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Beacon Senior News

Bonnie Sarchet aka "Songbird" of the south

Feb 22, 2021 04:12PM ● By Aaron Reynolds
Bonnie Sarchet jazz singer songbird of the south

Bonnie's singing career began when she was a kid, and took off in her 50s

When Bonnie Sarchet was a child, it didn’t take her long to pick up a second language. In fact, the 91-year-old likes to say that her first words were in “scat.”

Growing up during the Great Depression and later World War II, Sarchet found that although her parents didn’t have the same interest in music, the notes playing through the airwaves were therapeutic. Her early affinity with radio is what led to a nearly century-long career in the performing arts.

Sarchet sang on the radio and at USO events as a kid, and performed with The Les Beck Orchestra, a 22-piece big band in her hometown of Racine, Wisconsin. 

“I was only 17 or 18 when someone told me [Les] wanted me to come to their practice,” Sarchet recalled. “I was a good whistler, so I thought, ‘He wants me to whistle.’ I never dreamed he wanted me to sing!”

She sang with the band regularly before putting her interests on hold to raise a family.

Once her kids were grown, she enrolled in college, worked as a secretary during the day and performed as much as she could on nights and weekends. 

 “Getting back to performing came very easy to me,” she said. “I was just divorced when I read in a woman’s magazine that they were looking to feature women who were just entering the workforce. I was about 49 or 50 and I sent in a glamour shot with my entry, but the editor called and said the girl who was going to be a fireman got it.” 


Songs from a riverboat

While Sarchet has fond memories with every band she performed with, her time in Hilton Head, South Carolina ranks high among her career highlights. 

She was working as a secretary in Chicago when she received a flyer in the mail trying to persuade recipients to move to the resort islands off the East Coast. After enduring a particularly bitter winter in the Midwest, she made the bold move and relocated there in 1979.

She reunited with swing music and started performing with the Kahn Keene Kwintet and Big Band of Savannah, Georgia. The band did several gigs at noteworthy events in the region. For Sarchet, one performance stands out.

The band was traveling on a riverboat. As they passed all the hotels along the shoreline, the thrilling moment arrived when the band started belting out “When the Saints Go Marching In,” much to the delight of hotel patrons. 

“People onshore and on hotel balconies were moving and clapping to the beat. That was pretty exciting,” Sarchet recalled.

After the death of the band’s leader, Sarchet kept up with the band’s scheduled engagements, calling the new group, Bonnie and the Islanders.

She was well known enough in Hilton Head that “Songbird” became a popular nickname. 

“I was treated so well,” Sarchet said about her time in South Carolina. “Every once and a while I get a call, and when they say ‘Songbird,’ I know they’re from that time and place in the south.”

Sarchet sang with trios in Pompano Beach, Florida; led religious music at churches; sang at jazz festivals, hotels, retirement communities and clubs. But between commitments, she always made time for family. 

“She always stayed at whatever resort I was working on,” said her son, Clark, whose career as an executive chef took him on the road. “If there was the opportunity, she would do a show, or we would do a show together.”

 

Coming to Colorado

Clark was the first to arrive in western Colorado, working as the second chef to Food Network star Lenny McNab at Kessler Canyon Ranch. Sarchet settled in Grand Junction shortly after. 

“I was in California and there was an earthquake,” she said. “The aftershocks were too much. I thought ‘I gotta get out of here!’” 

Since moving to Grand Junction, Sarchet mostly sings at home and at church. 

“[Clark and I] will sing, ‘Mamas, don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys,” she said with a laugh. 

In the ’60s, Sarchet expanded her interests to include theatre. She’s performed with the Opera House Players in Iowa and Grand Junction Senior Theater

“I think I’m better in musicals, more so than acting,” she admitted.

Sarchet looks forward to the days where she can listen to live music and dance publicly once again. She said the restrictions placed on restaurants and bars have made it difficult for performers to survive. 

“It’s like a different world,” she said. “Once you’re in a band, the audience is your main concern. They have all of their cares somewhere else. That’s what I liked most about [performing].”