Fred Knittle, Fondly Remembered
January 04, 2009
Young@Heart singer fondly remembered
NORTHAMPTON - Wherever Fred Knittle goes from here, it's a good bet he'll have a joke ready and be looking for someone to sing with.
Knittle, the most recognizable face of the internationally known Young at Heart Chorus, died Thursday at the age of 83.
The cause of death was cancer, but Knittle had been in poor health for years, suffering from congestive heart failure that limited his mobility and required him to breath through an oxygen tube. But his rich baritone voice, somehow, cut through all the ailments like a storm.
His famous line, "I went from continent to continent until I became incontinent," was typical of Knittle's upbeat way of dealing with his health problems.
The deep-voiced singer became a superstar in the last year of his life, as his moving solo on Coldplay's "Fix You" is a mainstay on YouTube, and one of the many highlights from the Young at Heart documentary, released earlier this year to both critical and popular acclaim. Knittle's courageous performance in the film, brought out of retirement to do one last show, has come to symbolize the spirit and joie de vivre of Young at Heart.
"We were very lucky to have been in his presence," said the group's longtime director Bob Cilman. "His relationship with Barbara, his wife of 57 years, was special."
Knittle was born in Utica, N.Y., in 1925. He was a U.S. Army machine-gunner in World War II, fighting in Europe and in the Philippines. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1950. He and his wife, Barbara, raised three sons and a daughter and have 12 grandchildren. The couple came to Northampton in 1959, where he became vice president for development at Clarke School for the Deaf. He held the job for 30 years, raising $22 million for the school over that time.
"His concept of what he did was never called fundraising," said his eldest son, Bill Knittle. "He called it #friend-raising.' He never needed to ask for money - when people knew what Clarke was all about, they gave."
Knittle was a large man and a natural athlete who played semi-pro football in Utica and soccer in college. He claims to have clubbed the longest home run ever hit in a ballpark in Utica, off a pitcher, as luck would have it, who was Barbara's boyfriend at the time. Asked if that was the moment that won Barbara's heart, Bill Knittle said, "He liked to think so."
Though a native of New York, he transplanted his allegiances to the Red Sox and the Patriots the day he blew into town, and was still holding out hope for another Pats Super Bowl win this year.
Contrary to the evidence onscreen or in live performance, Knittle was not a trained singer or performer.
"He sang a little bit as a young man, but gave it up," said Bill Knittle. "He was always interested in music, and sang around the house, but it wasn't until he retired that he began taking it seriously."
At the urging of his wife, Knittle auditioned for the Young at Heart in 1992.
Cilman calls the first time he heard Knittle sing an indelible moment in his life. "I was amazed. We had dreamt of having a bass singer for years."
Of the many highlights in his 16-year stint with the group, he once sang "Big Bad John" in full cowboy garb in "Flaming Saddles," the western revue the Chorus did with the Gay Men's Chorus. Also memorable was his rendition of "Why Not Take ... All of Me," a take on Lorena Bobbitt's famed snip-snip-snip of her husband's private parts.
Knittle was on board for the group's first three European tours. In Ghent and in Brussels, Belgium, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he played Bill Clinton singing "Prisoner of Love" while mezzo soprano Elaine Fligman, playing Hillary, sang "Stand By Your Man."
"He was a treasure, a good, good person," said Fligman, 85, of Amherst, a member of Young at Heart for 17 years. "Aside from his gift for comedy, he had a voice that anyone in the Metropolitan Opera would be thankful to have."
In "Kiss of Fire," Fligman performed a duet with Knittle - he dressed as a dashing caballero, she with rose clenched in her teeth.
"His shape was all wrong, but oh, well," she said with a laugh. "Just the thrill of singing with somebody with such a glorious voice. He sang it absolutely straight, which of course made it such fun."
Fligman, who recently retired from the group due to health issues of her own, can relate to Knittle's desire to keep singing.
"He is irreplaceable," said Fligman. "You might find people who can do some of what he does, but it's unlikely you'll ever find someone who can do it all."
In appearances with school groups, said Cilman, Knittle had a natural ability to bridge generation gaps.
"He wanted to do Nat King Cole's #Unforgettable' as a duet with a student. The student would be prepared, learning the song before the Chorus got there, but Fred's voice and his size could be intimidating.
"But he was always so gracious, so supportive and encouraging. Kids invariably walked away from the experience feeling very comfortable and confident about themselves."
"He loved every minute of his time with Young at Heart," said Bill Knittle. "To be brought out of retirement to do that film was an extreme boost to him. All capped off with that incredible moment in June, where he led the Chorus in the National Anthem at Fenway Park."
Knittle seemed to walk around with a catalogue of old songs and jokes he could pull out at a second's notice. Former WHMP morning jock Dennis Lee was part of a close-knit group that joined Knittle every Tuesday for lunch. Dubbed the Romeos by Knittle (Retired Old Men Eating Out), the weekly sessions, continuing right up until last month, featured Knittle holding court while the rest convulsed in laughter.
"My wife's a religious cook," Lee said, relating one of Knittle's favorites. "Everything's a sacrifice or a burnt offering."
"He was Mr. Positive," said Lee, "the king of the glass half full. He was a born performer. If he opened the refrigerator and the light came on, he could do three minutes right there."
Knittle kept his sense of humor right to the end. In the hospital, with his whole family around him, he'd clutch at his throat and make like he was choking, then laugh at the horrified reaction. His hospital room was decorated with pictures and posters of his Young at Heart career and emails came flooding in from fans the world over.
"He finally had an international audience for some of his jokes," said Bill Knittle.
By Bob Flaherty
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