The greatest gift of all

“Music is not a cure,” McSweeney stresses. “But it helps bring back some of the joy that Alzheimer’s takes away. People who have been barely able to speak begin singing along.”

During the past three decades, he has recorded literally hundreds of songs that “you know by heart”, but it’s only now that they are reaching a totally new audience with surprising results.

He receives hundreds of letters and emails from around the world telling him that his DVDs are helping relatives with Alzheimer’s.

“They come from the UK and the US, retirement villages and individuals, but the message is the same,” he says.

His music is returning life to tired minds.

For example, Susan from New Zealand wrote: “My Dad has Alzheimer’s and can only say one or two words, but when he heard your DVD he sang many of the songs and knew most of the words. This has been a major breakthrough for him. I can’t tell you how much this means to us.”

It’s typical of the correspondence yet not so surprising. McSweeney’s music is the singalong variety, the sort that you can’t help but find yourself humming, if not singing the words.

Now 74, he has been in the music business since he was a lad of 20 and his name will be familiar to many as for 33 years, he played at the Kedron-Wavell Services Club every Wednesday.

Add to that performances every Tuesday at the Broncos Club for 21 years, and it’s fair to say he is a true veteran of the industry and the local music scene.

John was born in Woodford and learnt to play guitar while he was still at school.

“I went to the convent and a nun taught me how to read music,” he says. “My brother Barry and sister Patsy, were also musical and we would have singalongs around the piano at night. I learnt to play sax but for me it was always more about singing and guitar.”

His family moved to Redcliffe and in 1959, he became more serious about his music.

The family were going down to the Palace Hotel at Woody Point at a time when the Bee Gees were also turning up with their parents.

“I was with mum and dad, and we would sit there with their parents while they did their set,” he recalls.

In 1962, an agent suggested McSweeney get on to the hotel circuit and he says it all just branched out from there. He was signed by RCA and recorded his first album, Daisy a Day, in 1963, but his biggest single came in 1974, Great Brisbane Flood Australia Day ‘74.

Even though it became the fastest selling single in the nation, it wasn’t a big earner for him as he gave all the sales to the flood relief fund. His work was back on the club scene and for 10 consecutive years he won the Queensland Country Music Entertainer of the Year Award, which is voted on by peers and industry. He stopped entering after a decade.

In the 1980s, McSweeney came up with the idea to do all the old classics from the 1930s-‘50s as a medley singalong recording, but as he wasn’t signed to a label at the time, it was to be all his own work.

He flew to Nashville and recorded “100 Songs You Know By Heart” in a week. It turned out to be Volume 1.

It proved so popular he returned to Nashville and recorded another 100 songs and called it Volume 2.

“I was brought up on Doris Day and Al Jolson,” he says. “I love the old songs, from Orbison to Presley and Sinatra, but if I get a request for middle of the road, I can do that too. Tony Bennett is my favourite though.” Each medley is made up of five or six songs, usually just the first verse and the chorus – the lines and the music that everyone knows.

Again, the recordings went well and again he returned to Nashville, this time to produce Volume 3. 

In the early 1990s, while still working the club circuit here, McSweeney decided to take his music to England where his CDs walked out the door.

“I was asked to go back to England for a TV interview and had three minutes to sing a little bit of each song,” he says.

“I only sing the parts you sing along with, and mix waltz and ballad and faster tracks so nobody gets bored.”

That’s a lot of words and notes he has at his fingertips – and soon he was off to Nashville again to record another 104 songs in Volume 4.

He also recorded his Inspirational album, 54 songs all-time favourite songs of inspiration and gospel music, which went gold in New Zealand.

That was followed by a traditional Christmas album singing the full version of the best-loved seasonal favourites “how they should be sung” and a Mother’s album with 25 songs dedicated to mothers.

“I’ve made at least 20 trips to Nashville over the years, including a gig at the Grand Ol’ Opry,” he says.

In 2005, John “had a brainwave” to record all 200 songs from his first two albums live at the Kedron-Wavell club – volume one in the morning and two in the afternoon.

“I had no lyrics in front of me and had to remember the order of them all. It was huge pressure,” he says.

But he did it and released the DVD in the UK, with the lyrics included.

So, there is a lot of John McSweeney music out there – countless words and chords, and close to a million CDs – and now, as he celebrates more than half a century in the business, his life work is taking a new turn.

“I didn’t do it thinking of dementia, but because you can’t beat those old songs,” he says.

“It’s not a cure but it is the happiness of singing along. The letters mean a lot to me, that I can put a spark back into eyes. That’s the power of music.”

Joseph from California wrote: “Your music really inspires our Seniors and take them back to a simpler, slower, yet very active time in their lives. This is a product that the Senior communities need today.”

And Lynne from Bedfordshire in England: “I have recently been appointed activities co-Ordinator in a care home for elderly people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and there has been very little in the way of music being used with them up until now. This afternoon I put on your DVD. Everyone including visitors and care staff, started singing along.

“An elderly lady, who is normally to be found sleeping all afternoon, woke up and joined in and after a while, even got up to dance. She told me the music brought back many happy memories of her mother who used to play the piano and sing. One lady stood up with her walking frame and danced and sang.”

And Sarah, also from the UK: “My mum is 76 and has Alzheimer’s disease. She took a turn for the worse this week, but I brought one of your singalong DVDs and she is singing her heart out and has calmed down nicely. It has helped my Dad so much to have your DVDs on standby for when things get tough.

“I just cannot thank you enough for the difference you have made.”

And Connie from New York: “My mom has long and short term memory loss.  I can’t tell you what a joy it is to see her ‘connect’ with all of your songs. Her face lights up as she sings along, and it gets her distracted from some of her obsessions (like reading every traffic sign as we drive along).”

And Linda from Melbourne: “I salute you and your music. It’s been of incredible help to our nursing home. Seems to cater to the ones that dance and the others that can’t but sit and singalong.”

And the list goes on. Nursing homes where there’s “clapping and feet tapping with such delight on faces”.

The satisfaction of bringing happiness through his music is not lost on McSweeney, who now lives in about as close as he will ever get to retirement, on the waterfront at Sandgate, with Kay, his wife of almost 54 years.

They have three children and six grandchildren, and life has been good.

“I was able to make a fulltime career of music,” he says. “They are not writing songs like they used to. I have had the best years. I have been very lucky.

Measured notes

The University of Melbourne is currently undertaking the nation’s largest trial of music therapy with the aim of finding scientific evidence to support its ability to improve the wellbeing of people living with dementia and their carers.

It is measuring the effect of music therapy on 500 participants with depressive symptoms, cognitive functions and neuropsychiatric symptoms on their quality of life.