I’m going to play the piano like that,” said seven-year-old Bob Meade while Fats Waller played on-screen at the Matanzas Theatre. It was 1937. So his cousin taught him a ditty on his grandmother’s piano, and the family said, “Give him that piano. That boy’s got music in him!”
His father’s work as an architect took him to various cities (Chattanooga being where Bob was born in 1930), but they made their way back to St. Augustine when Bob was four, where singing classes were part of the curriculum at Orange Street School. “Music is an expression. You’re building something, almost like architecture. It’s as if you’re painting a picture.”
Margaret Manford on St. George Street was Bob’s first piano teacher. Lessons cost six dollars a month, grocery money in those days. Then a pianist client of his father’s said, “I’ll give that boy lessons!” “Granny Favor,” as Bob called her, taught him position and interpretation of music. Mrs. Greenwood, “the best piano teacher in town,” taught him next. Then, at fourteen, he began as high tenor in the First Methodist Church Choir and even participated in recitals in Flagler’s Kirkside home.
In 1948 his Baccalaureate ceremony was held in Grace United Methodist Church, where he met William Dixon, an organist from New Jersey. Bill taught Bob the organ, and soon he sang in the very first St. Augustine Community Chorus. He was nineteen. “Everyone in St. Augustine in a choir wanted to be in that one with Dixon.”
During the Korean War, Bob joined the Navy Reserve Seabees, playing at stations with a pump organ. Back in town he worked at a variety of churches, even earning the title Minister of Music at First Methodist Church. He oversaw the choir and organ for years. “With the organ you can embellish in any way. It’s like somebody adding trees or a moon to a picture.” He started at Grace Church later, serving 29 years, he said. His wife Jacquelyn did all the Alto Solos in his choir, played the organ, and taught piano to local children. Sadly, she passed away in 1980.
A major highlight of his career was physically installing a new four manual Aeolian-Skinner. “Music, architecture, mathematics, and medicine are all the same thing – it’s all one discipline,” says Bob, “Those four things go together, because music is time and notes.”
He resigned from Grace Church in September 2016 and Hurricane Matthew hit two weeks later. Thankfully the 1913 Chickering his father bought and his mother’s Wurlitzer survived unscathed.
“Playing comes from the shoulder. Everything’s got to be liquid.” He still plays every day, settling in to play for me. I close my eyes and listen. The sound rolls from one side of my mind to the other, like water, swelling into mounds, flitting back and forth like tiny butterflies tapping their wings and touching my mind with warmth.
Written by Carla Tesconi St. Gelais. Photography by Kate Gardiner.