith and belief. And she believed in all of us.”

How can you honor someone sufficiently who has meant so much to so many?


Celebrating all of that

Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty said in declaring her an ambassador to the City of Shelbyville at Thursday’s city council meeting that it was the least he could do in honoring her.

“I’ve known Ms. Chatham since I was two years old, and she is just a wonderful person,” he said. “First Baptist is going to honor her sixty years of service, so I thought it was only

fitting that the city honor her, too.”

Gene Wright, music minister of 13 years at First Baptist, described Chatham as “a very driven musician who plays better than anybody else I know.”

He said that Sunday’s event will be a big deal, with two services at the church, one at 11 a.m. and one at 4 p.m., and Chatham will be participating and speaking at both, and a reception following at 5 p.m.

“There will be a concert at four o’clock with a children’s choir, and we will have former ministers coming and even Bill Miller, a former music minister who is coming all the way from Virginia,” he said.

Chatham said she is very excited about Sunday.

“All my kids will be there, and it will be a big event featuring music I’ve written and arranged,” she said.

Wright said Chatham is very deserving of such fanfare.

“It will be a very special event for a very special lady.”