DOWNERS GROVE – If you ask Dick Caldwell to play any one of a thousand songs on his accordion, odds are his hands will just go to work without thinking. And there's also a good chance Lloyd Lawson will know the words and melody.
Caldwell, 86, leads the Friday Night Sing Along on the fourth floor of the Oak Trace senior housing center. The room is packed by about 30 residents, including Lawson, week in and week out.
The song list is a thick, doorstop-like tome of love songs, Irish ballads and popular American songs from mid century and before, among others.
Behind the voices and index-like knowledge of music are lifetimes of experience, and talent.
Lawson, 85, sang at Carnegie Hall in a choir supporting famed Downers Grove native and opera singer Sherrill Milnes in 1998.
"I got as big a thrill singing with Sherrill Milnes as I did singing in Carnegie Hall," he said. "I thought he was great."
The retired engineer first started singing with his high school glee club in Ohio, in 1942. As his career took Lawson and his wife, retired viola player Elaine, from one city to the next, he always found a choir or group to make music. The family eventually settled in the western suburbs in the late 60s, and Lawson sang with the First United Methodist Church choir for 25 years.
"[Music has] given me a positive avocation to concentrate on and sort of shift away from pettiness or nitpicking," he said.
As he has gotten older, his voice has dropped from tenor to baritone, but his ears have remain sharp.
"If I sing with the piano, I get most of the notes," he said.
Caldwell complimented Lawson's voice, high praise coming from the retired professional accordion player who performed at the parties and rallies for five American presidents, and the inaugural ceremonies of several Illinois governors.
An Oak Park native, Caldwell got his start playing in Chicago nightclubs as a teenager in the 1940s.
"The 40 hours a week made me grow up real fast," he said. "It was difficult, very difficult work – but a very fast education.
"I don't know how my mother let me work those things, but I guess she did."
His eventual group, the Dick Caldwell Trio, went on the road for about 10 years, playing musical comedy, coast-to-coast.
Life on the road was tough, Caldwell, said. He'd rub elbows with the other performers like Frank Sinatra and a young Tony Bennett in Las Vegas, for instance, but conversations were mostly limited to a chat over a drink, and then it was on to the next town.
After a decade on the road, the trio returned home and played at the old Sherman Hotel in Chicago for five years before breaking up.
Caldwell went on to play the Drake Hotel for six years as a member of the Jimmy Blade Orchestra, supporting Broadway singers and others from New York when they'd come to Chicago to play.
Caldwell continued to play professionally into his 70s. He is now in a wheelchair, due to post-polio fatigue syndrome, a condition that affects polio survivors years after originally contracting the disease.
"But I can still put the accordion on," he said.