How a former bar singer transitioned to singing in nursing homes

The guitar riff blares from his speakers and Scott Wilson turns to the woman closest to him.

He swings his right arm, snaps his fingers in harmony and smiles. The bass hits. His eyes narrow. He gets off his stool and opens the microphone.

It begins with a familiar tune.

“I don’t need your rockin chaaaaaair,” Wilson breathes, covering country legend George Jones.

With this first line, he finds his rhythm. He struts towards the audience, taps his foot against the beige tiles, points to a man who is coloring with a pencil.

In the background, a woman in a wheelchair is whispering something to the lady next to her.

“He has already started! Kara Breen, activities assistant at Glen Oaks Alzheimer’s Special Care Center in Urbandale, responds. “You must listen !”

Scott Wilson dances with Glen Oaks Memory Care resident Carolyn Johnson during her performance at the facility Saturday, January 22, 2022 in Urbandale, Iowa.  Over the past two decades, Wilson has earned a citywide reputation as a retirement home singer.

Wilson, 59, hasn’t grown as a singer — no talent shows, no choir recitals. He’s still lip-synching in church.

But, around his friends, he is always confident.

“The East Siders are like that,” he explained.

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So during an outing to Jukebox Saturday Night on Des Moines’ Court Avenue in the late 1980s, when his friends entered him into a karaoke contest, Wilson took the stage and covered for the Platters. His very first song in front of a crowd, and he won the contest. His friends drank for free the rest of the night.

Wilson served in the army, a specialist in directing cannon fire in West Germany. But he had never felt such adrenaline. Artillery cannot compete with an audience.

He was hooked. Then he was everywhere.

Residents of Glen Oaks Memory Care listen to Scott Wilson sing at the facility Saturday, January 22, 2022 in Urbandale, Iowa.  Over the past two decades, Wilson has earned a citywide reputation as a retirement home singer.

He sang every night in town. At Gene. The fire station. Jazzy Willy’s. Billy Joe pitcher show.

But he’s grown old, tired of the fights the bar people choose. He bought a sound system and DJ weddings, school dances, block parties. In his basement, he sang to himself.

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Seventeen years ago, Wilson invited his grandmother Grace to dinner and sang for her. She asked him to play for her fellow residents at the Altoona Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, and he dedicated Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” to her every other Wednesday. As her dementia worsened, he sat her in the front row.

The news spread among nursing home activity coordinators. There was a new performer who really knew how to sing, who memorized the residents’ favorite songs and treated their common rooms like stages.

“It’s almost like my addiction,” Wilson said, “to connect with older people.”

Residents of Glen Oaks Memory Care switch to music as they listen to Scott Wilson sing at the facility on Saturday, January 22, 2022 in Urbandale, Iowa.  Over the past two decades, Wilson has earned a citywide reputation as a retirement home singer.

In Glen Oaks, one afternoon in late January, Wilson scrolls through his YouTube playlist and selects Alan Jackson’s “Livin’ on Love.”

A resident in a baggy Jeff Gordon t-shirt applauds and folds her hands in front of her chin. She gets up, swings towards Wilson’s hips.

In the background, Judy Van Zee is seated next to Howard, her husband of 44 years. He had been a railroad auditor, then a buyer for Parker Brothers. He loved to ski and he loved John Denver. He moved to Glen Oaks two years ago.

As Wilson sings, Judy puts her arm around Howard’s. She pats his knee, in time with the beat.

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. He met his wife over a handful of tequila at a karaoke bar.

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