Senior songbird proves talent and spirit can last a lifetime

No matter. Perkins maintained her love for singing.

Now in her golden years, she is still belting out tunes.

Perkins recently charmed fellow residents at San Francisco's Jewish Home for the Aged by singing an assortment of Broadway tunes, accompanied on piano by vocal coach and musical director Jim Lahti.

Sitting in her wheelchair next to Lahti and the Home's grand piano, the Jewish-by-choice Perkins entertained with such standards as "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." The songs were ordered themewise, according to Lahti, "from dysfunctional love through to more successful love."

Perkins, who gave the concert in response to fellow residents' pleas, seemed calm and happy in front of her audience of residents, daycare patients and staff. Her easy manner with the songs belied months of preparation and learning with Lahti, during which certain songs almost eluded her.

"The first time I sang her the song `Losing My Mind,' she told me, `I can't sing that,'" Lahti said. "Later she came to me and said, `Well, the song's coming true — I'm losing my mind over it.'"

"But now it's my favorite," said Perkins. "I like the melody, and I try to put my heart into it."

"And it's got good lyrics," added Lahti.

The pair, who clearly enjoy each other's company, first worked together when Perkins took part in a Chanukah show two years ago.

"Several people in the show said they'd really enjoyed it, and wished there was an ongoing class," said Lahti. He promptly set one up, and now has at least four regular students who sing at the Home's birthday lunches and special events.

In teaching his "most faithful student" new songs, said Lahti, he first instructs Perkins in the melody and lyrics. Then he moves on to the question, "What would the person saying these words be thinking?"

"You have to imbue a song with feeling, and Etta can do that," he said.

"But I can't do it with anyone else," Perkins noted, grinning at Lahti. "Jim knows my voice; I know his playing; and it works out well."

It certainly worked well for her afternoon concert. As Perkins wrapped up with the Sondheim classic "What I Did For Love," the crowd, which had swelled to around 40, burst into rapturous applause.

"I think she's wonderful — she made me want to sing along with her," said Birdie Gintzer, president of the Home's Council of Residents. And Perkins' friend, Rose Parks, said the singing brought tears to her eyes.

"She surprised us all, it was beautiful."

"I'm feeling calmer now," Perkins admitted after the concert. "It really gave me a thrill. I was happy to do it."

"You did great," said Lahti.

"Well, I saw the faces of a few of my friends in the audience, and I picked out a couple to sing to," Perkins responded with a smile.

She may not read music, but Perkins has all the makings of a true diva. "I just love singing." she said. "While Jim is here and I'm alive, I don't want to stop."