Music moves everyone, whether it is evident by the tapping of the feet, a cane or the melody moves only in memories.
Residents at Shirkey Nursing and Rehabilitation Center were captivated by the talents of Gregg Ashley Cooper II, who is making a name for himself as “The Nursing Home Singer.”
He shared his talents with the residents on Friday, Sept. 26, doing a performance on both floors.
Dashing and debonair in a black three-piece suit, and wearing a fedora atop his head (with all of the celebrity appeal of such as legendary screen stars as Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, Cooper flashes an electric smile and the effect is complete.
As he greets the residents that have been wheeled in to listen, he puts on his dancing shoes. When he straightens up, it seems his whole body has been reenergized. “Gotta dance!” as Gene Kelly used to sing, and Cooper starts the music.
The quiet audience watches politely and, at first, there is very little to indicate whether they are enjoying the performance. However, it isn’t long before the songs of days gone by begin to stir the memories and feelings of men and women that braved the depression, World War II and Korea, and helped put our country back together post-war while raising a family.
A smile here and there, a head lays back and eyes close as one lady seems lost in memory. A few heads nod in beat with the music. A cane taps quietly on the floor in front of a wheelchair.
When songs from the Big Band era come, even the staff joins in and come to the ‘stage,’ which is really a narrow aisle between the two groups of residents in the dining room. Cooper teaches them the arm movements, and as they perform “My Little Runaway”there are plenty of smiles on the faces of all of the staff members and many of the residents.
What would make a 25-year old man don a suit, sing songs from the 30s, 40s and 50s, and seek to perform in nursing homes?
Well, the answer has several components. Besides having a love for this type of music, as a result of listening to his grandfather’s records, and for dance, it took the loss of his job and a failed business attempt before destiny came.
When destiny knocked and the door was opened, Cooper was looking face to face with his mother-in-law. She presented the idea of singing in the nursing home where she worked, citing that he would be paid.
The next day, Cooper put on a suit and the fedora, and headed for the nursing home, visiting three of them the first day. Now, he is a very sought after entertainer on the nursing home circuit. Many of them say he is family now.
Cooper’s new career is something he refers to as a ‘calling.’ He had a close bond with his now-deceased grandfather and took care of him once he became bedridden, sitting at his bedside when he died.
All of this has happened within the past year. His schedule is often tight. Sometimes he performs two or three times at one facility, or visits several nursing homes in one day. By the end of this year, he will have performed at over 300 nursing homes.
“Kathy Yoakum (Assistant Director of Dietary) saw an article in the K.C. Star about Ashley and showed it to our administrator (Chris Brown) and me,” said Pat Clevenger, activities director. “I called him in June, but couldn’t get him until now.”
Judging by the comments of the staff and residents, odds are high that Cooper will be making the drive to Richmond again. He wasn’t sure where Richmond was, and had to look it up on a map.
“I’ve never seen so much country in my life,” Cooper exclaimed when he arrived at Shirkey’s. “I think I’ve seen more country coming this way than I ever have!”
“When’s he coming back?’ is the question posed to Clevenger by the residents.
“He came a bit late, so their dinner was late. Usually that’s a big deal to them, but no one seemed to mind,” said Clevenger. But, with such favorites as “Travelin’ Man,” “Cattle Call,” and “The Twist,” it is no wonder that residents lost track of time.
“He’s very talented and they love him,” said Activity Aide Elizabeth Dodson to Clevenger. “They want him to come back. Can we make it a yearly thing?”
Cooper said Shirkey’s is the largest facility he’s performed at thus far, but he took it all in stride, literally. He sang songs made famous by such crooners as Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis. He even emulated the gyrating hips made famous by Elvis, and that brought quite a few more smiles.
Closing his visit with the toe-tapping of “Mambo Italiano,” and then the melodious serenade of “Mona Lisa” and “Moon River,” Cooper smiled again and thanked everyone for coming. Clevenger is already planning to book him again for next year.
Photo: Gregg Ashley Cooper II. (Photo by Brenda Jensen/The Daily News)