Jazzy and snazzy, 97-year-old band singer keeps the beat
EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — The band singer blew a kiss before launching into “Tennessee Waltz.”
Betty Purvis belted out the country classic — “I was dancin’ with my darlin’ to the Tennessee Waltz” — after crooning along to “All of Me,” another old standard.
She kept the beat from her chair next to the drummer. Dressed in a sparkly black vest, white satin blouse and black pants, Purvis tapped her foot, swayed side to side, slapped a knee, and made jazzy moves with her hands.
A regular with Bob’s Swing Band, Purvis sings during Thursday afternoon dances at Everett’s Normanna Lodge. Without her, the band also plays there for Monday dances.
After an hour of dancing, about 15 couples on the hardwood floor took a break to sing: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Betty ..”
Purvis, who turns 97 Sunday, was touched by the tribute. “You don’t know how much I love each and every one of you,” she told the dancers. Purvis left the stage briefly to enjoy a slice of birthday cake, but was back in the limelight for the dance’s second half.
The tiny, white-haired singer has long been a mainstay at Normanna dances, which mostly draw a senior crowd. In 2011, she celebrated her 90th birthday at the Sons of Norway hall.
Back then, she was the band’s drummer. Bob’s Swing Band is led by Boeing retiree and tenor saxophone player Bob Carpenter, 83. The other members are Nathaniel Paul Schleimer on baritone sax and flute, George Oelrich on cornet, and current drummer Dennis Barry — Purvis’ 72-year-old son.
Also retired from Boeing, Barry shared his indomitable mother’s history.
She spent her early years in the Eastern Washington town of Clarkston. By grade school, she and her big sister, Ethel, had a song-and-dance act. After winning a talent show, they were given their own 15-minute radio show for a month on KUJ, an AM station in Walla Walla.
Her family was struck by tragedy after moving to Wallace, an Idaho mining town. At 15, Betty lost both parents when a Greyhound bus struck their car. After finishing high school, she moved on her own to Spokane and attended business college. She also sang and tap-danced at a Spokane nightspot called the Dutch Mill.
Widowed three times, she learned drumming from her third husband, Keith Purvis, longtime owner of Purvis Drum Shop in Burien. After he died in 2004, she told The Seattle Times he had played drums with Sammy Davis Jr., the Mills Brothers, Pearl Bailey and Count Basie.
Barry played drums in high school and college. He recalled how in the mid-1960s, as a teen in Kitsap County, he played in a rock band with his mother and father. Their band, the Accents, played at a community club in Suquamish and at the Keyport Naval Station.
Purvis is now in assisted living at The Kenney, a senior community in West Seattle. She previously lived on her own in Bothell’s Canyon Park area and drove to the band gigs.
When she could no longer play percussion, she passed the drumsticks to her son. “I hadn’t played in about 40 years, but I picked it up again,” Barry said.
The dancers at Normanna joined in uptempo waltzes, fox trots, pattern dances and the cha-cha. One pair at the center of the floor, 81-year-old Patrick Maguire and Joyce Laux, 79, glided Fred-and-Ginger-style with the grace of professionals. Maguire said he once taught dance in Pittsburgh.
There was no need for “Dancing with the Stars” moves to get out on that floor. With a glittery mirrored ball overhead, one man stayed in his wheelchair as he danced away the afternoon.
Another man, Gale Leach, of Marysville, said the dances foster friendships. “A friend dragged me down here two years ago. It brought me out of my shell,” he said.
The afternoon brought back memories for 87-year-old Bob Buttke, of Marysville. In the 1950s, he said, he played trumpet and stand-up bass in his own six-piece band, the Moonlighters.
Throughout Purvis’ life, the music has never stopped. “She’s been singing here since the mid-70s,” Barry said. “Music keeps her going.”
With a few years or even decades on the dancers, Purvis is an inspiration.
“She is amazing,” said Leach, who is 80. “I generally don’t eat the cake. But a 97-year-old’s cake, I’d better have some.”
Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldnet.com