By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer
MELROSE – Howie Newman is familiar with playing for older audiences at his “Music for Seniors” performances in the Boston area. But he bought an especially small guitar to pack it on an airplane’s overhead storage compartment for his trip to Central Florida. He was headed to the independent living apartments of The Cloisters in DeLand, just outside Orlando.
And his listeners this time were special. They included his 94-year-old mother in the audience.
“It wasn’t unusual for them to have entertainment but perhaps unusual for the child of a resident to perform. It made my mom really happy, and she was very proud. And it was a fun show,” recalled Newman of that time a few years ago.
Now 71 years old, he is a former pro sportswriter who in recent years started performing for seniors with various shows, including “Music for Seniors.” His hour-long performance includes not only classic songs from yesteryear, some of them sing-alongs, but also his own songs, jokes, and bits of historical footnotes.
Anecdotes help humanize the stars
He may explain how the classic Johnny Cash written song “I Walk The Line” was based on the singer’s professed loyalty to his first wife. That turned out to be a false note when he left Vivian Liberto to marry June Carter Cash. No matter―audiences love the story, which helps to humanize the legendary singer.
Or he might tell them about Doris Day who, “Was such a big movie star she was the ranking female and box office draw 11 times, and other things they might not know about her, like also being an animal rights activist.”
“One thing I’ve learned over the years is to engage people. You have to do that to also entertain them,” he said.
Born in New York, he came to the Boston area to attend Northeastern University, and later became a permanent resident of Melrose.
In his 18-year sports journalism career, “he covered two World Series, five NBA finals, and four Stanley Cup finals, writing for the Patriot Ledger, Lowell Sun, Boston Globe, Associated Press, and Lynn Item,” according to his website.
Music replaces sports writing as a career
He was always interested in sports, way back in college. And music was also an interest; he was self-taught on the guitar.
He began pursuing his musical interest professionally by playing in bars and restaurants in the Boston area for a decade, from 1973 to 1983.
“Yeah, it got a little tired,” admitted Newman. “I wasn’t really playing the kind of venues I wanted to play. I was only doing it for the money. I gave it up because I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I should. In fact, I wasn’t enjoying it at all.”
He started “Music For Seniors” about a decade ago, which he describes as a “sing-along, toe-tapping musical journey from the early 1960s to the 1970s.” Everyone knows the songs of the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others. He has an extensive play list and is constantly adding new songs.
“It kind of tapped into a market that people enjoy. People really listen to the music and I realized there’s a real market for it there. It’s a lot easier to play for them rather than playing in a bar for hours,” he said.
Son and daughter also perform
Newman’s son and daughter―Janet, 34, and Keith, 30―sometimes are included in the act.
Newman also performs a show called “Knock on Wood,” where he plays guitar and harmonica with fiddle player Joe Kessler. They play more modern standards, ranging from Tom Petty to the Eagles and the Kinks. That show also appeals largely to an older audience.
“We do classic rock stuff and a lot of the people who show up for that are 50 and 60 and up,” he says.
Newman also does a “Memory Care” program for Alzheimer’s sufferers and others with dementia issues, and a “Musical Baseball Show,“ reflecting some of his career covering professional sports that included baseball. They also offer familiar songs, Newman’s compositions and often include stories about his days as a writer. Trivia is always an integral part of Newman’s performances.
Baseball show recalls familiar players
He often asks at the baseball shows how many times the Boston Red Sox’s Ted Williams achieved 200 hits in a single baseball season. It’s a common goal of starring players. “No one gets the right answer,” he says. It’s zero in the case of Williams because despite a lifetime batting average of 0.344, the feared slugger was so often walked by nervous pitchers.
“I do the reverse of what everybody else does. Most musicians play mostly serious songs with a smattering of funny ones. I play mostly humorous material with a smattering of serious songs,” said the singer/songwriter. A typical original song of his includes the humorous ditty “Drivin’ in Boston is Drivin’ Me to Drink.”
In the course of Newman’s “second act” career, he’s written about 100 songs, which are included in his various CDs and albums.