Hoover’s premier senior show choir has spread musical cheer for 28 years.
Gold music notes sparkle on the back of Fred Ernst’s black vest as he leads his singers through an array of classics from the Great American Songbook and Broadway musicals. Their voices fill the lobby of Morningside of Riverchase assisted living, where residents have gathered on sofas and chairs to listen, their heads nodding along to songs that were popular in the mid-1900s. For an hour, the singers are stars from decades gone by, donning the appropriate headwear and flashy accessories for each number, turning the large room into a cozy theatre. And for that hour, their audience members are in their prime again, clapping and laughing and singing along to hits by Nat King Cole and the like. It’s anything but a subdued atmosphere, and that’s exactly what Ernst and company want.
The Hoover New Horizons Songbirds, as they’re called, started as an activity group at the Hoover Senior Center. Word of their vocal talents and lively performances spread, and they began performing at other senior centers, senior living facilities and nursing homes in the area. Now, they perform weekly for about eight months of the year. Their 28th season wrapped up in May.
“I call us the premier senior show choir of Birmingham,” Ernst says. “I’m unaware of any show choirs in Birmingham. We hit 29-30 places a year.”
And Ernst is quick to emphasize that the Songbirds are not a church choir. While they do incorporate spiritual songs into their shows, they also perform a variety of secular hits from Broadway, jazz and patriotic genres. Members range in age from 59-89 years young. No energy is spared in their performances. “You see what you can do when you get up to your 80s,” Ernst says. “There is mucho talent in this group.”
It’s clear Ernst, a semi-retired physician, loves his job as the Songbirds’ director. Ten years of vocal lessons and an untold amount of time spent attending shows and practicing sets with the group have revealed an animated side of Ernst that only a glittery vest could match. But he and the Songbirds mostly want to bring a smile to the faces of the audiences they visit every week.
“When I make somebody happy, it makes me happy,” says Deanna “Dea” Green, a Songbirds member for six years. “Our aim is to bless them, but we end up getting a blessing. It’s just an honor to be in this group. They’re my brothers and sisters.”
Several members of the Birmingham Men’s Barbershop Chorus, Voices of the South, also belong to the Songbirds group. In addition, three instrumentalists accompany the group at shows. Ray Reich, an internationally known jazz pianist, composer and arranger wowed the audience at Morningside on April 10 with renditions of “Georgia on My Mind” and “When I Take My Sugar To Tea.”
“They come every year, and we love them,” Morningside Lifestyle/Activity Director Angela Earles says. She’s not the only person who wants the Songbirds to keep coming back. The Songbirds usually have a waiting list for performance requests. It’s a reminder that what they’re doing for local seniors is appreciated, if not widely known.
“We’re just beginning to get publicity about what we’ve been doing for 28 years,” Ernst says. “It’s like therapy for the people (we) sing to.”
For more information about the Hoover Songbirds, call the Hoover Senior Center at (205) 739-6700.