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Musician shares grandmother's gift

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG, Ga. -- As her hands move fluidly across the piano, striking the keys that bring Lionel Newman's elegant "Again" to life, Susan Hardee's face is the picture of concentration.

A closer look at her features, though, reveals a deeper, more elusive expression. Finally, it becomes apparent: When Hardee plays there is a contentment about her, a feeling that this woman is in her element. For Hardee, though, that contentment is not some product of chance. The music in her is a gift from her grandmother.

Ruth Hulse Nelson was a prodigy. She started playing piano at age 3, after her father traded one of the horses from his livery stable for an upright piano. By age 8, Nelson had composed her first piece, and by age 12 she had her first professional job: Playing piano as accompaniment for silent movies at a local theater.

"Our family always said there were two significant things that happened in 1904: the St. Louis World's Fair and my mother's birth," Barbara Haupt, Susan Hardee's mother, said. "After my grandfather bought the family an upright piano, it soon became apparent that mother had a God-given talent."

Ruth Hulse's piano playing took her to the Quincy Conservatory of Music and the American Conservatory of Music and landed her a job playing organ on radio giant WLS in Chicago during a time when there was no recorded music. When she married and moved to St. Louis, she landed a similar job at KMOX radio.

She eventually was hired to play the dining room at the famous Mayfair Hotel in St. Louis, and she worked the two jobs for more than 25 years. Along the way she played with such luminaries as Lawrence Welk and Glenn Miller, had her music piped via radio to the NFL's St. Louis Browns and Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals games at Sportsman's Park, and became an integral part of the city's burgeoning social scene.

"My mother never considered herself a celebrity," Haupt said, "but she got tons of fan mail. I still have all the letters she got. People would send her cards requesting songs, and she'd play certain ones of them on the radio. At KMOX, two sides of the studio she played in had glass walls, and tourists would come in to watch her play."

Haupt said her mother's talents "skipped a generation," but with a little coaxing she admits that she does have a fine enough voice to "do OK in singalong bars." Nelson's gift was, however, passed down to Haupt's daughter Susan, who was born on Jan. 1, 1961, exactly 20 years after her grandmother composed the theme music that became her trademark.

It was Nelson who steered her granddaughter to the piano.

"When Susie was a baby and mother would come for a visit, Susie would always say 'Ooooh' when she saw mother," Haupt said. "When she began to delve into the music that mother played, all she would ever say was 'Ooooh.' That was part of the bond between them."

Nelson insisted that, at age 10, her granddaughter was ready for piano lessons. Nelson and Haupt together bought a piano, and Nelson started sharing her gift. Soon Susan started delivering on the promise of her genetics, winning a number of awards for her playing.

Hardee studied music education and actually tried a stint in the Army before giving that up and marrying her recruiter, Sgt. First Class Robert Hardee. They came to Albany in 1994, and that's when Hardee started tracing the legacy of her grandmother.

"I knew the stories about my grandmother, and I knew she had a treasure of music," Hardee said. "When I started looking through it and playing it, I knew this was real music, this was what I wanted to play."

Hardee worked at Jim's Piano and Organ in Albany, and she's played dinner music for private catered affairs, for chamber of commerce banquets and at restaurants in the region. She said her musical selections are the makings of her grandmother.

"People will hear me play a song, and they'll come up and ask, 'Did you just play da-da-da'?" Hardee said. "Then they'll ask me where I heard about a particular piece, and I tell them it came from my grandmother. So many people when I tell them about my collection of my grandmother's music say, 'That's worth a fortune.'

"But this collection is worth more than a fortune to my heart."

Hardee has stacks and stacks of music she inherited from Ruth Hulse Nelson: a chest full in one corner, a piano bench packed to the brim, other random piles at various strategic locations in her music room. She beams as she shows off her collection.

"This is music to me," she says, gesturing around the room at her collection. "This is why I play."

And, of course, there's that gift, a gift that was cultivated during radio's Golden Age and continues to flourish -- two generations later -- in the tiny music room of a comfortable Lee County home.