- Written by Lynda Hudzick Lynda Hudzick
We’ve all experienced that feeling when we hear a particular song and it instantly transports us back in time to a wonderful moment we’ll never forget.
Music has the power to do that, and for Bill Shirley of the Red Satins singing group, being a part of that experience for the audience helps create wonderful moments for him as well.
Shirley, who lives in Downingtown with his wife and is the proud father of three and grandfather of one, has always made music a part of his life.
Growing up, he sang in the choir at church, when “Catholic masses were still sung completely in Latin,” he said.
Shirley also held the lead part in his high school musical production of Oklahoma, which he said was “one of the most memorable experiences of my life and reinforced my love of music.”
Working fulltime in marketing/communications for several major insurance companies and doing freelance writing on the side, Shirley admits that during those busy working years, he didn’t have much time for music.
“One thing I did do, however, was rewrite the lyrics of familiar songs and sing them for special occasions, such as birthdays, graduations, etc., the most recent one being a tune for my grandson, named Apollo, for whom I rewrote the song ‘Tomorrow’ from the musical Annie,” he said.
Since retiring in 2019, Shirley has found more time to devote to his enjoyment of music; he’s been a member of his church choir since 2019.
And it was his involvement in that choir that led him to meet and become friends with the other members of the singing group the Red Satins. After about a year in the choir, Shirley decided to ask if the group could use any new members.
“They were nice enough to let me join,” he said. “It’s been great to see how audiences love taking that trip back in time.”
The Red Satins were founded 11 years ago by John O’Donnell. At first it was a four-man group, all members of the church choir, but they wanted to grow.
“We started getting more and more requests to perform, and so we kept our ears open to pick out who we thought would complement the group, and that’s how we added two more people,” O’Donnell said.
Today, in addition to O’Donnell and Shirley, the group consists of four other singing members — John Bullock, Richard Carbo, Jeff Stevens, and Ray Walsh — and one member who handles sound equipment and lights, Dan Ziobro.
All retired or semi-retired except for Stevens, they seem to have found a perfect mix, according to O’Donnell.
“Now, we feel complete,” he said. “Some of us play instruments, some of us just sing, and one or two don’t even read music — but they can hold a tune!”
The name of the group was the brainchild of one of the member’s wives.
“We researched and found that no one had that name,” O’Donnell said. “We do wear black jackets and red shirts and bowties for more formal shows, but we also have summer outfits with our stage names embroidered on the sleeves.”
O’Donnell goes by Johnny O when he’s performing.
“I’m Old Blue Eyes,” Shirley said.
So what kind of music do the Red Satins perform? It’s typically a mixture of hits from the ’50s and ’60s and some early ’70s, but O’Donnell said they’re always adding more songs to the lineup and usually focus on songs people will recognize.
“So many of the songs we do relate to particular times in the lives of our audience,” Shirley said. “People tell us all the time how they really identify with the music. Usually one of the last songs we do is ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and that really gets the audience going.”
Choosing the music is more involved than one might think. The rights to perform the music publically have to be purchased, there have to be parts for a lead singer and backup singers, and the tone levels of those parts have to be considered.
“In your 70s, it’s harder to hit some notes, especially the higher ones,” O’Donnell said.
Audience participation is a big part of putting on a good show, O’Donnell said.
“We try to interact with the audience, laughing and joking with them. We do have people who attend a lot of our shows, if they’re open to the public.”
Of course, their biggest fans — their wives — often attend the shows as well, depending on where the group has to travel.
The Red Satins have performed at many different events and venues, both private and public. Some of those include weddings, parties, community festivals, performances at retirement villages, and even fundraisers, if asked.
“We’ve done maybe a dozen of those, if it’s for a good cause. We absolutely are happy to do it. We’ve never turned anyone down,” O’Donnell said.
Although the group does receive payment for their performances, all of what they earn is used for new costumes, new equipment, marketing expenses — all the things that help them keep improving their performance.
“We’re constantly buying and doing new things,” O’Donnell said. “We have a Facebook page that we just redid, and we have mailings we send out. It all can be expensive.”
Clips of some of their performances are posted on their Facebook page, and the group also has a demo CD available for prospective venues.
For Bill Shirley, though, and the rest of the Red Satins, the most important thing of all is the feeling they get when they look out at their audience and see them truly engaged and enjoying the show.
“You see them singing those words, and it’s great. That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We’re trying to keep those old, meaningful songs alive and let people have a little escape from the real world.”
For more information on the Red Satins, visit their Facebook page (facebook.com/TheRedSatins) or call John O’Donnell at (215) 534-0654.
On the cover: The Red Satins appeared at Hershey's Mill in West Chester for a Concert Under the Stars last August.
All photos courtesy the Red Satins.