- Associated Press - Monday, June 23, 2014

DALLAS (AP) - Some of the happiest times in Johnnie Lindsey’s life happened when he was behind bars.

Incarcerated 26 years for a rape he did not commit, Lindsey found solace in music.

“My most joyous moment was singing with the guys in prison,” Lindsey said during a recent interview. “We had our individual parts and when we came together, it made my heart thump because it was so beautiful. And I was a part of this beauty.”

Lindsey, 61, was exonerated in 2008 and returned to Dallas. The state gave him $2.2 million for his wrongful conviction, and the first “toy” he purchased was a George Steck piano in 2009.

A year later he decided it was time for a proper lesson, so he and his wife, Sherita, drove to Metroplex Piano in Lake Highlands. There he met Debbie Beach, whose music lessons - and friendship - would change his life.

“Debbie started showing us little tunes, and together we started to make music,” Lindsey said. “She played so beautifully that I said, ‘This is it. I’ll never play like that, but I’m gonna sure damn try.’”

When Beach - a piano teacher for more than 15 years - shared her desire to open a music school of her own, Lindsey offered to buy all of the keyboards she would need to teach group lessons.

“My whole time in the penitentiary, I just wanted to get out and do one thing, and if I could do that one thing, my life has been well worth the struggle,” Lindsey told The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1lKSEf8 ). “I wanted to make a difference. If we all felt that way, to make a difference in somebody’s life, this would be a much better world.”

Beach appreciates Lindsey’s desire to see her reach her goal of bringing people together through music.

“Using music to connect people is a very important message,” Beach said. “And I couldn’t be more proud of Johnnie that he wanted to contribute to the school with his gracious gift of the instruments. With his golden heart he has opened his pocketbook to others because he knows that connection.”

Beach remembers a time when she heard singing seemingly everywhere: at the ball park, on road trips, around the table. She said she doesn’t see or hear much of that anymore, but Lindsey’s donation will help her try to revive some of those days.

“Music is far more powerful than anything that anybody does in their life,” Beach said. “I had a class with a mailman, an entrepreneur and a lady who was filthy rich, and once you start playing together you forget all of that, and you connect and bond - total strangers. You don’t forget that. It’s stories like that that keep me going.”

Since Lindsey was 12 years old, he has had what he calls a “strange appetite” for music. In prison, he said, it kept him calm and focused on his goal to get out. When a federal appeals court denied his appeal, he sat alone on his bunk, sang to himself and cried.

“At that point, music became real crucial to me because I could wake up in the morning and even though I was in a distasteful situation, I had my songs, I had my music, I had my radio on, and it would pep me up,” Lindsey said. “I fed off the music. It was like my saving grace.”

That isn’t the only time he felt uplifted by song. While in prison, Lindsey heard from only two family members, which he says made him bitter. When he was released, he went to a cousin’s 50th birthday party where he felt an unprecedented connection to his family.

Story Continues →