GIVING is part of the weekly repertoire of a generous group of Brisbane men.
Since they began hitting the high notes, the Brothers James Singers have given of their time and talents at least once a week for almost 19 years – all throughout the archdiocese.
The animated bunch, mostly in their 70s but with four “80-plus-year-olds”, have been heard in churches, nursing homes, retirement villages, hostels and at charity events, ably assisted by director Jo Leeson.
Jo admitted it was “hard” for the all-male group to appoint a female director.
“They would have preferred a male but no one was available,” she said of the role that she “couldn’t imagine life without”.
The singers were spurred to form in 1992 following a reunion for their St James’ school, Fortitude Valley, marking its 125th anniversary.
“Some of the men who were in the boys’ ‘crypt choir’ at the school in about 1942 caught up with each other,” Jo said of that City Hall event.
“The crypt choir was under the baton of (Christian) Brother Orme Winn.
“Seeing they were near retiring age they decided to form a men’s choir … for people who were less fortunate than themselves.
The group began with Jo’s husband Frank as the lead singer alongside Dan Flynn, Neil Duncalfe, John Lambourne, Kevin Dillon, Terry Maguire, Christian Brother Len Kempster, and Peter, Paul and Bernie Lillis.
Jock Murdoch originally accompanied them on the piano, with Mary Coman taking over the keys 18 months later and until today.
Jo said the volunteers’ “payment is a smile and a cup of tea” and they delight in witnessing the reaction when they perform “old-time songs”.
“When we go into the nursing homes we see some very, very sad cases,” she said.
“But all of a sudden you see a finger or a toe move. “That’s our payment, that’s why we started and why we do it.”
She soon spoke specifically of a memorable visit to a nursing home in Rosalie.
“This lady hadn’t been out of her room for twelve months,” Jo said. “We were told she heard the choir singing and came out.
“It was really wonderful … it gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.”
The choir’s repertoire includes songs from Oklahoma! and Les Miserables, while favourites are Red, Red Robin, Bye Bye Blackbird, I Belong to Glasgow plus some popular Irish tunes and “a lot of army songs”.
Member Peter Venning was popular with fellow choristers when recalling a recent performance observation.
“A member of a nursing home audience recently told me, ‘When you boys sing you look fifteen years younger’,” he said.
“It means so much to me to be able to sing with such a group of great men and to bring so much joy to others.” Comrade and original member Terry Maguire soon added to that tune.
“The only way to get out of the choir is to die,” he said in his normal comic way.
“Then we will sing at your (funeral) Mass … (and) we intend to make a recording for the ‘last man standing’.”
Not being left out, Mary soon added her voice noting “the choir brings happiness to those who are confined … (and) there is a great spirit of concern and love for each other and much laughter and support”.
In the lead-up to Christmas the choir have performed up to four times a week and Jo joked that the men “always have something to talk about”.
“We can perform at night and be together the next day and Mary and I can’t get over that they always have something to talk about,” she said.
“The boys talk and get into trouble. Sometimes I call them my preschoolers.
“It’s a fun choir.”
Amid the fun there’s a sombre tune – the group inevitably farewelling into God’s arms a number of members including the brother of Bernie and Paul, Peter Lillis.
“That was very, very hard,” Jo said of the choir singing at his funeral.
“They also found it particularly hard when they came back together as a choir and he wasn’t there.”
Jo said since then “others have come in and have gone” including Kevin Dillon whom they “really miss”.
Despite that reality some of the wives of the men in the choir have remained in an “off-shoot” social group of the Brothers James Singers – the LBJs – or the “Ladies of the Brothers’ James”.
They meet monthly for lunch or morning tea.
Last Sunday (December 12) the choir sang at Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Hendra, and remained in the nearby hall for their Christmas party.
Jo organised a shared meal and “Secret Santa” gift giving, gave a report of the year, and “said something funny about each of the boys … (and) that wasn’t hard”.
With 13 children, 22 grandchildren (plus another expected in January) and seven great-grandchildren, she and Frank were first based in Carina parish as part of the music ministry there.
Music has always been “the background” of their family life.
“Frank and I always encouraged our children to do music of some sort,” she said. “We have a couple of very good singers in the family and a lot of the boys play the guitar.”
The couple met in their shared workplace and Frank was his future wife’s boss, Jo saying, “I tell him I’m the boss now.”
But the delightful woman of faith soon turns the conversation back to the 15-voice all-male choir, not desiring the spotlight herself.
“I’m just their leader and director,” she said. “We talk and we sing and we learn, that’s how we go about it.
“I could go on and on about them … I love them all so much and we have wonderful times together.”
It seems their audience aren’t the only ones benefitting from such generosity.
To find out more about joining the Brothers James Singers if you “can hold a note” and are of retirement age, call Jo on (07) 3396 9938.
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