SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
— A singing group that began as a way to help military moms cope with wartime anxiety is now bringing cheer to civilians and veterans.
The Swingin’ Blue Stars
formed just after 9/11. Almost 12 years later, the group is still taking its show on the road.
Walking into a rehearsal of the Swingin’ Blue Stars feels like stumbling across a group of best friends. They meet about once a week in one of their living rooms in a San Francisco suburb. They push aside the furniture to face a big picture window. Sometimes they find themselves serenading neighbors.
"When it gets dark, we can’t see out but they can see in," one singer laughs. "But we watch our reflections in the glass and that helps us a little bit."
The Swingin' Blue Stars were formed by Cindy Shon. "But it was never meant to continue for more than a couple years."
It was supposed to be a distraction from worry, when, right after the attacks of 9-11, her son was deployed to Afghanistan. Shon had just joined the Blue Star Moms - a support group for U.S. military mothers. The term, "blue star," refers to having one family member in the military.
A natural go-getter, Shon organized some fellow moms to sing Christmas carols at the local veterans hospital.
Francie Roberts remembers they started getting lots of calls to sing for other veterans groups. The performances were a welcome distraction from the fear of getting a visit from a military delegation with the worst news a parent can hear.
"It just took our mind off of it, learning the songs and knowing where we’re going to perform because you just never know if he’s going to be alive or if I’m going to lose him," Roberts said. "It was so bad I even put a lock on my front gate, because I was so scared I’d come home and see a black van out there. We all went through it."
Soon the women were performing regularly. They decided to learn some of the 1940s and '50s songs the World War II and Korean War veterans loved, and even put together a routine fashioned after the old USO shows.
Roberts, whose son Blake spent 16 months with the army in Iraq, says audiences seemed to understand what motivated the mothers.
“Afterwards, everyone would come up and shake our hands," she said. "And just give us that extra encouragement that they’d be back. Our kids would be back. We needed to hear that.”
The sons and daughters of the original members of the Swingin’ Blue Stars all returned home safely from their tours of duty. Membership in the group has changed over the years and so has the focus. The women now concentrate on songs that have special meaning to older veterans.
“Sometimes they’ll be laughing and enjoying and then sometimes the next they’ll be crying," Cindy Merino said. "And they’ll come up to you and thank you so much for that, that was the last song I danced to with my husband. It really brings back so many memories for them. It’s amazing."
The Swingin’ Blue Stars have performed at hospitals, schools, parks and community theaters in the San Francisco area, and have toured as far as the new Pearl Harbor visitors center in Hawaii and the USS Midway in San Diego.
“It’s not about having a huge audience," said Sandy Lewis. "It’s just get that one guy with the twinkle in his eye and bring that smile to his face and we would sing forever.”
Although most of the singers couldn’t have imagined singing in public 20 years ago, the Swingin’ Blue Stars intend to keep doing exactly that.