There probably were few dry eyes at Snellville Baptist Church Tuesday following a video of Tony Hamilton and the Sons of Jubal performing one of Tony’s favorite hymns, “Washed Away.”
It had been recorded in Bethlehem when the musical group was on a world tour. Tony was the soloist, putting his whole self into a powerful performance with a passion that was characteristic in every number he ever sang.
Tony, 64, had died Aug. 11, and “Washed Away” appropriately concluded his funeral Tuesday.
“It was one of the most joyful funerals I ever attended,” said Wesley Funk, a friend since childhood, calling it instead “a homegoing.” Funk and Hamilton had been friends since they were playmates at Clermont Elementary School. “I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t singing,” Funk said, adding that Tony understood the impact music had on people.
Funk’s father, Godfrey, advocated for Hamilton to be allowed to join the Royal Ambassadors youth group at Concord Baptist Church, not a popular idea at the time because Tony was Black, and the church was all-white. That led to his singing in churches and other events all over the state. Tony visited the Funks while they were sick and sang at both their funerals.
When school desegregation was still in its early stages, Hamilton was the only Black student at North Hall High School for much of his time there. He played trumpet in the band and was naturally a member of the chorus, becoming one of the school’s most popular students with his outgoing personality.
“He was bigger than life, supremely talented, laid back, funny and a jokester,” Funk said. He related a story when the church’s youth group went camping, the girls and boys in separate sites. “Of course, when it got dark, the boys had to sneak over and scare the girls,” he said. Tony coaxed him into going, and when they approached the girls’ site, Tony told him, “Go on; I’m right behind you.” Tony snuck away, leaving Funk the culprit who got into trouble.
Musician Della Ruth Johnson accompanied Tony numerous times when he was performing. “He was a wonderful singer always willing to share his talent,” she said. “He was easy to play for.” Although they would practice together, Johnson said she was never able to tell what he would do with a song. “He would personalize it according to the event and the people,” she said. “He would make a person think he was their own personal singer, singing just to you.”
Hamilton could sing any kind of song from soloist in “The Messiah” to pop music. Johnson particularly remembers a touching performance singing at his mother’s funeral, then people marching out singing to the cemetery for her burial.
Tony was one of the first people he met when Rusty Balch and his new bride moved to Gainesville. “He was very friendly and welcoming,” he said, helping the couple find a place to live. When Balch was injured when he fell from the roof of a building, Tony was right there comforting his wife, giving her his watch and seeing that he was taken care of.
Because of his injuries, the Balches had to move from their third-story apartment, and Tony helped them relocate.
“He always met you with a warm greeting and a hug,” Balch said. Co-workers, customers and others just loved him, he said, adding, “He loved his community.” Hamilton was human resources director for Kmart for many years.
After graduating from high school, Tony studied music education at Truett-McConnell College and Shorter College. He was an active TMC alumnus and had served on the school’s executive board. He became minister of music at several churches.
In 2012, Hamilton was ordained as a minister and was senior adult administration and worship pastor at Annistown Road Baptist Church at the time of his death.
Everybody you talk to about Tony Hamilton has “Tony stories,” but mostly they remember his warm friendly spirit in addition to musical talent. “He was a man of many hats,” Funk said, adding that he has no doubt where he is today, his rich voice probably leading a chorus of angels.
(Note: a link to a video of Tony’s service is in his obituary on Tom Wages Funeral Home's website. His performance of “Washed Away” is at the end.)
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column publishes weekly.