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Manatee's piano man

PALMETTO

Practice was over, the choir was gone, but Sam Lane felt like playing a little more.

“I get requests for this one all the time,” he said as he sat down at the piano.

Easy to understand why.

The Drive-In United Methodist Church was filled by the sounds of Lane’s moving rendition of a Ray Charles classic.

“Georgia . . . Geooorgiaaa . . . the whole day throoough,” Lane sang, his fingers playing the piano keys so tenderly. “Just an old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind.”

Marsha Perry Juday would’ve loved to hear it, but Lane’s Oberlin College classmate was busy teaching at Blackburn Elementary School that morning.

“I’ll have to ask him to play that when he comes here,” said Juday, Blackburn’s general music specialist for 20 years.

Lane, who plays at country clubs, restaurants and churches, among other venues, is looking forward to it.

Blind since birth, the 57-year-old classically trained pianist will perform a concert on Thursday for Blackburn’s 500 students to celebrate Black History Month.

It will delve into the considerable African-American contribution to American music.

Blues. Gospel. Hip hop. Jazz. Motown. Ragtime. Rap.

Yet it is the Negro spiritual — i.e., “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in the Water” — Lane plans to dwell on for Thursday’s program.

“A lot of kids today think Martin Luther King is the one who got them going, but it’s way past him,” Lane said. “I want them to know about those spirituals and how they came from slavery, and about the struggles we’ve had in our lives.”

Lane has overcome, as well.

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native started piano when he was barely 3, received extensive training at the Bronx School for the Blind, then furthered his playing at Sarasota High School.

“It came natural,” he said. “We didn’t have a piano at home, but my mom played piano in church. Even though I couldn’t see, my hearing helped me quite a bit. There have been times when a music director was afraid to use me because I couldn’t see him, but I was always able to discern where he was going by listening to other musicians and him as well.”

Lane’s scholarship to Oberlin’s prestigious Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, was a watershed, giving him a chance to do things like play with the legendary Duke Ellington.

“The program was mainly classical and gave me challenges, but I went into uncharted territory,” he said. “Before I got there jazz was forbidden, but things were changing. I got into jazz, blues, ragtime, pop music. Even country.”

Juday, who graduated from Oberlin in 1975, a year before Lane, remembers marveling at him back in those days.

“The program was pretty high brow, but Sam would start with hymns and jazz things up,” she said. “I wished I’d been there, but I heard he brought the house down for his senior recital.”

That’s to be expected of a gifted pianist who counts Ray Charles, Benny Goodman, Ramsey Lewis, Glenn Miller, Junior Walker and Stevie Wonder among his influences.

“Ray Charles wrote, ‘I don’t need to see,’” said Lane, whose wife, Anita, has been a guide for 25 years. “I agree. I don’t need to see.”

Which is amusing.

The other day Juday told her Blackburn students she was bringing to school a wonderful jazz pianist, who is blind and black.

“Right then, some of them said, ‘Oh! Ray Charles!’” she recalled.

Lane laughed long and loud when he heard the story.

“That is so funny!” he said.

Wait’ll they hear Lane play “Georgia On My Mind.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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