FROM AMERICAN NEWS
Sitting in his room at Bedford Care, Brian Blair’s hands still move to find the correct keys to play the songs he has loved
since he was a child.
It was less than a decade ago that Blair, 52, was a fixture behind the piano at local events and the Mississippi Governor’s
Mansion, leading guests in rousing sing-alongs and skillfully playing his favorite songs from the Great American Songbook.
In 2008, the talented musician was diagnosed with a central nervous system disorder caused by iron deposits in the brain,
eventually leaving the charismatic performer unable to perform.
Hattiesburg Arts Council Executive Director Rebekah Stark Johnson said Blair’s contributions to Hattiesburg — both
culturally and historically — struck a chord with the council’s board members.
So much so that on Sunday, Blair will experience his first tribute concert from the opposite side the piano when the
Hattiesburg Arts Council presents “With a Song in My Heart: A Tribute to Brian Blair.”
“I figured while he is still able to communicate with us and be happy to be with us that we needed to do something for him
because he’s done so much for us,” Johnson said.
Johnson said since she first met Blair in 1991, she has been astounded by her friend’s talent and virtuosity.
“I’ve always felt like he was documentary material,” she said. “From a very early age, he was intrigued with ’20s, ’30s and ’
40s music. … Almost as if he was prepared to be in the nursing home with people who this music was part of their early
Led by the afternoon’s masters of ceremony — local author/restaurateur Robert St. John and Leaf Foundation Pageant
Director Michael Marks, the tribute concert will begin at 4 p.m. at the Hattiesburg Cultural Center.
“Primarily, I think the most important thing is that we do something he can come to, and that we are now sharing what he’s
been sharing with us,” Johnson said. “Also, we are starting a Brian Blair Tribute Fund that we will be kicking off at this
event. With that we will be using that fund to continue to put on shows where he’s being honored.”
Johnson said the fund eventually will be able to provide exceptionally gifted musicians with scholarships.
St. John, a childhood friend and classmate, said Blair began playing piano at an early age.
“He and I started taking piano at the same time in second grade,” he said. “Our church organist taught us piano at the
same time. She wanted to teach out of the Methodist Hymnal, and I wanted to play rock ’n’ roll. So, Brian stuck with it and
became great, and I moved on and played guitar for a little while.”
St. John said it was clear from an early age Blair had a rare talent.
“I think he’s brilliant,” he said. “Here’s a guy in junior high school who could play music from four decades earlier — music
that took me getting into my late-20s and early-30s to even realize. He knew it in his teen years to the point in his 20s that
you could research the most obscure song from some off-Broadway musical in the 1920s, and you couldn’t stump him.”
With a grin spread across his face, Blair said he remembered performing at Hattiesburg High School talent shows and
causing a stir.
“I would bark to confuse them,” he said. “I would come out and (bow) and (bark).”
Of course, the bark would be followed by the 1953 hit “(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window.”
After graduating from Hattiesburg High School as members of the Class of 1979, St. John said he and Blair both found
themselves attending Mississippi State University.
After earning a Bachelor of Arts in public relations and piano performance, Blair continued working as a professional
musician and later reconnected with St. John when he began playing piano at the newly opened Purple Parrot.
It was there that St. John witnessed first-hand how Blair offered a unique entertainment experience to each of the
restaurant’s patrons until 1990.
“What I love about it is he is such a professional and so talented, and I know he wound up playing in New Orleans a lot, but
he stayed here,” he said. “Brian could have played anywhere in the world, and he stayed in Mississippi.”
Blair’s lifelong friend Tom Ray Phillips said he’s always been in awe of his friend’s talents.
“You could name a tune, and he could just work that piano and flow from one song into another,” he said. “He’d point and
say, ‘Name a year!’ or ‘Guess what year that song came out?’ and we’d usually lose. … I’ve seen and heard people
perform, but it will never be like Brian.”
Phillips, who serves as the historian of the Hattiesburg Historical Society, said Blair always had a passion for his hometown
and took pride in his family’s history in the area.
“He was a member of the historical society and was also part of the board prior to his illness,” he said. “There were so many
people and households in Hattiesburg that he was a part of.”
From performing at the Abbie Rogers Civitan Camp to helping various Miss Mississippi contestants with their talents to
playing for Mississippi governors William Winter, Ray Mabus, Kirk Fordice and Haley Barbour, Phillips said Blair has always
been willing to share his love of music with others.
Now, even though he can no longer play it, Blair’s musical legacy will continue through his grand piano that was purchased
by Kennard, Jennifer and Sarah Crosby McKay and donated to the Hattiesburg Arts Council in his honor. It now has a home
at the Hattiesburg Cultural Center.
Johnson said she has always marveled at Blair’s ability to learn and care about people.
“He personalized everything,” she said. “It didn’t matter what party it was, he would see someone walking in the door, and
he’d immediately start playing their song.”
Now, Johnson said it’s time Blair got a personalized showcase of talent of his own, as his fellow artists and friends come
together to serenade him with his favorite songs from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.
“I went to visit him and brought the poster for the tribute concert and went through the whole program and singers and
instrumentalists with him,” she said. “He was saying, ‘That’s one of my top 10 favorites.’ And then we’re doing a slide show
of different pictures of his life, and when I showed it to him he was laughing and carrying on and having the best time
looking at the photos.”
St. John said he was honored when he was approached about being a master of ceremony.
“It took me about half a second to say yes,” he said. “I think it is a much deserved and long overdue. Kudos to the
Hattiesburg Arts Council and Rebekah Johnson for putting it together. We need to celebrate art in this community and all
disciplines of art. Certainly, we need to celebrate our local artists, and he’s been one of the best.”
Johnson said she hopes the public shows up to sing along and give Blair the standing ovation he deserves.
“Our mission of the Arts Council is to support, promote and sustain artists in the arts in the community,” she said. “Brian is a
perfect example of that. We want to keep him feeling supported and to help sustain his life’s mission. … I really do think that
everyone will be saluting him for all he has done for Hattiesburg and for bringing us to great heights with his music and his
If you go
Hattiesburg Arts Council presents
“With a Song in My Heart: A Tribute to Brian Blair”
• Time: 4 p.m. Sunday
• Location: Hattiesburg Cultural Center, 723 N. Main St.
• Featured artists: Vocalists Brenda Parker, Maryann Kyle, Dean Bellais, Connie Roberts, Mildred Hong and Rosemary
Collins. Instrumental music will be by Larry Panella, saxophone; Rebekah Stark Johnson, cello; Raoul Jerome, bass; and
Stan Collins, piano. Michael Marks and Robert St. John will deliver a tribute and perform as masters of ceremony.
• This concert is open and free to the public, and all who attend are encouraged to wear Blair’s favorite colors — black,
white and red.
• Blair’s extensive collection of scrap books will be on display at the tribute concert.
|Brian Blair poses with vocalists
Maryann Kyle (left)
and Brenda Parker (right)
Photo from the University
of Southern Mississippi.
Hattiesburg Arts Council
Sunday September 28th at 4pm Hattiesburg Cultural Center
Contact person: Rebekah Stark Johnson 601-583-6005
Hattiesburg Arts Council Tribute to Pianist and Entertainer, Brian Blair
“With a Song in My Heart: A tribute to Brian Blair” cabaret and cocktails will be presented by Hattiesburg Arts Council on
Sunday, Sept.28. The cabaret will be held at the Hattiesburg Cultural Center beginning at 4p.m. “His virtuosity and goodwill
were infectious and amazing,” said Arts Council
Executive Director Rebekah Stark Johnson.“He is truly a shining star.” Though his virtuosity is much diminished, his goodwill
is still with us, and if at all possible he will be present at the event.
Brian Blair was born in Hattiesburg and attended Hattiesburg High School. His career spanned the changing of the
millennia, though his greatest joy has been the great American song book, mostly songs from the ‘20’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s.
Many people remember his playing and his good spirits. With a repertoire of over 1000 songs at immediate recall, he
played and sang any thing in any key and could tell the year it was recorded, who wrote it, who made it famous and which
movie featured it. A great crowd-pleaser, he would often watch for people entering a gathering and play their favorite song.
His most frequent expression to this day is, “I appreciate you.”
His performances were cut short by a central nervous system disorder caused by iron deposits in the brain, diagnosed in
2008. His hands no longer can produce the music he loved.
But his music lives on with the piano that he played and loved. It was donated to the Hattiesburg Arts Council by Kennard,
Jennifer and Sarah Crosby McKay in his honor. This celebration of his life in music is the first of a series of annual events in
the spirit of Brian and the kickoff for the Brian Blair Tribute Fund. It features vocalists Brenda Parker, Maryann Kyle, Dean
Bellais, Connie Roberts, Mildred Hong and Rosemary Collins. Instrumental music will be by Larry Panella, saxophone,
Rebekah Stark Johnson, cello, Raoul Jerome, Bass and Stan Collins, piano. Michael Marks and Robert St. John will deliver
a tribute and perform as master of ceremonies.
All in the Hattiesburg community are invited to the event, said Mrs. Johnson, and it is open to the
members and possible members there. Those attending should be prepared to sing, and perhaps dress in Brian Blair’s
favorite colors of red, black and white. There may be some stories. “We go way back,” said Robert St. John, ”I’ve known
him since preschool at Main St. Methodist. There’s no shortage of stories to tell about Brian Blair.”
For more information, please call the Hattiesburg Arts Council at 601-583-6005 and visit the facebook page.