By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — With his arms spread open, Joe Blanchette belted out a tune. He was wearing a big grin, tapping his toes, clapping and swaying to the beat of the music.
It is music that brings back memories of his younger days.
Blanchette, 91, performs music from the 1920s and 1940s with the Men of St. Patrick at Mary Immaculate Nursing and Restorative Center in Lawrence, and the Sutton Hill and Prescott House nursing homes in North Andover.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” Blanchette said recently. “I remember growing up we had house parties and sat around the piano and sang all night.”
He also recalls dancing at the Crystal Ballroom in Andover and listening to big band remote shows on the radio from Meadowbrook, N.Y.
Although those days are gone, Blanchette keeps the tradition alive by performing big band music and minstrel shows which include comic skits and music. They perform once or twice a year. Blanchette also volunteers at Sutton Hill Nursing Home three days a week, visiting residents and playing the card game 45’s.
“I like the melody of Dixie music and ballads. People my age appreciate the music because they have heard it before,” said Blanchette, who lives with family in Lawrence.
In addition to Blanchette, the group is made up of his son, Bill Blanchette, Beverly Ouellette, Joe Couture, Tim Doherty, Jim Griffin, Danny Petty, Sean Reardon and pianist Brian Durkin, all of Lawrence, and Jim Morin of Atkinson, N.H. Other than Griffin, who is 82, other members are half Blanchette’s age.
“He’s just amazing,” Couture said. “He’s full of energy and still going strong.”
His son, Bill Blanchette, 55, agrees.
“He’s an inspiration to us all,” the younger Blanchette said. “The way he deals with life; he never stops, never complains, doesn’t talk about his aches and pains and is always moving forward. I’m very lucky to have him for so long.”
Bill Blanchette remembers accompanying his dad when he was in the seventh grade to rehearsals at the Knights of Columbus in North Andover and later Lawrence. The older Blanchette then started doing CYO shows at St. Patrick along with former Lawrence Mayor Kevin Sullivan.
The elder Blanchette coordinates the events for the Men of St. Patrick. His son said he has a music library with thousands of songs which he arranges by artists and years recorded. He took all the reels and converted them into cassettes and later to DVDs.
Despite his age, Blanchette is also in tune with the times
To prepare for the shows, he downloads music from iTunes on his computer into his iPod. He makes a CD of the songs such as “Rosie You Are My Posie,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsey Goodbye,” which are both by Al Jolson. In turn, he gives the CDs to younger troupe members who listen and learn the lyrics and music usually in eight weeks.
During a recent show at MI Nursing Home, they sang “Put on your Slippers and Fill Up your Pipe, You’re not Going Bye Bye Tonight” from 1917 and “Queen of Chesapeake Bay” from 1926.
After every song, Blanchette changed the sheet music. Singers interject humor between songs, most of the time started by Blanchette.
“Where’s Chesapeake Bay?” to which he responds, “If you were swimming in it, you’d know.”
Referring to Perry, Blanchette asks, “Danny boy, did you take a shower today?”
Perry quips, “Why, is there one missing?”
Despite his age, he sings in a loud voice as he proved when he sang “Poor Papa (Has Nothing)” from 1926.
Blanchette adjusted his royal blue bow tie and pointed to his feet during the refrain, “Now, Christmas comes and Mama gets the most expensive frocks, Papa gets a necktie and a pair of 10 cent socks.”
In the audience, some smiling residents sang along with the Men of St. Patrick, while others were humming.
It was the first time Elizabeth and Walter Morgan had seen the troupe.
“It was the most wonderful evening I’ve had in a long time,” Elizabeth said. “It brought back a lot of memories and it was very entertaining. The hour just flew by.”
Blanchette was born and raised in Lawrence. He attended St. Patrick School and graduated in 1941 from Central Catholic High School.
After serving in World War II, Blanchette worked for the telephone company until he retired in 1984.
He has been singing most of his life, beginning at Central Catholic. He performed in minstrel shows with St. Patrick Parish. He stopped until about six or seven years ago when he joined the Men of St. Patrick.
His late wife, Nancy, who died in 2006, was at Sutton Hill and staff members found out he did minstrel shows. They asked him to entertain the residents.
“I love good music and entertaining. I just like the melody, having fun and singing,” Blanchette said.