I recently stopped by a Western Massachusetts community center where Young@Heart Chorus members were rehearsing for their upcoming shows, including one on March 24 at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium. At the rehearsal, octogenarians belted out contemporary and classic rock-n-roll hits, from the Beatles to Arcade Fire. Bob Cilman, the chorus’ director and co-founder, is sculpting the feeling and energy of each song. One woman, dressed in a sensible cardigan, is practicing her solo of Bananarama’s “Venus.” It’s a sexy song and Bob tells her to loosen up a bit. “One Coors Light will be all I need!” she quips. The other ladies giggle.
Therein lays the charm of the Young@Heart Chorus. It’s about finding the rock-n-roll lifestyle in one’s “golden years.”Founded in 1982, the chorus has created a theater show, been featured in a full-length documentary and taken its members around the world. Jeannette, 84, sings James Brown’s “I Feel Good” with Arthur, 88. Arthur tells me that there are moments as you age that simply don’t feel good. But sometimes with the chorus, life just feels great.
WHAT DOES YOUNG@HEART MEAN TO YOU?
Jeannette- It means my life! Because I’ve lived these 84 years and I’m looking to get 6 more. 90! Or a hundred! I would love to reach one hundred. If it’s the Lord’s will, I will. Because I have good health, I only take a little medicine. One pill. And I used to not take any medicine! I love action. I love music. And since I’ve joined Young@Heart, I’ve loved the singing and the rhythm of the music just moves me! I love the dance.
Arthur- Well, for one thing, it’s something for me to do. It’s a whole new form of life for me. I’ve got, like, 40 new friends. It’s like a family because they are always there for you. If you are sick or don’t feel right, there’s always someone in the group who will help you or that will be there for you. We go on tour, and there’s somebody to take my walker up the steps for me or find an elevator. There’s always somebody looking out for me. It means a lot for me. I’ve been in it about four years now. I’ve lived in Brooklyn, Long Island, I’ve lived in Florida for about 20 years. I worked as a hair dresser until I was almost 85. And then I couldn’t do it anymore, my back and shoulders gave out. I never knew rock and roll before! My kind of song was Frank Sinatra. And when I experienced rock and roll I couldn’t get enough of it! And my children all like rock and roll, so we all sing it in the car sometimes.
WHAT DO YOU FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU ARE SINGING?
Jeannette- I feel like I’m sort of floating in air. And when Bob tells us to put ourself into the music, I know what he means, because you sing with your feeling. And, it gives me somewhere to go, things to do, things I’ve never done before, places I’ve gone that I’ve never been. I never would have gotten to go to these places, and it means a lot to me. I look forward to getting up and coming to rehearsal.
Arthur- It’s funny. Before I go on stage, I’m very nervous. I don’t seem to have the confidence. But once I get on stage, it’s like I’m hypnotized and everything stops for me except the audience and what I’m doing. It just comes out pretty good.
WHAT DOES THE ROCK AND ROLL SPIRIT MEAN TO YOU?
Jeannette- Rock and roll means getting up and doing things with other people. The music, the rhythm, the beat of the music gets me going. Get’s me on the move! It makes me feel younger. It makes me feel like every time I feel the beat, I gotta move!
Arthur- Rock and roll spirit is to just live your life. Like the song “Live Your Life.” I have a song called “It’s My Life,” it was the first one that was given to me as a solo. And, it’s exactly my life. It goes: “It’s my life, it’s now or never, I ain’t gonna live forever. I just wanna live while I’m alive.” And that’s it! I just answered your question. That’s rock and roll.
WHAT SHOULD PEOPLE IN PORTLAND EXPECT WHEN THEY SEE YOU PERFORM?
Jeannette- When we are performing, we put ourselves into the music, into what we are doing. It just behooves me to just be here and present because I’m looking forward to doing my number.
Arthur- Well, I’ve never been to Portland and I don’t know the people in Portland, but we just came back from Japan and we didn’t know what to expect there, and the day we performed in Tokyo, it was a holiday and we didn’t know it. It was a holiday for older people, so we just fell into that particular day, and it was quite an experience because there were people there in walkers and wheelchairs and they just wanted to get up and dance and sing with us. And I assume that the people in Portland will be the same way. There will be older people who want to get up and they can do anything they want to do. We have a lot of youngsters that come, too! We have groupies that come over. We even get letters from them. I assume wherever we go, we have a full house. And everybody seems to be happy and everybody seems to rock and roll together with us.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Jeannette- What’s important in my life is the way that I live. I treat people the way I like to be treated. It just means the world to me because I just love doing what I’m doing. We should just treat everybody the same, because we are all the same children of God. I just love the people here, I’ve just met so many people. And everybody has just been so nice and gentle to me. I’m a people person, and we have all types of people. We all get along.
Arthur- Right now, is to live the next day. Because at my age, you don’t know when it’s going to happen. Getting up, coming here, singing, being out with my children. I have a nice little condo here in Amherst. Just living my life the best way I can, and just rocking and rolling until there is no more life.
WHAT IS A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED?
Jeannette- To treat everybody and to get along with everybody. Because we are all sisters and brothers. And I can get along with mostly anybody.
Arthur- You know the older you get, the wiser you get. And when I was young I thought I was the greatest, nobody could be better than me. I took people for the way they look, not the way the sounded or were. But now, being with the group and going to a lot of countries or states, visiting with people and seeing different types of people, I’ve learned that we are all the same. The group is all types, all religions, and we get along beautifully. And, as a result, I’ve learned that people are people and it’s not their outsides it’s their insides that counts: what they think and what they dream and what they say. And that’s the important thing, and the group has taught me all that. The longer I live the more I’m learning about things like that.
WHAT IS A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED FROM AGING?
Jeannette- I’ve learned that age is a number. It’s how you feel. If you treat your body right, your body will take you along way. I’ve learned if you don’t take care of it, it will run down on you. With aging, you don’t have to stop or lock yourself away. Keep on moving and exercising and you will stay super!
Arthur- Aging isn’t as easy as people think. It’s hard to age. It’s hard. And you have to live it the best way you can. But there are things that I used to do that I can’t do now. I can’t move fast, or turn fast, I can’t catch a ball. I used to golf a lot, I can’t do that. I don’t know if I can say this, but aging sucks!
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE DAY?
Jeannette- Well, when I wake up in the morning, I wake up ready to go! And I don’t have pains. In the morning, when I first get up, the Lord wakes me up. We don’t wake ourselves up. The Lord wakes us up.
Arthur- One of the favorite moments is coming here. Another is being with my children. Being with them in Florida is a great moment for me. Those are my moments, just being with my children and getting along and coming here and doing on tour. And having everybody applaud!
For more about the Young@Heart Chorus, click here.