Organist strikes amazing notes

Charles Miller Jr., 33, of West Ashley, was the organist who chimed in when President Barack Obama started singing "Amazing Grace" during his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney on Friday. (Abigail Darlington/Staff).

Charles Miller Jr. may one day be remembered as the musician who punctuated President Barack Obama’s powerful speech on Friday in a way only a church organist could.

As Obama spoke the lyrics of “Amazing Grace,” and later sang them toward the end of his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Miller pounded on his Hammond C-3, electrifying the packed TD Arena with chords of the well-known spiritual.

It was a ray of light, a moment to rejoice amid so many tears and broken hearts, including his own.

Hours after the funeral, Miller reflected on that moment, and said it truly felt like that was part of his purpose in life.

“I was taking my cue from God, literally,” he said. “In the black tradition, when a lot of preachers get to the end of their sermons, the musicians come in and assist with the message. Even though President Obama is not a minister, he was delivering a word for this church, for this community, this city, the state, and for the nation. So what better way to honor the nine who senselessly lost their lives, than to just help the president in any way I could?”

For the lifelong pianist and organist, playing at the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral was a deeply emotional and personal experience. Miller lost his cousin, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, and a mentor, Pinckney, in the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church last week.

Miller knew Pinckney all his life, and even though the reverend and state senator was only eight years older, he was always a man Miller looked up to.

“He influenced me from the perspective of a young male, letting me know that civic work was just as important as church work,” he said.

And Simmons, a man described by all who knew him as gentle, funny and strong, was just with the family a few weeks ago at Miller’s grandfather’s funeral at Greater St. Luke AME. Next week, Simmons’ funeral will be held at that same church.

“You never know when you see someone that it will be the last time,” Miller said.

Although a member of another church, Greater Trinity AME, Miller spent several years playing piano and organ at Emanuel AME, and he was close to many others in the congregation.

Days after the tragedy, still struggling with his own grief, Miller reached out to Wayne Singleton, the minister of music at Emanuel AME, and asked how he could help the church.

“He said, ‘We’ll call you and let you know, but we’re going to need a band,” he said.

So, Miller got together with musicians from other churches and rehearsed a few times before playing Friday. He said he knew the president would deliver the eulogy, but he wasn’t planning to accompany his speech.

“Sometimes... you’ve got to just let the Lord lead you, and he won’t steer you wrong,” he said. “The gifts that we’ve been given, they are needed at certain times, and so my grandfather always used to tell me, ‘You got to be ready at all times because somebody is going to need what God has already given you.’ ”

It may have been stunning to see the president break into song at that funeral Friday, to see the entire gathering join in with him as the band kicked in.

But, as Miller put it, music is “the universal language,” that “speaks across racial barriers, across denominations, across language barriers.”

It’s a language that Charleston has become fluent in over the past week, as congregations and pure strangers have taken any opportunity to join hands, clap and sing through their tears.

“Nothing can undo what took place. But what has come out of it has been eye-opening and so uplifting,” Miller said. “When everyone unites in one place with one voice, great things happen.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail