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REMEMBERING LEONARD BELL: 'He was a class act'

If Leonard Bell had gone to Nashville when he was a youth, the sky would have been the limit. - BILLY HOWELL
By Ed Waggener

To Hodgenville funeral director Billy Howell, it is a simple assessment: Leonard Bell was the most talented individual I've ever known, he said

Mr. Howell is one of tens of thousands across the state of Kentucky and nearby states who had come to know and love this warm-hearted man who could move audiences with his music in ways few others, ever, could do.

"Whenever I knew he was performing in Larue County," Mr. Howell said, "I'd try to attend. One time he was playing at a small church. I was late, and when I walked in the back door, an old fellow smiled at me and said, 'Leonard is playing with an attitude tonight!"

"If Leonard Bell had gone to Nashville when he was a youth, the sky would have been the limit," Mr. Howell said.

It's often held that a musician and his instrument become as one; with Leonard Bell, it was more, when he "played with an attitude." It was as if Leonard Bell, his keyboard, his backup singers and his audience were as one. And when he played Gospel, they were all as one with the Lord.

Leonard Thomas Bell died at Ephraim McDowell Hospital in Danville, KY, as the result of an automobile accident in Lincoln County, Sunday morning, September 11, 2005, while on his way to First Baptist Church, Second and Walnut, in Danville.

Details have been hard to get. But the word we have so far is that he drove into a ditch to avoid an oncoming car. The other car had taken the ditch trying to avoid him. In the process, two unselfish people lost their lives.

At the time of the accident, he was on his way to a little church in Glendale to lead the Sunday morning singing, we've been told.

Mr. Bell is from Indiana. He had retired after a lifetime career in the office at American Barge Lines in Jeffersonville, IN, Billy Howell remembers. "Now he just drove around the country as a minister of music for small churches," Mr. Howell said.

Leonard Bell has lived on Bomar Heights in Columbia for the past seven years. He had married Phyllis Winfrey in 1998 and moved here.

He often performed in churches in the community and at community events. He was a favorite at the Dream Depot in Columbia.

There was a way about the man - you can see it in his face, in the smile, in the photo which accompanies these articles - which brought out the best in people.

He was a teacher who could teach without the student knowing the subjection of being taught. Elaine Bennett, the manager of the Dream Depot, remembers that gentle way of his teaching.

"I had the honor of singing in one of the choirs he had. I think it was Black History Month, at Lindsey," she said.

"I was really nervous about it, because I had never sung in a choir before. I'm not good at being directed. I like to just let it fly," she said. "but Bro. Leonard was really gentle. He wanted me to take a solo line, and I told him I wasn't a soloist.""I don't do solos, I told him," Elaine said, "and he said that was okay. He agreed. Then he said, 'When I get to this part, you sing it,' as though I'd be singing along on the part with several others. But when I got to the part and sang, I was through the line before I realized I had sung alone. He had built my confidence up that much."

We haven't learned, at this time, whether there are enough of Leonard Bell's performances which have been recorded to keep a record of a good part of his body of work.

There's at least one tape of a show at the Dream Depot in Columbia which has four or five Gospel songs on it. It and the other recordings will be lasting proof of Leonard Bell's greatness.

Leonard Bell was always a favorite at the Depot. When he sang "Get on That Gospel Train," there wasn't a still toe or a dry eye in the house.

Just how good was he? How much have we lost? Billy Howell says the loss is immeasurable.

"I'm a great Ray Charles fan," he says. "I love Ray Charles. But Leonard Bell could put Ray Charles to shame," Billy Howell said.

"I'll tell you this," he said. "If I had had an opportunity to be given a free ticket costing $7,500 by anybody else, or a chance to have gone to hear Leonard, and I had to take one or the other, I'd go hear Leonard Bell."

"He was a class act."

Amen.

Related photo:

Black and white photo from early print edition of Columbia! Magazine taken at a local arts festival of The Adair County Community Workshop Choir under the direction of Leonard Bell
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This story was posted on 2005-09-13 04:30:18
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