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Lilian Lawley and Mike Donnelly are among the many seniors throughout San Diego County who enjoy dancing to the music of the Billy Harper Band. Photo by Lillian Cox
Arts Old - DO NOT USE - The Coast News Rancho Santa Fe

Billy Harper and his band pack the halls

CARLSBAD — At its regular dance at the Carlsbad Senior Center on Jan. 3, the Billy Harper Band dedicated “Allegheny Moon” to 1950s pop icon, and Encinitas resident, Patti Page who died two days earlier. 

“She used to listen to us when we played at Seacrest Village (nursing home),” singer and musician Billy Hawkins told the crowd as they smiled and began to pair up on the dance floor.

Page’s passing didn’t deter anyone from having fun. Among them was Gale Ashleigh who lost her father, George Brum, a few weeks earlier at the age of 96. Brum was a regular on the dance circuit for the last 25 years, enjoying the Billy Harper Band until three weeks before his death. To celebrate her dad, and the joy dancing brought during the sunset of his life, Ashleigh and her sister hired the band to perform at a reception following his funeral service.

“In 1985, my mother passed away,” she explained. “Dad was in his late 60s and initially stared at the walls for two years. My sister and I encouraged him to get out and meet new people. Finally, he took the plunge and went to a local dance.”

Ashleigh explained that Brum initially went as an observer. The second time a woman asked him to dance. Then he met Vi Freeland who helped him overcome a lifetime of shyness.

“As one friend put it, he became the ‘Elvis Presley’ of the dances,” Ashleigh recalled. “They would dress in fancy outfits for themed dances and holidays. He was having a ball! Last June, Dad and Vi were named King and Queen of the ‘Senior Prom,’ a remarkable accomplishment for a formerly shy man. He continued dancing and loving it until three weeks before his death.”

Brum’s obituary ended: “In lieu of flowers, George asked that you dance with someone special or enjoy a day at the casino in his honor!”

If there is a shortage of older men, you wouldn’t know it by going to a dance at the Carlsbad Senior Center.

Businessman Joe Bartlett, 86, shared a similar story.

“After my wife passed away in 1987, my daughter told me that I should do something new,” he recalled. “A fraternity brother worked as a host on a cruise ship and suggested it to me.”

He said the experience was frightening.

“They had us (men) line up,” he added. “Women can be more aggressive than you think. They had an attitude, ‘I paid for this cruise and you are going to dance with me!’ If you danced too many dances with one woman, someone would complain.”

Since then, Bartlett prefers to arrive at senior dances with a “lady friend,” although they each like to mix it up with others.

“I like dancing for the camaraderie and the exercise,” he added.

Billy Harper started his first band, playing jazz, at the age of 14. A few years later he played with the Benny Goodman Band — ironically the same band where Patti Page got her start. Harper retired from AT&T and, at 75, says he continues to enjoy his work.

“I’m a lucky guy because I get to see so many seniors respond to the music,” he said. “I look at their toes to see if they are tapping, or their faces to see if they are smiling. That’s the payoff.”

If there is a shortage of men, Harper says he can mix things up by calling a group dance.

“We were playing at a retirement center and a 97-year-old lady came up and asked us to play a line dance,” he recalled. “We played and she came up in front of us and was having a great time. Then she looked at me and seemed to pass out. I jumped up from the drum set to pick her up and she said, ‘Why did you guys stop? I can get myself up!’ She had apparently lost her footing, but was ready to get up and do it again.”

The Billy Harper Band also consists of Billy Hawkins (trombone, melodica, vocals), Dave Greeno (trumpet, flugle horn), John Giulino (piano), Dick Adams (piano) and Andy Giordino (bass). For more information, call Billy Harper at (760) 602-8207.