'We will rock you': Shaunavon seniors tackle it all, from country classics to Led Zeppelin

The Shaunavon-based Stayin’ Alive - Not Expired choir blasts out everything from hard rock through the screech of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, to donning beards for the bluegrass twang of Man of Constant Sorrows, and just about everything in between.

Love of music, friendships and even a couple of romances bloom for members

A seniors' singing group, dubbed Stayin' Alive - Not Expired, perform a range of music, including a comedic number featuring men in beards performing the bluegrass song, Man of Constant Sorrows. (Submitted by Dianne Greenlay)

The room is dark when the distinctive riff of AC/DC's Thunderstruck blasts out. Singers clad in hooded robes stream in, chanting the opening and taking the stage, before belting out the classic rock tune.

The question for some may be, 'This is a seniors' choir?'

Yes — it is. But as 66-year-old choir member Don Phalen says with bemusement, "This is certainly different than a church choir."  

The Shaunavon-based Stayin' Alive - Not Expired blasts out everything from hard rock through the screech of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song, to donning beards for the bluegrass twang of Man of Constant Sorrows, and just about everything in between.

Those off-the-wall song choices threw Phalen for a loop when he joined the choir following its formation a few years ago.

"I went there expecting to sing some older songs, maybe a little gospel or something, and have a cup of coffee and go home."

Don Phalen (centre) and Gord Speirs (far right) are two members of the choir who have discovered an appreciation for music they never thought they would like. (Paul MacNeil/The Shaunavon Standard)

Gord Speirs — who, at 92, is the oldest member of the group —  also thought it might be fun to do some nice, calm singing.

"At first we thought the word choir meant probably just singing hymns," he recalled.

But instead, choir director Dianne Greenlay laid out one of her first song choices, Queen's We Will Rock You, with her own revised lyrics.

"Over 55, we got pains in our side, all our hair is dyed, but we're feeling mighty fine," she wrote for them, promising: "We will rock you, we may even shock you."

The choir of what was then about 20 people didn't exactly throw themselves into the rocking.

"We were just like a bunch of stiff statues up there, especially the men," Phalen recalled.

A promise to shock

Greenlay says she'd gotten the idea for the choir from a group called Young at Heart, and from the beginning, the music lover envisioned an eclectic choir, one that would swing from classics like The Archies' Sugar, Sugar or The Drifters' 1964 classic Under the Boardwalk to contemporary songs like James Bay's Hold Back the River.

"This is going to be something that shocks us, our audience, and stretches the imagination ... the comfort zone of the people in the choir," she'd promised the group.

The Shaunavon-based choir is accompanied by a five-piece band that's taken on the challenge of learning not only new songs, but in some cases, new instruments as well, such as the harmonica and banjo. (Submitted photo)

As a physiotherapist, she touted the health benefits of singing and dancing, telling them it would help with their breathing and memory.

With the help from the matriarch of Saskatchewan's well-known Hunter Brothers band, she gets choir members to try new songs and experiences, with Hunter crafting multi-part harmonies for the group.

The Hunter Brothers from Shaunavon, Sask. share a connection with Stayin' Alive. Member Ty Hunter helped the choir in its early stages, while the brothers' mother, Norma, now helps the group and comes up with multi-part harmonies for its eclectic song choices. (Hunter Brothers/Submitted to CBC)

It's not always easy, with many of the choir participants saying that some of the new sounds grate on ears which are perhaps more appreciative of country western or gospel tunes.

"Some of the song choices I've shaken my head at many a time," said Dianne Dohei, 61.

But Hunter guides them through the harmonies, while the five-piece band, also made up of seniors, coax their perhaps not-so-nimble fingers to move more slowly through the tempo.

"At first it's a struggle, and you trip over everything," Dohei said.

But eventually, things click and fall into place, and the choir members throw themselves into the joy of singing and performing together, she said.

"Then you go, 'now I understand why we're doing this.'"

Ready for the ride

Now the choir members agree they give themselves over to Greenlay's judgment about song choices.

"When we hear them the first night, we wonder, but as time goes on and we get to know the parts, it's quite amazing really, how it grows on you," said Speirs, noting one tune he's come to appreciate is House of the Rising Sun by The Animals, while another new offering is the Black Keys' 2012 single, Gold on the Ceiling.

"We don't really understand it all, but we're singing."

Even when there are times he and his 85-year-old wife feel a bit tired, they'll pick themselves up and get out to the weekly rehearsal, where they're greeted by friends and music that energizes them and keeps them young.

The choir of about 40 members has become tight-knit over the past few years, with friendships and even a couple of romances blooming. (Submitted photo)

Greenlay says she's been amazed at the change in the members from that first practice in June 2016, perhaps a bit unsure, perhaps a bit stiff, and certainly not as familiar with one another.

"Now, they're a tight-knit group who have made brand new friendships. There's been a couple of romances that have come out of this group as well," said Greenlay. "It's just had so many benefits that I did not foresee at the beginning."

She calls herself a "shameless hustler" in promoting the choir, and not because it sounds pitch-perfect, but because it is an incredible force that has brought music and laughter into the members' lives.

"Our music is not perfect, never will be," lead guitarist Chris Beuhler wrote of the group.

"But what our audience has learned that celebrating life together, in this fashion, is absolutely perfect."

About the Author

Janani Whitfield spent 10 years working in the newspaper industry in Alberta before joining CBC Saskatchewan as a web writer in 2017. Contact her at on on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.