Pianist, age 12, takes over at church

FULTONDALE, Ala. — As the Sunday morning service began at Walker Chapel United Methodist Church in Fultondale, 12-year-old Bradis Worthington walked to the piano bench and flipped open his sheet music.

He played "God Will Take Care of You," ''When We All Get to Heaven" and "Sweet, Sweet Spirit" out of the United Methodist hymnal.

Bradis was only 10 when he took over as church musician more than two years ago, after longtime church keyboardist Hal Atkinson died at 93.

Walker Chapel witnessed an 83-year demographic dip on the piano bench, going from one of the area's oldest church keyboardists to one of the youngest. The transition from a renowned, world-experienced musician to a promising newcomer went smoothly, Pastor Roy Williams said.

The elder statesman Atkinson had been the ballpark organist at Rickwood Field when the Birmingham Barons played there.

In tribute, Bradis played "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on the organ at Atkinson's funeral. Then he promptly took over his duties as church keyboardist.

"It's something that I love to do," Bradis said. "My No. 1 love is gospel music. I love the sound of it."

With two years' experience now, Bradis has become a veteran church musician, playing piano or organ at every service. "I can probably play the organ a little better," he said.

Church members encouraged him to take over the job soon after Atkinson's death on Nov. 19, 2007. Atkinson had been playing piano and organ at Walker Chapel for 18 years.

Following such a musician could have been daunting for a 10-year-old. Atkinson had a distinguished career, playing organ at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and on Sunday evening CBS radio broadcasts with the Artie Arnell Orchestra. He played in pit orchestras for Broadway shows.

"He did jingles in the 1950s and played at Carnegie Hall," Williams said.

Atkinson provided music for TV shows including "Number Please," ''The Ernie Kovacs Show," ''The Will Rogers Jr. Show," ''The Price Is Right" and "Variety."

A World War II veteran who served in the Philippines, Atkinson spent the latter part of the war being flown from island to island to play an accordion to entertain troops.

When he moved to Birmingham, Atkinson played organ at the Alabama Theatre as well as at Rickwood.

Everyone agreed Atkinson left some big shoes to fill. "Hal could play the piano and the organ like you wouldn't believe," Williams said.

Church members told Bradis he was the man, or at least the boy, for the job.

"His style was a lot different than mine," Bradis said of Atkinson. "He knew every song by heart." Bradis follows his sheet music pretty closely for each song.

Atkinson was a big influence, though, Bradis said. "He always encouraged me to play, to keep practicing."

Bradis said he was nervous when he took over for Atkinson. "At first I was worried about if I messed up in front of everybody."

But the nervousness quickly faded. "I thought it was awesome," said Bradis, a seventh-grader at North Jefferson Middle School. "I hope to be playing for a church the rest of my life."

His family, including parents Brad and Lisa; brother Braxton, 11; and sister Brittley, 5, encourage him to keep working at it. His mother often plays organ for the church when Bradis plays the piano.

"He started taking lessons at 4, and he's really progressed," said his grandmother, Judy Worthington. "He's not a Van Cliburn, but he's real talented."

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