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Arts & Culture

Singing To A Different Audience

A local singer is gaining popularity in Charlotte…but you’re not going to catch him performing at a crowded bar in Uptown on a Friday night. You could argue he doesn’t have the time—he’s booked for 30 to 40 performances a week. 

Credit Courtesy of The Ivey
John sings and dances with an audience member.

Sixty-five-year-old John Leon Lewis is a busy guy. For his full time job, he’s a minister at River Hills Community Church in South Carolina. But his singing performances make him even busier.

"You’ll hear a mixture of everything, big band music, show tunes, love songs. But my programming varies based on the atmosphere of the room," says Lewis.

If the room seems down, he’ll switch to inspirational music. If the audience wants to dance, he’ll sing something with a good beat. Like any skilled performer, he can read the tone of the room. But what sets him apart, besides his powerful voice, the audience he's singing to.

"With those who are suffering with dementia and Alzheimer's …it’s not always the same, so I have to change my programming to fit whatever mood they’re in," he says.

John’s concert venues are nursing homes and senior care facilities. The moods of his audience can change unexpectedly and without notice or reason.

In some ways, John knew what he was getting into. When his mother passed away in 2003 at a nursing home in Charlotte, White Oak Manor, she had been suffering from dementia. So the reason he began singing to senior adults was a personal one. He started performing where his mother spent the final stage of her life.

"When I would visit her she would be in her doorway in her wheelchair looking around the corner waiting for me. And I think about the fact of those days that I was too busy to visit her...but she was still waiting for me. So I think it’s important that I do this in her memory but that I do this for the moms and dads of other people that sometimes…forget to visit," he says.

He says White Oak Manor liked what they heard  (he still performs there today) and recommended John to other senior adult care facilities, like the Ivey Memory Wellness Day Center, which is where John is performing today.

He starts off with a classic written by Johnny Mercer “I thought About You”—made popular by Frank Sinatra…or Billie Holiday if you’re a Billie Holiday fan.

John says most of the people he sings for were born in the 20’s or 30’s…some before then. So the older the song, the better.

"I can see them close their eyes as if they were going back to a time where they were embracing a loved one or holding their hands. So these songs have great value to them whereas a modern song has no value to them at all," he says.

John makes direct eye contact with the crowd, calls people by name, he walks up to individuals and asks them to dance. 

Some of the members of the audience keep their heads down or stare past John, unresponsive to the performance in front of them. But by the end of an hour, the majority of the crowd is engaged—eyes alert and focused on his voice and dancing. They even mouth the words to the songs, some even sing.

Talking with 85-year-old Marge right after John wraps up his performance, parts of what she heard and experienced seem to quickly slip away. Just a half hour ago, Marge had been up in front of the crowd singing and dancing with John to White Cliffs of Dover, which he dedicated to her.

But when asked about John and his singing, her eyes light up.

"He’s very cheerful person I enjoy him a lot.   I used to go to the Ritz ballroom in England and dance all the time and have a cup a tea and sandwich and check them out and see who was available to dance with.  So it’s a lot like being home in England," she reminisces.  

And that’s what John does: he gives moments of home back to people who can seldom remember it. John says he’s going to continue his performances for as long as he possibly can. But he’s looking to recruit younger people to do what he does. Anyone can sing he says, but caring for someone while you sing to them is a whole other level of entertainment.