According to the US Census Bureau, the average life expectancy of a male living in the US in 2010 is 75.7 years. Although there’s no hard evidence that musicians live longer, a quick look reveals a lot of geezers out there gigging. We all know those colorful old kooks in our hometown who make it to every jam session (as long as it wraps before 10 p.m.). More obvious examples are the celeb musicians who seem to go on forever—and I don’t mean Mick and Keith old. I mean fullon, antediluvian dinosaurs.
A short while ago, I sat three feet away from
Dave Brubeck as he played a rare club show
at The Dakota in Minnesota. Brubeck turned
89 in December, and you can see every year
and long, road-weary mile in his gnarled
hands and frail posture as he shuffles with
assistance to the piano. But once he starts
playing, he’s transformed into fluid movement,
sound, and joy. Yes, that sounds corny
as hell, but I know what I saw. And it was a
mystical, powerful experience.
Maybe part of the magic of that concert
came from the fact that everyone in the
venue, including Brubeck and his band, knew
that he won’t be here much longer. But there
he sat, defying death and all the gloom and
doom that comes with it, gently coaxing endless
melodies out of all 88 keys. He plays with
the spirit of a child and the knowledge of the
most seasoned veteran in jazz. Even with my
eyes closed, it was an amazing concert. With
my eyes open, it was spiritual.
Les Paul went down swinging at age 94.
What makes Paul an interesting case study is
that he went into semi retirement at age 49—
and his health quickly faded. By his mid 50s,
he had had a stroke and a heart attack. Pauls’
doctor told him he needed to get back to
work. He replied, “I thought work was killing
me?” The doctor suggested that work would
keep him alive. Within two years, Paul had a
fresh Grammy for his collaboration with Chet
Atkins, and his health and career had both
taken a dramatic turn for the better. One
could argue that Pauls’ returning to work may
have almost doubled his life span.
Pinetop Perkins and David “Honeyboy”
Edwards were both friends of Robert
Johnson, and both won the Grammy Lifetime
Achievement Award when they were in their
90s. At 96 and 94, respectively, both still
do around 100 gigs a year. In 2004, Perkins
was driving to a gig in Indiana when his car
was hit by a train. The car was destroyed,
but Perkins was uninjured. Now he’s taken
to playing almost exclusively around Austin
rather than logging serious miles on the
road. In 2007, Honeyboy was featured in
the movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,
and then toured Europe for two months.
The average life expectancy of a black man
in America is 69.8 years, which makes their
longevity even more astounding.
Pete Seeger is 90. Doc Watson is 87. Earl
Scruggs is 86. B.B. King is 84. Chuck Berry is
83. Fats Domino is 82. And Burt Bacharach is
81. Every one of these old road dogs can be
heard and seen playing a casino near you—
they just don’t quit. One suspects that if they
did, they’d die.
Although the link between music and longevity
may not be proven, there’s ample support
for a positive correlation between music
and one’s mental alacrity. Old musicians
fair far better than their inactive contemporaries
in the war against dementia (including
Alzheimer’s). Watch an interview with any of
the ancient players mentioned above and
you’ll find sharp minds. The mere act of listening
to music has been utilized for years as
a successful treatment for dementia, dancing
to music has an even more powerful effect.
Although no studies have been done on the
effects of playing music, the logical conclusion
seems to be that, the more physically
and mentally involved one is with music, the
more profound the effect.
The life of a musician can be a tough one.
We’re prone to money problems. We often
pick up bad habits like drinking too much,
sleeping too little, eating bad food, and perhaps
dabbling in other inadvisable substances.
Musicians are more likely to go through a
divorce or two—which is a hellish experience
that can take years off of one’s life. All those
factors routinely kill normal people early in
life, but a good deal of our kind just keeps
on rocking in spite of the damage we inflict
Maybe the connection between music and
remaining healthy has less to do with exercising
our minds and fingers and more to do
with infusing us with a little shot of happiness
when we play. Happy people live longer,
healthier lives—and music is an excellent
source of good times. And regardless of
whether playing music adds years to your life,
I think we can all agree that playing music
adds life to your years.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville guitar slinger who works primarily
in television and has recorded and toured with over
30 major-label artists. His songs and playing can be heard
in major motion pictures, on major-label releases, and in
literally hundreds of television drops.
Visit him at:
- Rig Rundowns
- Pro Advice