It’s a little after 7 p.m. in the Deer Lodge Centre’s second-floor multi-purpose room.
Three songs into a private, hour-long performance for long-term residents of the Portage Avenue care facility, Neil Keep, a smooth-voiced crooner who bills himself as the Seniors’ Entertainer, announces jokingly that his next number was originally done by "that other Neil."
Accompanied by a pre-recorded music track amplified through a nifty-looking, portable speaker system, Keep invites everybody present to "sing along if you know it," before launching into his version of the Neil Diamond hit Cracklin’ Rosie, a Top 10 smash 49 years ago, back when the majority of those tapping their toes presumably would have been in their mid- to late-20s.
Later, after the show is over and once everybody has returned to their individual living quarters for the night, Keep explains why hospitals, retirement residences and care facilities such as Deer Lodge have been his venues of choice for the last seven years.
"I used to sing in bars and lounges a fair bit, but people there don’t necessarily pay much attention to the entertainer, they mostly want to visit and have a good time," he says, packing away an Elvis mask he donned earlier during a rollicking rendition of All Shook Up. "Somewhere like this though, it always feels like a show. Everybody’s here to listen and have a good time."
Sure, Keep admits there was a period in his life when he daydreamed about being a rock ‘n’ roll headliner, performing for thousands of fans all over the world and cashing six-figure cheques.
"I turned 57 this year, so obviously that’s not going to happen," he says with a wink. "Still, to be able to sing in front of a live audience 10 or 15 times a month and put smiles on the faces of truly wonderful folks, many of whom are dealing with some pretty serious stuff, health-wise; in my book, that’s a pretty good deal."
Keep, who, funnily enough, taught himself to sing by harmonizing to the sound of his mother’s vacuum cleaner, caught the performing bug during his senior year at Vincent Massey Collegiate, where he landed the lead role in his school’s musical production of Godspell. His first solo in that show occurred during the song God Save the People, he recalls. When he reached the end of that particular tune on opening night, the crowd went "absolutely bonkers."
"I was bullied a fair bit growing up and I kind of laid low during my first three years of high school," he continues, his voice dropping off a bit. "So, to suddenly be recognized in the hallways and hear other students shouting out, ‘Hey, Neil, great job last night....’ Let’s just say it was very validating."
Following high school, Keep studied production art at Red River College. For a while, he ran his own graphic arts company but music continued to be his No. 1 passion. He belonged to a series of church choirs before hooking up with a Christian rock band dubbed Stand Up and Kneel, which was regularly booked at coffee houses and places of worship. That led to one-off gigs accompanying the likes of big-band leader Ron Paley and later, permanent, to-this-day work with jazz outfit Ricky Bogart and the New Casbah Band and the Inclines, the latter of which has been performing the "Sweet Dreams of Patsy Cline" show at casinos and theatres throughout Western Canada since 2008.
In April 2012, Keep was singing pop and jazz standards in the Fort Garry Hotel’s Palm Lounge, accompanied on piano by the late Merv Mauthe, whom he describes as "a really great musician and an even greater guy." An acquaintance of his, a woman who ran an adult day program at a Winnipeg hospital, was in the audience. Between sets she approached him, asking if he’d ever considered doing something similar for seniors.
"She said, ‘I bet you’d be really busy,’ and if I was interested, she’d give me a few numbers to call," he says. "Since the work was kind of drying up for Merv and me — we were doing two nights here, two nights there, tops — I figured, ‘Why not? What’s the worst that could happen?’"
A few weeks later, there he was, standing in front of a crowd of 50 or so at a care home in St. James, telling corny jokes ("What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot.") in between belting out hits from yesteryear, chestnuts such as Dean Martin’s That’s Amore, Roger Miller’s King of the Road and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.
Not only did the crowd eat it up, a person who booked entertainment for a seniors’ program run out of Concordia Hospital caught wind of his solo act, too, and hired him to sing there four times in the space of a few months.
"After that, she started referring me to other activity directors around the city and things just kind of took off," he says.
Last New Year’s Eve, Keep was booked to do four consecutive, 45-minute sets at a 55-plus complex. His throat was sore going in, because in the run-up to Christmas, he’d done 25 shows in the space of 15 days. So that night, when he went to hit the high note in the Del Shannon hit Runaway — "the part that goes I wa-wa-wa-wonder" he demonstrates — his voice broke.
"It was horrible but I had another hour to go before I collected my pay, so the show must go on, right?" he says. "I went home thinking I probably hadn’t drank enough water or that I’d been working too hard, but my throat stayed sore for a few days. That same week I sang at a funeral and after getting through that, I had no falsetto whatsoever. My voice was completely toast."
A month passed before he decided it might be a good idea to seek medical advice. It turned out he had a hemorrhagic polyp, which his doctor recommended removing as soon as possible.
"By then I was talking like Krusty the Clown (from The Simpsons) so I agreed we had to do something. But because I’m a guy, I thought maybe if I just didn’t talk or sing for a couple months, it would just disappear. Of course, that didn’t happen."
Keep had the polyp removed June 20. Resting after the surgery, he wondered what he would do if he couldn’t sing again. After all, he was well aware of nightmare scenarios such as the one involving Julie Andrews, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award-winner who famously lost her singing voice after having non-cancerous nodules removed from her throat in 1997.
"Not only do I love singing, I rely on it heavily for income," he says, mentioning he usually charges between $125 and $150 an hour for his services, depending on the day or night of the week. "Before and after my surgery, I cancelled 37 shows and had to turn down another 10, which didn’t exactly help my bank account."
Keep’s return to the stage occurred Aug. 2, when he joined Bavarian Music Werks, a German-flavoured group he performs with on occasion, for an outdoor show on Corydon Avenue. He was supposed to chime in on only three songs, but three turned into five, which turned into eight. His first show back as the Seniors’ Entertainer came five nights later. His voice felt tired afterwards, but because he was able to hit every note without difficulty, he granted himself a clean bill of health. The next morning, through his Facebook page (www.facebook.com/neilkeepvocalist) and website (www.neilkeep.com), he let the world know he was back in business.
"Neil fully understands how music, as therapy, is important for people living with dementia or debilitating conditions, and he is able to help patients get past all that, even if it’s only for an hour or so. It’s a remarkable talent. I wish I had it." — Shelley Boles, a recreation facilitator at Deer Lodge Centre
Keep’s announcement came as welcome news to Shelley Boles, a recreation facilitator at Deer Lodge Centre who has had a hand in booking him at her place of work for close to six years.
"He’s very popular with all the seniors, he’s just so engaging," Boles says when reached by phone. "Some of the people who go see him are in pain, but when they’re focusing on the music, it allows them to feel good rather than dwelling on their medical issues.
"Every time we book him, he makes a point of asking if it’s for a special event or if anybody coming is celebrating a birthday," Boles continues. "Neil fully understands how music, as therapy, is important for people living with dementia or debilitating conditions, and he is able to help patients get past all that, even if it’s only for an hour or so. It’s a remarkable talent. I wish I had it."
Keep, who generally dresses in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sneakers when he’s on stage, shrugs off negative comments from people who say what he has to offer is shlock. His response? Hey, shlock works. As for how long he intends to keep going, well, that’s an easy one.
"I’m one of those idiots who didn’t put away too much, so yeah, I have no plans to retire any time soon. I’ll die in my boots, as they say. The only thing I might have to adjust going forward is my set list. We’re all getting older, right? And if you grew up listening to the Beatles and the Stones, it’s not like you still won’t enjoy them when you’re in your 70s or 80s.
"So who knows? Come back in five or 10 years and you might hear me up there, belting out some Springsteen."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.