Above: John and Lynda Anderson play sweet music on their ukuleles on the screen porch of their Decatur home. Photos by Joe Earle.
Tom Gray first got paid to make music when he was in high school. By his 20s, he was playing keyboards and touring with a 10-piece soul band. “That was really the proving grounds,” he said. “You were working six nights a week, four sets a night.”
Although Gray’s 66 now, he’s still making his living playing music. His current band, an Atlanta-based blues band named Delta Moon, regularly performs in towns around the southeastern U.S. and even abroad. The band recently wrapped up a tour in Spain and Italy.
There was a time, Gray admits, when he thought it seemed laughable to say he’d be playing music in bars past age 40. “I thought that was old,” he said during a chat at a coffeeshop in Decatur, where he now lives. How does he feel now about taking the stage at his age? “Actually, I feel good. I enjoy it still. I have to be more careful and I have to work harder than when I was young, but it’s still possible. It’s still fun.”
Performing music once may have seemed a young person’s game, but no more. Bars and public stages, from Atlanta Symphony Hall to farmers’ markets to arenas, regularly host shows by musicians who display more than a touch of gray but are still playing after all these years.
Tom Gray, for one, has led and played in successful performing groups starting in the 1970s and 1980s. From 1979 to 1983, he headed an Atlanta-based, New Wave band called The Brains. They released a couple of major-label albums. One included a song Gray wrote called “Money Changes Everything” that later would become a huge hit for Cyndi Lauper.
Now, with Delta Moon, Gray plays slide guitar and heads a four-piece band that has won awards for its electric blues, appears in popular clubs such as Eddie’s Attic in Decatur and Blind Willie’s in Atlanta, and lists 11 CDs for sale on its webpage.
Gray says the music business is different now – he works Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to promote Delta Moon and jokes that his band’s gear now fits in the back of a minivan – but he says one thing hasn’t changed. He still feels a thrill when he’s in front of a receptive audience.
“A good show is always fun,” he said. “It was when I was a kid and it is now. When you’re onstage connecting with an audience and when energy is flowing both ways … that has not changed a bit since I was young.”
John and Lynda Anderson like playing for an audience, too. “When we play someplace, people know we’re playing for fun. It’s a way to be with people who are like-minded and just want to enjoy an activity together,” Lynda Anderson said one recent afternoon as the couple picked ukulele tunes while sitting on the screen porch of their instrument-filled home.
The Andersons play all sorts of instruments and all sorts of music. John, who’s 70 and retired from a four-decade career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plays clarinet, banjo, ukulele, guitar, harmonica, squeezebox and hammered dulcimer. Lynda, who’s 69 and a retired schoolteacher, plays mountain dulcimer, recorder, ukulele, guitar and bass guitar.
They perform together publicly a couple of dozen times a year with another pair of musicians as the Ukulele Society of Decatur. John also plays banjo in an old-time country dance band called the Peavine Creek String Band (named for the creek that runs through the yard of their Decatur home) and bass clarinet with the Callanwolde Concert Band. The Andersons were in a polka band for a while, have played Irish music and folk music, and been part of a group that played the music for English folk dances from the 1700s.
These days, they take their ukuleles to farmers’ markets, senior centers, senior residence homes, adult day-care centers, even places that provide care for Alzheimer’s patients, who despite their illness sometimes recognize the old tunes the couple plays. The Andersons often perform for free, or for tips that they then donate to charity.
Why do they keep at it? “It’s fun to play,” John Anderson said. “It’s also fun to have an effect, to perform for people. If people respond to you positively, it’s great.”
Much of what John Anderson likes to play nowadays involves fitting standards and songs from the early 20th century to the ukulele. “I like the familiar songs,” he said. “Some people may take a different approach and want to play something unique. I like the familiar stuff that’s more complicated, like ‘Stardust.’”
Ronda Respess likes playing older music, too, but rather than Hoagy Carmichael standards, she regularly plays classics by Beethoven or Brahms. And, as a violinist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 49 years, she’s also developed a taste for newer works by modern composers. She simply likes being a part of the orchestra, no matter what they’re playing.
“I just love the music,” said the 71-year-old Sandy Springs resident, who plays second violin with the orchestra. “I just love being part of the collaboration that puts a piece like Brahms Two together. I’m more a collaborative person than a soloist. I love working all the little parts together into one whole. The best part is I get to listen to it from right there in the middle of the orchestra.”
Respess, who’s also founder and artistic director of Sandy Springs-based Franklin Pond Chamber Music, which teaches and promotes chamber music by young performers, grew up in a musical family and started playing violin as a young girl in New Jersey.
“There was a violin in the house that had belonged to my grandfather,” she said over coffee at a Sandy Springs Starbucks. “My mother decided she would give it to me when I was young. When I was 4 or 5, she took me into New York to get lessons.”
Later, she took lessons in public school and continued through a degree from Indiana University. Since joining the ASO in 1969, she’s played dozens of concerts a year with the orchestra and performed all sorts of music. She’s even played Carnegie Hall. More than a few times.
She says it’s the music that’s kept her engaged for nearly half a century. “It wasn’t the violin as much as the music,” she said. The violin was the vehicle. I can’t say I fell in love with the violin. I fell in love with the music.”
But now she finds the work demands more of her physically, so after nearly a half-century of playing professionally, she’s contemplating retirement from the orchestra. She hasn’t decided when she wants to leave, she said. She thinks she’ll continue teaching and playing music after she retires. “I’ll play myself or play in quartets. Who knows?” she said. “I’m going to do what I want to do. I enjoy playing violin.”
Mandolin and guitar player and teacher Clark Brown, who’s 65, says his retirement has meant he can find more time to play music. Brown, who lives in Brookhaven, first picked up a guitar as a teenager. He wanted to play rock and roll at first (“It was the ‘60s and everybody played guitar. I’d seen the Beatles on TV.”), he said, but switched to the mandolin in the 1970s.
He worked in the printing business, playing music on the side, until about seven years ago, he said, when “they let me go and my wife said, ‘Go play music,’ and I said, ‘OK.’” He played at church and found jobs performing at farmers’ markets, weddings and Christmas parties. He arranged Beatles songs and other familiar pop tunes for the mandolin and found a following.
His house is filled with mandolins — he has five — and guitars. He teaches mandolin and guitar at a music school in Decatur. The average age of his students, he said, is about 60.
“I love music,” Brown said. “One of my students the other day said, ‘I haven’t played my mandolin this week,’ and I said, ‘I’ve played three different mandolins and a guitar today.’”
Tom Gray, too, says he sees no reason to slow down.
“You have to have a certain amount of stamina to get up there and do it on the road,” Gray said. “But think of musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington – in the 20th century, they played right up until they just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Does he plan to keep on playing? “I don’t see any reason not to, at present.”