When Bill Rasmussen arrived to drive Lorraine Quinn to a recent doctor's appointment, the 94-year-old Falcon Heights resident knew that she was going to get more than just a ride.
She was going to get a concert.
She was benefiting from Rasmussen's two passions: helping and singing. He volunteers to drive his fellow seniors to appointments. He also has a stage show in which he sings Frank Sinatra standards.
So he combines the two: belting out Sinatra tunes while serving as a chauffeur.
"It started about four years ago," Rasmussen said. "I was driving a woman who asked me what else I do. I said I was retired, but do Frank Sinatra shows. The lady said, 'Sing me a song.' So I did."
The impromptu performance was a hit. He started offering the option to other passengers, and they quickly took him up on it.
"By singing, I help them relax," he said. "Sometimes they're a little bit nervous. Going to see a doctor or dentist isn't always the most pleasant experience. The music puts them at ease."
And they don't have to just listen. After singing one song for Quinn, he asked if she wanted to join him in the next one. Faster than you could say "Chairman of the Board," they had launched a duet of "Too Marvelous for Words."
Rasmussen's music is such a hit that seniors calling to book a ride ask if he can be their driver.
"People always want Bill," said Jody McCardle, an executive director of the Como Park Falcon Heights Living at Home Block Nurse Program, a nonprofit organization that schedules the rides as part of its mission to provide services to seniors so they can live independently. "Sometimes they just close their eyes and listen. The music reminds them of when they were young."
It certainly had that effect on Quinn.
"Music is very important in my life," she said. "Some of the songs he sings bring back memories of earlier times. I'm so happy to hear it."
So, was she a big Sinatra fan when she was younger? "Well," she admitted after pausing to consider whether she might be offending Rasmussen, "I actually liked Bing Crosby better."
A late bloomer
Rasmussen, who describes himself as "a young 71," owes his musical career to alcohol.
After retiring from a career in the Navy, he and his now late wife moved to St. Paul because it was her hometown. One night, when they were out with a group of friends, they stopped at a bar that was holding karaoke night. "Several beers later," Rasmussen, who had no singing experience whatsoever, cast aside his inhibitions and got up on stage.
For his singing debut, he chose the Sinatra classic "New York, New York."
"My sister was into Sinatra when we were young and listened to him all the time, so I figured I'd be familiar with it," he said.
Much to everyone's amazement — including his own — he nailed it. Using a boombox in his kitchen, he started singing along with other Sinatra songs. He still hasn't had any formal training and doesn't know how to read music, but he has a good ear and a ton of patience. He keeps practicing until he can replicate the tones, phrasing and pacing he hears on the recordings.
"I really enjoy the songs of that era, the music of Mr. Sinatra and his cronies," he said. "It was such a grand time. They had the big nightclubs. The ladies wore gowns, and the gents wore tuxedos. And the music was entertaining. It was a lot easier to understand."
He became involved in musical theater, specializing in Sinatra-based productions, which sometimes involved coming up with his own shows. They could be a little on the frivolous side, he admitted.
"For instance, in one of them Sinatra goes to Hawaii on the Love Boat," he said, referencing the 1977-87 TV series. "We sang a bunch of Hawaiian standards, and then I sang 'The Love Boat' theme song as Sinatra."
Lately, he has focused on his current show, "Let Me Entertain You" (singingsinatra.com), which is reminiscent of Sinatra's nightclub act. He has performed it in a wide range of venues, from the St. Paul Winter Carnival to senior high-rises.
Wearing a tux and performing with a live 17-piece orchestra or recorded big band music, he glides around the stage, singing Sinatra favorites and "flirting with the women in the audience between songs. It's a lot of fun."
But it's also a lot of fun to sing for folks as he's driving them to their appointments.
"I enjoy singing to one person as much as I do to a big audience," he said.
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392