As a child, Devon Haselrig would place his blanket on the floor, set up his toy piano and play the music that stirred his soul.

And he already had some singers backing him. Haselrig would surround himself with his dolls, who, in their own way, joined in with the joyous sounds.

“They were my choir,” Haselrig said. “They were my people that sang and got happy because they were singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘Rock My Soul (In the Bosom of Abraham).’ ”

He was inspired by music, specifically the piano, from as early as 3 years old.

“The desire to play piano haunted me,” Haselrig said.

But, at home, he was not allowed to play the family’s big, black piano because he was not trained. So, he got a toy piano for Christmas one year.

“My desire to play piano got me a children’s piano that was just the right size and the right height for me. … I got that little pretty red piano,” Haselrig said. “Oh my God, I loved it beyond any other toy that I had, and I had quite a few.”

Those early performances provided the foundation for Haselrig’s life in music – playing gospel, jazz and R&B.

“If you wanted to understand me, you have to go to Romans, 12th chapter,” Haselrig said. “It talks about being a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable. I guess I was acceptable to God. I gave my life. Romans, 12th chapter sums up my life doing this.”

Romans:12 reads, in part: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.”

Haselrig said: “When you’re gifted with your gift, when you are blessed and endowed, use it until you use it up. I was blessed. I’ve been blessed.”

Haselrig has used his talent playing music in local houses of worship – including Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Bethel A.M.E. Church, Shiloh Baptist Church, First Cambria A.M.E. Zion, Mount Sinai Institutional Baptist Church, Roxbury Church of the Brethren, St. James Missionary Baptist Church and First Presbyterian Church – throughout his life.

“It has been an honor and a blessing to have served my community for over 45 years,” he said.

In December 1974, Haselrig, then a teenager, played his first church service at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, where the Rev. Andrew W. Tilly served as pastor.

Haselrig learned under the tutelage of the church’s music director, Bill Cashaw.

“He took me under his wing,” Haselrig said.

“He formed my raw talent that came in me as a 3-year-old child. … I wanted to play more than eat. I wanted to play more than life. And he gave me that opportunity.” 

‘A great delegation’ 

Haselrig took lessons from Cashaw and Bobby Holmes, a professional musician who had returned to Johnstown.

Later, in the 1970s, he performed with “Gospel Train,” a community choir for young people, led by Gwendolyn Triplin-Carter, music director at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Prospect.

Those connections helped him develop a solid reputation as a musician around town.

“Having the credibility of being one that Gwen Carter trusted and Bill Cashaw trusted, it propelled me to become someone that the city could call on, that the church community came to rely on,” Haselrig said. “I even played the national anthem for the City of Johnstown’s bicentennial. I have played more funerals than I can remember.”

Cashaw, Holmes and Triplin-Carter are among the many local musicians and friends who have influenced Haselrig, along with George Cashaw, Richard Smallwood, William “Chief” Thomas, the Rev. Willis M. Hickerson, John “Rusty” Williams, Pamela Holloway-Long, Allen Murphy, John Bagnato, F. Nicolas Jacobs, Mike Bodolosky, John Pecora, Frank Filia and Rick Oswald.

He has performed with soloists Rose Marie Bennett, Darlene Herndon-Seals, Clifton Carter, Jayme Johnson, Chris Ward, Aaron Lewis, Kimberly Bennett-Fantuzzo, Trish Williams, Justin Rohrbaugh and James B. Bush.

And, in terms of nationally known musicians, Haselrig has been inspired by Thomas Dorsey, James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, and Leonard Gregory Burks.

Haselrig used his love for music that those individuals helped create, foster and share to organize a Johnstown choir that participated in the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education service in Pittsburgh in the 1990s.

“We had a great delegation from Johnstown, Pennsylvania,” Haselrig said. “... It was an achievement.”

He has also performed across western Pennsylvania and in locations outside of the region, including Staten Island, New York. He was part of a three-piece jazz and R&B ensemble that entertained at Seven Springs Mountain Resort.

Haselrig has also played during Jazz Along the River in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood. 

‘He is a bridge’ 

The Rev. Reginald Floyd calls Haselrig “a gem in the community” with a deep appreciation for gospel music.

“He is a bridge from what I would call the old guard into the new school of this genre called gospel music,” said Floyd, associate minister at St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Johns-town’s Hornerstown neighborhood. “And the beautiful thing about his take on gospel music, not only is it gospel music, but it is sacred. And when he is teaching gospel music to the next generation, he’s letting them know how sacred this is.

“This is not just music, but this is music that we’re singing because God loves us. And we know that he loves us. We must project this to those who do not yet know that God loves them, because we have kids dying in the streets, we have kids overdosing, we have kids harming each other, we have people who are lost.

“Throughout the African American diaspora, here in America for 400 years, there’s always been music, there’s always been rhythm in hard times to let us know that there is hope. And he definitely teaches that, and he’s an example of that.”

Floyd encourages those who know Haselrig to soak up the understanding of music that he has to offer.

“The wealth of knowledge that he has, once his eyes are closed, I would hate for that knowledge to just dissipate,” Floyd said. “I would hate for that knowledge to go into the ground when he goes in the ground.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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