With all due deference to Courtney B. Vance, the Emmy- and Tony-winning actor who will narrate the Christmas concert on Saturday afternoon at La Cañada Presbyterian Church, there will be another performer in the show who’s also worthy of an ovation.
Bob Wilson is a spirited, expert bass singer in the choir. At 99 years old, it’s hard to imagine there are many — or any? — active church choir singers as old as he is.
Certainly, there can be none with a wry wit to match his.
In a recent interview, Wilson talked for more than an hour about the early days of LCPC, his musical childhood, his service as a signal officer in the Navy and his beloved late wife, Carol.
He also issued a warning for anyone thinking about getting old: “I can’t even do one pushup! Not one! I get on the floor and, oh boy, nothing happens. I just stay down on the floor.
“Anyway,” he said as he changed the subject, or tried to, “we didn’t come to talk about me.”
In fact, the conversation was about him. About how perhaps the most dedicated member of the LCPC choir was raised around church and music. One of Wilson’s earliest memories, he said, is of sitting on his grandfather’s lap in church, playing with the gold watch that was attached to the man’s vest.
Wilson grew up in Nappanee, Ind. His father directed the choir at a Methodist church for more than 20 years and his mother played organ. “I learned church songs before I could talk,” Wilson said.
His mother sacrificed, Wilson said, to find the money for piano lessons for him, because she thought it was important to have someone else do the tutoring. He was 6 when that musical education began, and, unlike his siblings, he stuck with it, eventually discovering the trombone, the instrument he studied at Northwestern University’s School of Music.
His big year was 1939, when he graduated, got his first job and married Carol. Two years later, they welcomed their daughter, Maggie, into the world. She was the first of three children.
Bob and Carol were married for 66 years. He was a traveling salesman; she was, for a long time, the wedding coordinator at LCPC. Bob’s voice cracks when he speaks of her now. He misses her so. She died in 2005.
They made their first home in La Cañada Flintridge on what is now Lamp Post Lane — a name he and his neighbors selected after much discussion and a few rounds of voting. He also recalls taking the day off from work to watch the steeple raised at LCPC, an event that called for the temporary closure of Foothill Boulevard.
Wilson never misses a Thursday rehearsal at that church now. He rarely misses either of the Sunday morning services, and always with acceptable excuses, as reported by fellow choir member Nowell Beer, who drives Wilson to choir: He was absent once because he broke his glasses and couldn’t read the sheet music and otherwise only when he’s overslept.
Beer said he and Wilson get along because they have similar senses of humor: “In the choir, he’ll come out with one-liners, sometimes just three or four words, and they’re funny as heck.”
He remembered that Wilson’s 98th birthday — July 16 — fell on a choir date, and so, per tradition, his friends serenaded him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Afterward, Jack Lantz, the choir director, asked whether Wilson wanted to share a few words.
He did: “I hate that song.”
“He’s got a good sense of humor, and he beats back at you. He doesn’t let you off,” said Donald Williams, a tenor in the choir. “And he’ll ask the choir director, ‘Do you think that would sound better if it were a B-flat?’ And [Lantz] will say, ‘Yes, you’re right.’”
That’s all true, said Lantz, who has real respect for Wilson’s lasting talent.
“He keeps up and will stop me in rehearsals if the bass section isn’t singing the right notes,” Lantz said. “It’s amazing that a guy who’s 99½ can still make a good, big sound. He doesn’t whisper, he makes a big, bass sound. He’s an ex-trombone player, so I always accuse him of sounding like a trombone.”
Wilson claims he would’ve quit the choir long ago if the others involved would’ve let him, “but they always say, ‘No, no, no.’”
Beer doesn’t believe Wilson would walk away.
“I don’t think he wants to quit,” Beer said. “Especially with the women there. They all go gaga over him.”
Lantz suggests that his participation with the choir is healthy, that it keeps him active and social. It also keeps him sharp, as did his daily phone “dates” with his high school prom date, Wilma Stoll. Until she died last year, every day at 5 p.m. Wilson called Stoll, who still lived in Indiana, and together they tackled a crossword puzzle.
“Anybody who lives to be 99 or 100, all of their good friends are gone,” Wilson said.
That makes his choir friendships especially valuable.
“Everyone looks out for him and cares for him,” Lantz said. “And not just because of his age, but because the respect they have for him, because he contributes musically, because he contributes spiritually and spiritedly.”
“They’re so good to me,” Wilson said. “So I can’t quit.”