You might expect people in their "golden years" to sing golden oldies. But there are no golden oldies in this group's repertoire – they just rock:
The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated"
Meet the Young@Heart Chorus of Northampton, Massachusetts, founded in 1982. Average age: 85. They've toured the world, and even starred in a 2008 documentary.
"We walk into this group and figure, you know, 'Old people, what are they gonna remember? You know, back in the '40s and the '50s?' And that's what we were expecting," said Bill Sheppard. He and Rosie Kane, Sonia Nieto, Joel Spiro, and John Rinehart and Lu Cauley are members who range in age from 75 to 91.
"You know, a lot of this is very, you know, it's hard rock. It's Twisted Sister, it's The Clash," said Kane.
Correspondent David Pogue asked, "And what do you think is the attraction for the audience? What's the formula?"
They see people having fun," Nieto replied. "Maybe people who they thought would be a little doddering by this age, who they thought might not have the energy!"
Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark"
Cauley said, "It's good for us. We've gotta say, 'Yes, I can. I'll try it.'"
"We're not like old people up there just, you know, hangin' on," Spiro said. "We dance!"
David Bowie's "Let's Dance"
Rinehart said, "When I retired, I said to my wife, I says, 'You better start planning my funeral, because I'm gonna dead in six months because, you know, I've got to keep busy.'"
"I think it keeps decrepitude at bay," Kane said. "The ability to memorize lyrics. I think it really is very enhancing to the aging process.
Music director Bob Cilman has been running the chorus for 38 years. His musical background, he told Pogue, was "Not good. I mean, I was in a rock band in eighth grade called The Torn Souls. And we were pretty horrible actually!"
"But somewhere along the line, though, you absorbed a lot of rock songs," Pogue said.
"Oh! I spent a lotta time listening to music."
In the "Young@Heart" documentary, we learn that the singers don't always love Cilman's song choices … at first.
They do punk songs? "Oh, yeah, yeah," Cilman said. "I mean, I think the thing that's cool about them singing music they don't know is that they don't sing it the way you'd expect it to be sung. They very naturally turn it into their own thing."
Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here"
Pogue said, "I think the only critique I've ever heard is that putting young, rebellious songs into the mouths of older people is a novelty stunt."
"I think that's what I would think of it! 'Old people singing rock music, ewww, that sounds really deadly. I can't imagine wanting to do that!'" Cilman laughed. "But I don't think a lot of people walk away, after seeing the work, saying that. And that's what's more important to me."
As 2020 dawned, the Young@Heart Chorus was flying high: Millions of views on YouTube, new concerts in the works. And then, the pandemic. It meant the end of any group singing together in the same place. "It was like, 'Wow. I have to completely rethink this thing. We're starting from scratch,'" Cilman said.
The solution was meeting over Zoom. But video chat can be technologically challenging, no matter how old you are.
Cilman said, "All of a sudden, I see where these people live, these people that I've known for years. I had never been to their houses. And it was kinda beautiful."
What's less beautiful is that you can't sing together over Zoom, because the internet introduces a half-second delay. So, the singers record their parts individually each alone at home, editors mix them all together, create a video to match, and the show goes on!
Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It"
Now, the minimum age to get into this group is 75. So, sooner or later, age catches up with its members. "Mostly, people leave because they're no longer physically able to be there anymore," Cilman said.
"Oh, wow. Well, there's an occupational hazard of this concept," said Pogue.
"Totally. I mean, you know, we've had 150 people die since we started this group. So, it's, you know, the turnover is enormous."
Shortly after our interview, the group lost another member: Andy Walsh died, only two weeks before the big holiday concert. He'd been with the group since 2009.
Last weekend, the holiday concert went ahead as planned, dedicated to Andy's memory. You can watch it on YouTube.
To watch a trailer for the Young @ Heart Chorus' Holiday Show click on the video player below:
John Rinehart kicked the concert off, Lu Cauley channeled Madonna, and Joel Spiro got down in his Santa suit.
The concert ended, as most Young@Heart concerts do, with Bob Dylan's "Forever Young."
Cilman said, "They're doing some of their most interesting work towards the end of their life. It's kind of so gratifying to know that you're still able to produce stuff that not only your peers will like, but your kids like, your grandkids like. That's why I can't see myself stopping it."
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Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Emanuele Secci.