One night at the Golden Hunan on Memorial Drive, a customer made an unusual proposition to the restaurant owner: Let my band play here and we’ll show up every week, offered Carroll “Curly” Lewis. You don’t have to pay us, because we don’t really need the money. Just throw in a free meal before we play and we will call it even.
Seems ordinary enough, except the man making the offer is 82 years old. In fact, every member in the band, called the Over the Hill Gang, is a senior citizen. And the sound they wanted to blast over the dumplings and the won ton is Dixieland, not the usual soundtrack one hears at a place called Golden Hunan.
“Usually in a Chinese restaurant, the atmosphere is slow,” restaurant owner Henry Mah explained as the Over the Hill Gang played their usual Wednesday night gig. “I thought, let’s see how it goes. Maybe it will pick things up.”
As the eight oldsters tore through swinging arrangements of Mood Indigo, At the Woodchopper’s Ball and Kansas City, it was clear Henry made the right choice. Not a seat could be had in the bar, not that anyone wanted to sit down. A few couples danced out in the middle of the restaurant. The band members may be long in the tooth, but there’s no doubting they were the ones giving the place a sense of youthfulness.
“With them, there is a buzz, like many hearts beating together,” Henry said. “We may be the only Chinese restaurant in America with Dixieland music.”
After Gene Woser finished warbling, “Anytime you’re feeling lonely, anytime you’re feeling blue; anytime you feel downhearted, that’s the time we’ll come and play for you,” one of his bandmates announced that Gene had just celebrated his 95th birthday.
“I’ll have what he’s having!” someone in the bar hollered.
Beatles fans will recall the song, When I’m 64, in which Paul McCartney asks his love if she’ll want him around when he’s a doddering old dude. The song is full of images of knitting sweaters by firesides and Sunday morning drives.
Keep in mind that in the Over the Hill Gang, the youngest whippersnappers are 64. Gene, the oldest member of the band, is nearing the century mark. But these guys aren’t ready for an afghan across their knees, just yet.
With four horn players, a keyboard player, a guitarist, a drummer and a banjo strummer, the Over the Hill Gang can flat-out blow your hair back—no matter if your ‘do is dark, dyed or snowy gray.
“I was in Korea in 1956, and I played in a band just like this—except everyone was a lot younger,” recalled bass player and career Army vet Jim Barry, one of the young ones at age 64.
“I didn’t know Koreans played Dixieland,” sassed Mike Evans, who, with the British accent of his native London, has a tart remark for almost every occasion.
Singer and banjo player Gene Woser started the Over the Hill Gang more than 30 years ago. Players have come and gone, and so have the venues. The Over the Hill Gang has outlasted many of its haunts, including the Shamrock Hotel and the old Petroleum Club atop the Rice Hotel.
It was my good luck to get to sit in with them during a recent gig at the Golden Hunan. Curly Lewis, a retired real-estate developer who built several Memorial subdivisions and now lives in the wooded enclave, made it clear that I was welcome to play the banjo alongside Gene. But he also explained that he may not have been able to extend the invitation only a month or two earlier.
“Our trumpet player hated the banjo, but he died two weeks ago,” Curly said. “When you’re in the Over the Hill Gang, attrition is part of the deal. That’s just the way it goes.”
So the guys in the Over the Hill Gang aren’t kidding anybody. They know they’re old. They’re just not all that worried about it. The sign above the tip jar reads: PLEASE DONATE TO OUR 401k FUND.
“This is a unique group because as old as we are, we’re always incorporating news songs, new ideas, and new players,” said Howard Hendrix, a retired guidance counselor from Bellaire High School. “We haven’t become set in our ways. I just hope people in the audience enjoy it as much as we do.”
The audiences clearly enjoy it, and it’s a good thing, because the men in the Over the Hill Gang would have no idea how to give it up.
“Without music, we would never make it,” said Gene, shaking his head slowly.
“It’s incurable, like a disease,” horn player Tom Mitchell chimed in. “Once the love of music gets into your blood, you never get it out.”
“It’s terrible!” Gene added.
“And,” Tom said, finishing the thought, “it’s wonderful, too.”