For the past two decades, The Fabulous JewelTones have been crooning the hits of yesteryear in multipart harmony, tickling pink Bay Area audiences big and small, sporting snazzy outfits and helping to mark milestones with humor and heart.
"Because these are such great old songs, everyone's smiling back at us, so it's rewarding for both the singers and the audience," said co-founder and Los Altos resident Betsy Landergren. And while COVID-19 has put a stop to the group's live shows, it can't cramp its irrepressible style.
The Fabulous JewelTones were formed as a spinoff of sorts of Peninsula Women's Chorus, out of a desire to get together and sing barbershop-quartet-style harmonies on a casual basis. In late 1999, they were surprised by a request from a Palo Alto preschool to perform at a picnic.
"We discovered all the horrible things about singing outside, on a busy street corner, with little children — nobody heard us and it was probably just as well," Landergren said with a laugh. Nevertheless, the group enjoyed the gig and over the next year officially became The Fabulous JewelTones, specializing in jazz and pop classics from the 1920s through the ’50s. They could not have predicted then that they'd be going strong 20 years later.
A Fabulous JewelTones show isn't just about the music, either. Landergren tailors each performance to the audience's interests and creates individual scripts to fit the setting.
"I will interview them and dig out all the dirt I can and weave their unique story into our songs" Landergren explained. "Deanne (Tucker, the group's musical director, also a Los Altan) helps put it together in order and how we should sing it, and the story falls in line."
The rest of the group dresses for the occasion as well, with an array of vintage and replica clothing sourced from thrift stores and attics by a particularly fashionable JewelTone.
While they've performed for big crowds and at corporate gigs, their favorites are the intimate shows for special events such as birthdays and anniversaries.
In a recent interview, Tucker and Landergren reminisced about some of their most memorable shows over the years, including a surprise proposal on Stowe Lake in San Francisco.
"We all got Hawaiian shirts and leis and ukuleles and got in these paddle boats and hid in the reeds until they sailed by," Landergren recalled. "One gal got down on her knees in the boat and all their friends jumped out of the bushes." The proposal was, she noted, a success.
Another involved a lovelorn fellow trying to win back his girlfriend.
"I had to counsel him. I told him how he should dress; that he should have a rose," Landergren said. "We sang 'I Don't Know Why I Love You Like I Do' and 'A Good Man is Hard to Find.'" And the result?
"She cried," Landergren said. "As far as I know, it worked."
Because of the vintage of the songs in their repertoire, the group members have had many gratifying encounters at senior centers and assisted-living facilities.
"This is the music of their era. It takes them back to happy times when they were young," Tucker said. Among the most poignant experiences have been at memory-care units, where the residents appear at first unresponsive to the outside world.
"When we start to sing a song that they remember, you can see their fingers starting to move, toes starting to tap," Landergren said. "Oh man — that's something to know they're still there and we can do something for them that they can enjoy."
With membership hovering pretty steadily at around 10 members (with current virtual conditions allowing some who've moved out of the Peninsula to stay involved, boosting the group's numbers by a few), The Fabulous JewelTones function as a collaborative, with everyone having a say and each sharing their unique skills and talents.
Since being unable to sing together in person, the JewelTones have celebrated their 20th anniversary by releasing three music videos, including one that directly addresses the current situation.
"Bye Bye Corona Blues," is an original humorous ode to life during the pandemic, in which pajama-clad singers describe life stuck at home (and for those who want to sing along, the lyrics helpfully bounce along with the aid of an image of a coronavirus spore in lieu of the traditional bouncing ball). Landergren wrote the words and Tucker handled the arduous — but gratifying — task of blending everyone's individual tracks.
"The process for making a virtual choir video, I really enjoy it because it involves both audio and video skills," she said. She prepares a backing track, including singing all four to five harmony vocal parts as a guide, then layers in each member's vocal tracks one by one, adjusting effects and volume as she goes along.
"It's up to the group to decide what the video will be. They have to put on their costume, get their lighting set up, play the audio and record themselves singing along with it, then I strip off the audio and match it and arrange them in the scene in order," she explained.
For "Bye Bye Corona Blues," one artistic member created a claymation scene, while the "token male" and piano player/arranger Terry Weissman also helped with computer animation and juggling — a multitalented crew.
In fact, the members come from a diverse background. Tucker is a retired NASA engineer, while Landergren is a former flight attendant and book columnist.
"We've had a physician, a preschool teacher, piano teachers, several computer nerds, molecular biologist, pastry chef, potter. We have a little bit of everything," Landergren said. "Many of us are retired. Our claim to fame now is we always come with a golden guarantee. No song that we sing is younger than half a century — much like the JewelTones themselves."
The newest video is the JewelTones' take on Cole Porter's 1943 tune "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," a wistful wish for better times to come, just released this week and featuring glimpses of beloved pets, yummy treats, local scenes and happy gatherings interspersed with the singers.
"Here we are stuck in our COVID jails. Wouldn't it be nice for someone to come home for the holidays?" Landergren said. "Well, we can't do it now but we can do it virtually."
More information is available at jeweltones.org.