For a man who was, by his wife's description, reserved and quiet, Wally Varner was one flamboyant piano player. His signature attire was a white jacket and red bow tie with matching pocket handkerchief. Because of his elaborate runs, bell-like chords and percussive rhythms, Southern Gospel music star Bill Gaither once called him "a one-man band."
The giants of the early years of Southern Gospel music are almost gone now, and Varner himself died almost two years ago at age 78 in his Winter Haven home. Although he was already in the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame as the pianist for the famous Blackwood Brothers Quartet, Varner was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame last month in his own right for an influential 20-year-career as composer, arranger and accompanist for various pioneering gospel groups.
Varner's widow, Polly Varner, was present to accept the award, which took place at the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. She said that at the ceremony pianist Jeff Stice played a tribute to Varner while dressed in a white jacket and red bow tie.
"Wally was his hero, and ... Jeff came out in that white jacket and played one of Wally's songs. There were 500 people there, and they just went nuts," she said.
As a pianist, Varner played with flair and command, spicing up the simple melodies of gospel songs with lightning-quick runs and flowery arpeggios. In solo albums released in his later years, Varner showed himself familiar with a wide variety of musical styles, playing gospel songs with honky-tonk, blues, Latin and jazz inflections.
"Anthony Burger once said that when it was Wally's turn to play, he owned that end of the stage," she said. "It was a gift. He could just do it."
In an e-mail statement, Gaither said, "Wally Varner was way ahead of his time. He was a dear friend and a truly special pioneer who paved the way for artists who would follow him, and he did so with dignity and grace. The world of gospel music was made better by Wally."
Varner was a native of Winter Haven, one of 10 children of J.R. and Flora Varner. The Varners were typical of rural and small-town white Pentecostal and evangelical families of modest means out of which Southern Gospel music grew. J.R. Varner worked as a citrus picker, and times were hard when Wally was a boy. Polly Varner said her husband told her some days there was nothing for the children to take to school for lunch, in the days before schools served meals. Their father would get cans of Vienna sausage on credit from the store and share them with the children under a tree by the playground, she said.
The Varners were devout and raised their children in an Assembly of God church. J.R. Varner sang and composed gospel songs, and when Wally was just 7, his father taught him to play the piano. His only formal study was at the Stamps-Baxter Schools of Music in Dallas, Texas, where he worked as a janitor in exchange for lessons. By the time he was a teenager, Varner was composing his own songs.
In 1944, at age 17, Varner enlisted in the Navy and served on a ship in the Pacific. Polly Varner said one night when he was on duty, an officer learned he was a gospel musician and told him a song Varner had written, "Crown Him King," was being played on the radio back in the States.
After he was released from the Navy in 1946, Varner went right into the gospel music business. He was pianist for the Kingsmen Four and a few other groups, including the Melody Masters, which had a young singer named Jake Hess who would go on to his own hall of fame career. In 1958, he was recruited to join the Blackwood Brothers, with whom he would spend the rest of his active career.
Varner is credited with writing more than 40 songs, the most well-known being "Bells of Joy Keep Ringing." Polly Varner said her husband never got much money for his songs, because he sold the rights to many of them when he was young, but it didn't really bother him.
"When he wrote a song, it wasn't for money," she said.
In other respects, Varner was an astute businessman. He and his brothers got in on the early years of the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises and owned more than 20 restaurants in three states. Varner also owned other businesses in the Winter Haven area.
In 1964, Varner retired from full-time playing and traveling. He moved back to Winter Haven in 1973, and several years later, the Rev. Charles Kirby, then-pastor of First Church of the Nazarene, asked him to help with the music program at the church. Kirby, a longtime fan of Southern gospel music, said he became excited when he learned that Varner was living in Winter Haven.
"He brought a lot of excitiement to the music ministry. ... We would feature Wally every Sunday for 15 minutes before worship. People would just come and listen," he said.
Kirby, who now is pastor of Lake Gibson Church of the Nazarene in Lakeland and has an annual gospel music concert series at his church, said the late James Blackwood once told him there was never a greater quartet pianist than Varner.
"Wally was a showman, no question. He added a new dimension. He didn't try to steal the show, but he just took their presentation to a new level," Kirby said.
Varner did gain some recognition for his work before he died. He was named to the Southern Gospel Piano Roll of Honor in 1996, and the Blackwood Brothers - including Varner - were inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1998.
He also regained a measure of unexpected fame when Gaither asked him to participate in the Homecoming video recordings in which Gaither brought together many of the old gospel stars. Polly Varner said her husband was reluctant at first to join the recording sessions but changed his mind after seeing the first videos of gospel musicians reminiscing and making music together.
"We laughed and we cried, and I said, 'Where's that number for Bill?'" she said.
Varner appeared in seven Homecoming videos and played in one of the Homecoming concerts at The Lakeland Center, but by this time his health was worsening and he turned down Gaither's offer to go on tour, Polly Varner said.
Varner suffered from myelofibrosis, a blood disorder, which gradually weakened him. He died on Dec. 28, 2004 and was buried in his white jacket and red bow tie. At the funeral, according to an obituary in Singing News magazine, a quartet that included the Rev. Wayne Blackburn, pastor of Victory Church in Lakeland and Varner's nephew, sang "Crown Him King."
And though his hands were stilled, Varner played at his own funeral. One of his recordings rang through First Church of the Nazarene. It was "Bells of Joy Keep Ringing."
Cary McMullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7509.