On Jan. 29, 1937, Herbert Deon Ryals Jr. was born in a Cordele, Ga., country shack. Barely surviving his birth, this man — my father — would later be adopted by Albany as one of its most beloved musicians, singers, and songwriters. Sadly on Aug. 14, 2011 Albany wept at its loss of a legend.
Herb Ryals. I can hardly mention that name anywhere to anyone without being welcomed with a smile and a story. Many tell of dancing along to his numerous musical performances at such places as the Continental Room in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Some remember him from newspaper articles that read with print announcing “RCA Victor and others affiliated with Ryals have expressed the feeling that this could be the beginning of something big …” Many may have heard his voice streaming from their local radio station as either the singer or the DJ. And, some can still recall Mr. Herb Ryals as being the sports announcer on WALB’s Channel 10 a number of years ago. But, no matter whether Herb Ryals made someone’s toe tap, built their home, put a blush on a woman’s face with his charm, or just showed them kindness his presence has never been forgotten.
Growing up as Herb Ryals’ daughter was never boring. A lot is known about my father, but there are also some things that are not as well known. For instance, Herb Ryals and his band opened up for the masterful Jerry Lee Lewis on several occasions, and while touring with this piano legend, my father had the chance to watch Jerry Lee and the one and only Chuck Berry get into a fist fight about who was the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roller. Wow! Right. Many may have known that he loved to dance but few knew that his favorite dance floor was the kitchen floor. Or how about that he was never short of animal friends since his big heart couldn’t turn away a stray cat, dog, hurt squirrel or bird; most of his outfits weren’t complete without a dog hair or two.
In the Ryals’ house there was a radio in almost every room and each one was set to a different station. I may not have ever seen him perform in front of hundreds or thousands but I did get to sit next to him as he played piano and sang at his favorite venue, his living room. I doubt that any papers have printed that Herb Ryals could be often spotted in his favorite store, Wal-Mart, buying all off-brand groceries. It probably has also never been told that he was a hard core Wheel of Fortune fan and has almost never missed a show since its first airing in 1975.
And while my father was a wonderful musician, singer, and songwriter, only the most fortunate knew that he could have been a culinary legend, as well; his tuna fish sandwich and the presentation that it came with was to die for. He loved to cook and make up his own concoctions that he had every intention of getting you to try, and believe me you couldn’t turn a taste down. Oh, and no one except close friends and those that worked at the “Jimmys’ Hotdogs” by the bus station knew of his hotdog addiction; the brown, greasy bagful of tasty dawgs was all too often brought in the front door by my dad.
This self-made man that learned rhythm, soul, and blues from attending the African American church as a barefooted little boy is who Albany has lost. The son of a railroad engineer and Albany police officer is now gone. The creator of music to our ears that touched our hearts and souls is only on tape, CD, vinyl and memory now. And while much is known and much is not known about Herb Ryals what is for sure was that he was an amazing father and friend and will always be remembered with a smile and a story.