Earl Freudenberg: Remembering Dickie Mathews

  • Thursday, January 19, 2023
  • Earl Freudenberg

Dickie Mathews never saw a piano he didn’t like and once was described as a brilliant pianist. The 2002 Gospel Music Piano Roll of Honor inductee died eight years ago on February 1, 2015, but he left behind a rich history of sharing his music.

Mathews' first love was Southern Gospel Music and accompanying those singing that style, but he could play just about anything - even backing up Elvis Presley when his pianist didn’t show up.

Dickie was proud he got to accompany many popular artists including Elvis, Jimmy Dean, Stuart Hamblen and Patsy Cline.

Mathews played for singers on the Washington, D.C. based Jimmy Dean show in 1956. The Deep South Quartet, for which Mathews was playing, was featured on the Dean daily TV show.

Dickie was born in West Virginia on October 31, 1933. His mother called him “her little spook.”

In a 2005 radio interview, Mathews said he developed a love for the piano at the age of seven. He said his family would go to grandmother’s house on Sunday afternoon and he became interested in her old piano. Mathews taught himself how to play and his first songs were “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

“She wanted to get rid of that old piano and my dad brought it to our basement and had it restored,” Mathews said.

His father, a Baptist minister, saw his son’s interest in the piano and, when Dickie was 9, he put him to work at church. Realizing Dickie’s talent, he found his young son a renowned piano teacher, Mr. Washburn, who Dickie said had once taught the Queen of England.

Mathews said the teacher wanted to teach him classical music and his lessons continued on and off for about eight years.

Mathews said, “I wasn’t interested in classical music; I’d listen to Gospel Music at night on WCKY in Cincinnati and quickly taught myself how to play some of the songs I heard on the radio.”

Mathews said his dad came to Chattanooga and bought a large tent and started revivals in Charleston, then expanded his ministry outside the West Virginia town.

Dickie said on Easter Sunday, 1948, he found himself on the front row underneath that large tent listening to Charles Key from Etowah, Tn. playing the piano for the Harmoneers. He said to himself, “I can do that.”

Mathews got a big break in early 1952 when Bobby Strickland with the Crusaders Quartet heard him play and put him to work. The group was doing a concert in Jasper, Alabama where he met his wife, Jewell. “She was taking up tickets for the promoter who had hired us to sing, I knew then I wanted to ask her for a date; I knew then she was the one.”

Mathews said, “Months later our group landed a morning radio program on WVOK in Birmingham; Jewell was working at the station, the rest as they say is history.”

Strickland was the original tenor for Hovie Lister and the Statesman Quartet and was well known among Gospel music circles.

Mathews said the Crusaders were very popular, doing concerts and revivals across the East and South. The quartet was preparing to sign a contract with ABC in 1953 for a prime time TV show when a tragic car wreck on September 24, 1953 near Birmingham, changed everything and Strickland was killed.

Mathews said, “The quartet’s popular radio program was sponsored by the Florida Citrus Commission; J. Walter Thompson advertising and ABC had reached an agreement for a 9:00 Saturday evening telecast.”

Mathews said, “With Strickland’s death, the TV show was off and a few days later it was announced that the advertising agency had reached agreement with the network to place the Lawrence Welk Show in that time slot. When I see the Welk show I’d think that could have been us,”

Mathews said the Crusaders never regained popularity and about a year later he left the group for the Deep South Quartet. Mathews said, “Jimmy Jones was managing the Atlanta based group and he hired me.” Jones later joined Eva Mae and the Lefevres.

Mr. Mathews' widow Jewell recalled the July 4th, 1955 weekend her husband played for Elvis Presley. Mrs. Mathews said, “The Deep South Quartet was on tour and did a concert in a large auditorium near Dallas, Texas and the quartet sang before Elvis was set to go on stage. The promoter told her husband, who was standing by the curtain, that Elvis needed a piano player and when Elvis goes out on stage you go with him. Dick was hired on the spot to play that evening.”

She said, “This was before Elvis sang on the Ed Sullivan Show; Dick didn’t know a lot about Elvis and his music but got through the concert as if he’d been playing for the singer for years. Elvis thanked him as he walked off stage; that was my Dick.” Less than 48 hours after backing up Elvis, the couple’s first daughter was born. Mrs. Mathews said, "We had a lot to talk about when Dickie got home, our new daughter and Dick playing for the up and coming singer, Elvis Presley."

The piano player said it was hard trying to feed a family on the salary of a Gospel musician so he enrolled in the John Gupton Mortuary School in Nashville and got his degree as an embalmer. While working at the Chattanooga Funeral Home, Mathews played parttime for Conner Hall and the Homeland Quartet based in Cleveland, Tennessee.

In 1969, Dickie Mathews said he got the piano fever bad and accepted a job with a new Southern Gospel mixed quartet, “the Downings.”

Calling it the experience of a lifetime, Mathews played for the newly formed group in 1969 at the National Quartet Convention in Memphis, where they received a standing ovation. Mathews traveled extensively with the Downings doing concerts in places like Washington, D.C. Atlanta, Nashville and Dallas. “My suitcase was always packed and ready to go when the phone rang.”

After leaving the Downings, he would play piano for the Golden Harvest Quartet, Scenicland Quartet, Impacts, Roger Horne Trio, and Soloist Dollye Edmondson, among others.

Mathew’s music career changed directions in 1985 and he helped organize the Riverboat Ramblers who performed on the Southern Belle for nearly 25 years. Dickie, playing keyboard, was one of the early members along with Junior Honeycutt on banjo and Dale Meador on guitar. “Honeycutt worked during the day at Combustion Engineering and Meador was an account executive with WDOD Radio. We made a good trio and the people enjoyed our music while eating dinner cruising on the Tennessee River. I did miss Gospel music and slipped in a number or two each evening,” said Mathews.

While working the Riverboat, Mathews played the calliope mainly during the lunch hour and it could be heard all over downtown Chattanooga. “There aren’t many of those left in the United States, one of my most requested songs was Rocky Top,” the Alabama fan said.

Mathews remembered the time Stuart Hamblen came to Athens, Tennessee and he played for the man who penned the famous hymns, “This Ole House” and “It Is No Secret.” Mathews said, “After the first song, the singer asked me to remain at the piano for the rest of the evening. I was surprised and shocked, Hamblen was a great singer and story teller.”

Mathews worked for Chattanooga Funeral Home for over 25 years but never gave up his music, playing funerals, weddings, special events and the Riverboat in the evenings. The Riverboat Ramblers were often guests at the Mountain Opry on Signal Mountain.

Mathews couldn’t remember how many artists’ recordings he played on, “probably two or three dozen.” “I made several solo recordings including my Just Piddling with Dickie, CD.

Mathews was one of many piano players who performed for his friend Gospel Singer Calvin Newton’s birthday celebration in Fort Oglethorpe.

Watch video by Ben Cagle here.

In addition to the Gospel Music Piano Roll of Honor, Mathews received the Living Legend Award of Gospel Music.

Mathews said he didn’t have any special mentors but was influenced by some other Gospel pianists, Rudy Atwood, Jackie Marshall, Wally Varner, Hovie Lister, Jack Clark, Sue Gray, Ginger Laxton, Henry Slaughter, Darrell Stewart, Roger Bennett and Anthony Burger among others. “We all had a little different style but our objective was the same, playing the music of the Master,” said Mathews.

The humble piano player was a guest on the “Hey Earl radio program” many times and would bring his keyboard to the studio and play listener requests; “They never could stump Dickie Mathews,” the host said.

Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander has held Gospel singings at his farm over the past 30 years and looked forward to Mathews coming and playing the piano. Hullander said, “Dick was the one of the best and probably never got the credit he deserved for spreading the Gospel through his piano music. Linda and I still miss him today, but know we’ll see him again someday because of our faith in Jesus Christ.”

Mathews was presented the “Distinguished Citizen Award for Hamilton County” by Commission Chairman Curtis Adams. In making that citizen presentation, Chairman Adams said, “There will never be another Dickie Mathews; he was the best of the best, a real Chattanooga piano treasure.”

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