In less than a month, James Farrell’s fortunes have swung from the worst old age can offer to the best – from expulsion from his retirement home and a few days of homelessness, to a chance to perform on a jazz recording on the ukulele that has been his life’s companion.
Farrell’s banishment from a Napa senior home, at age 97, caught the attention not only of locals who offered him aid, but of others who learned of his plight as the story spread across the U.S. One of those readers was the music producer Damon Martin, who this week found his own way to give Farrell a hand up: by inviting him to Los Angeles to sing and play the ukulele with a collection of pre-eminent jazz musicians during the making of an album.
“It’s a beautiful story, and I’m so glad he’s participating,” said Martin, who with a friend arranged to cover Farrell’s travel and lodging. “For 97 he looks really spry. Everybody is excited; he’s gonna be our good omen for the recording session, the cherry on top of the cake.”
To extend his offer to Farrell, Martin first called the shelter, not yet aware that well-wishers already had raised the money needed to move the nonagenarian into Piner’s Nursing Home ahead of his scheduled Aug. 1 admission. The shelter employee passed the message to Carol Eldridge, a seniors’ advocate who has assisted Farrell since he departed Redwood Retirement Residence on July 6.
“I had to read that email three or four times,” she recalled, laughing. “It was such an impressive list of musicians, and a producer just wanting to fly him to L.A. and play with them – that took a while to sink in.”
For Farrell, it was a reversal of fortune as stark as the change in his outfit since the day he reluctantly checked into the South Napa Shelter two weeks earlier. On Wednesday morning, instead of the crumpled pants and coat he had worn after several days in hotel rooms, the onetime actor, merchant seaman and chauffeur sported a fresh-bought outfit underneath a dry-cleaned blue blazer – his favorite performing coat – ready to look his sharpest for the recording session in which he would play that afternoon.
“Put it this way: being in the depths where they moved you out at 8 (a.m.) and you had to wait till 5 to return, that was pretty depressing,” he said of the three nights he spent in the shelter before well-wishers raised more than $2,500 to move him into Piner’s ahead of his scheduled Aug. 1 admission.
A limousine carried Farrell and Eldridge to the Oakland airport and the flight south. In Los Angeles, another hired car brought the two to North Hollywood’s NRG Recording Studio, where Martin had gathered eight musicians to perform alongside Barbara Fialho, the Victoria’s Secret fashion model recording her self-titled debut jazz album.
Late in the afternoon, Farrell was scheduled to go before the microphone, ukulele in hand, to accompany Fialho on the song “Aquarela do Brasil” (Watercolor of Brazil). But the old man’s king-for-a-day experience began the moment he stepped through the studio doors.
For Farrell, the feeling was not stage fright, but curiosity about rubbing shoulders with a class of musicians he had never met – the bassist Abe Laboriel Sr., guitarist Ramon Stagnaro, pianist Donald Vega and others.
“I got that feeling stepping through the doors and hallways, that Charlie Chaplin feeling, like you can open a door and you may see a gorilla,” he said Thursday.
Soon enough, though, Farrell was winning his fellow musicians’ attention – with his voice.
“We were breaking for lunch and everybody was seated, eating, and he walked in and sat down and said to us, ‘I’ve got a tune for you.’ And that was the end of our lunch,” said Martin, the producer. “He did not stop. That went on for half an hour, him singing songs, a capella, back to back.”
After Martin had told Fialho of their visitor’s travails and his invitation to perform, the two soon settled on featuring the Napan on “Aquarela do Brasil,” written in 1939 and the oldest composition on the album — a song born in Farrell’s younger years.
“I thought it made perfect sense because that song has so much history,” said Fialho. “When we thought of him, we thought this was perfect for him. It’s a place for him to express the instrument, and Jim learned it super quick and he played it beautifully.”
When not strumming along with her, Fialho said Farrell kept up a constant stream of song and banter that kept the musicians entertained and energized.
Music lovers of Farrell’s generation “bring such beautiful soul and experience you get with age, that you get with life,” said Fialho. “Having him in the room, for every one of us, was a beautiful thing. It reminded us … that music can give him that passion at 97. I hope I have that passion when I’m 97, too.”
By Thursday afternoon, Farrell was back in his new Napa home, his one-day fling with musical celebrity over. He declared himself unshaken by the drama of the past month – bearable, he said, for one who served at sea in three wars and once was nearly dragged to his death by a ship’s chain.
“Ultimately I’ve looked up to God and said, ‘I may drown, but I’ve got to do it,’ he said on his return to the Piner’s home. “What I’ve got to do, I’ve got to do.”
Afterward, Martin, the record producer, called himself satisfied to have given the diminutive ukulele player his day in the spotlight.
“Today, he’s a professional musician. Better late than never,” he said. “This is a message to all musicians — it’s never too late to turn pro.”