By Jessica Hanewinckel
When Peter Seltser performs for seniors, he can’t smile without them. It seems that way, too. During a performance last month at Jewish Family Service’s University City Older Adult Center, Seltser, 58, was all smiles during his hour-long set, and many of the seniors were, too — especially during his signature closing number that he performs for each of his senior audiences, “Can’t Smile Without You,” a song made famous by The Carpenters in 1977 and by Barry Manilow in 1978. Seltser leaves the front of the room and slowly makes his way to each member of the audience, strumming his guitar while kneeling, looking into their eyes and crooning “You see, I feel sad when you’re sad / I feel glad when you’re glad / If you only knew what I’m going through / I just can’t smile without you / You came along just like a song / And brightened my day…”
“The reward for me is in happiness,” says Seltser, who travels to retirement communities and senior centers around the county, including many Jewish ones, on an almost daily basis to bring cheer to his audiences. “I’ve found what happiness means. When I hit the stride with music, oh my God. The joy you see in people’s faces. The awakenings you’re involved in. And the little stories people tell you. To see life through the eyes of our seniors…we’re going to be there one day too, so it’s just very powerful.”
Before he and his wife Sheryl moved to Carlsbad five years ago from the Boston area, where they’d lived almost their entire lives, Seltser hadn’t performed so much as a single line of music at a senior center or retirement community. But the lifelong musician, who’s working on his fourth album of original music, knew a thing or two about great, classic American tunes and strumming the guitar.
Three years ago, Seltser met a drummer who liked his style and asked him to deliver a singing telegram to his girlfriend, who lived in a local retirement community. Seltser arrived with his guitar, performed the song, the recipient cried, the staff loved it and the rest is history.
That was the start of the performance side of his music career, which is expanding to other venues like farmer’s markets, open mic nights, private events and parties, and The House of Blues.
He caters the music he plays to the event at which he’s performing. At the House of Blues, for example, patrons can hear his own original music — an easy listening, bluesy, retro sort of sound, with lyrics and melodies reminiscent of Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Johnny Mathis, the Gershwins and Gus Kahn. His voice has qualities similar to Michael Bublé and Frank Sinatra, who, he says, “wraps his vocals around every word, and you believe in the story. It becomes you. And that’s what I like to think I do.” His live performances are a cappella, but his albums feature full bands and backup singers (he even recorded one of his albums with country singer Tim McGraw’s band The Dancehall Doctors in Nashville). For his seniors, he’ll play whatever they want to hear, from Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” to Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” to “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Gal?)” to “You Are My Sunshine” to “It Had to be You.”
“Music has no boundaries,” Seltser explains on his Web site. “It speaks the truth. It speaks to your heart.”
Seltser’s come a long way from his early days as a budding musician. It’s a toss up between The Beatles and Ricky Nelson as to who first turned him on to music, but he can remember staying up late with his mom to watch The Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He was about 6 at the time, and like many children watching the Fab Four on a black and white TV set, he was smitten and knew he wanted to play music himself.
First, his grandfather brought home a tape recorder so little Peter could record his voice and listen to it on tape. Then, his mother bought him a Stella guitar, whose strings he tuned so all the chords sounded the same when he strummed.
At age 6, he appeared on WBZ TV Boston’s cable show, “Community Auditions” with host Dave Maynard, which was the area’s “American Idol” for local amateur talent in its day. He sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a song his grandfather had often sung to his grandmother. Around age 9, he tried lessons but disliked the “theory” aspect of learning, the notes, the staff, the lines. He just wanted to play the rhythm, he says. He taught himself the chords of his guitar using a book of Bob Dylan’s music, but he wasn’t interested in any formal lessons. His teacher told his parents to save their money, that their son would never accomplish anything musically. Later, at 12, he formed a band with some friends and took the stage at a battle of the bands at Seltser’s Temple Tifereth Israel in Malden, Mass. They were to play “Shapes of Things,” by the Yardbirds.
“I looked into the audience like a deer in headlights,” says Seltser, who was the band’s very short-lived lead singer. “I froze. They helped me off the stage, because I just couldn’t sing, I couldn’t play. I forgot the words. I was a mess. I didn’t pick up the guitar for a long time.”
At age 16, Seltser finally picked up the guitar again, this time while sitting around a beach bonfire with some friends who remembered that he played and asked him to sing them a song. He strummed the guitar and sang Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.”
“The girls were singing, the guys were singing,” he remembers, “And I’m back. I wasn’t onstage, it was just a circle. And I said, ‘This is easy. I like it now,’ once I had grown and matured, and I’d been practicing.”
He continued practicing, teaching himself along the way. (Later in high school, he was again asked to be in a band that would perform The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” in the Malden High School Auditorium. He was again stricken with stage fright, but he continued practicing and playing on his own.) College came, but after a bad car accident during winter break of his freshman year, he decided returning for spring semester — or any other semester, for that matter — wasn’t for him.
“I wanted to do other things,” he says. “I wanted to travel. Play rock-’n’-roll. I’m from the school of hard knocks. I’m a street kind of guy. Textbook is one thing, and I enjoy it, but I’m more of a hands-on kind of cat.”
He set out for California, lived and worked in Santa Cruz for a few years, then returned to Boston to care for his father when he broke both his arms ice skating. His California job long gone, his father suggested he work for the family business, a public insurance adjustment firm that represented the consumer, not the insurance company, and which was started by Seltser’s grandfather. He did join the business, eventually taking it over and becoming the go-to guy in his industry in all of Massachusetts. He was president of the Massachusetts Association of Public Insurance Adjusters, sitting on boards to write policy and craft laws, eventually being elevated to the national level in his field. He married his wife Sheryl in 1978 and over the years continued playing guitar, singing and writing his own music. His first album was recorded in 1995, his most recent in 2008.
Since moving to Carlsbad in late 2007 to be closer to their two grown children and selling his business to Sheryl’s brother, the Seltsers have both committed themselves to Peter’s second career, his music. With Sheryl, a special events coordinator, managing his schedule and development, Peter is jumping full time into the world of performances and music writing. That brings us back to his love of performing for seniors.
It’s been an adjustment, growing used to this California lifestyle. He started performing in T-shirts and flip flops, thinking that’s what Californians always wear, until the activity directors at the various senior centers and retirement homes gently guided him in his transformation into performer. Nice pants, close-toed shoes, nice shirts. This may be California, but all Californians aren’t beach bums. The Seltsers joined a temple, Temple Solel in Encinitas, and Seltser has grown his list of clients, from Seacrest Village Retirement Communities to JFS’s North County Inland Older Adult Center. What started with his first singing telegram three years ago has grown to more than 250 booked gigs annually, Sheryl says. He’s even created special themed shows, like one especially for Grandparent’s Day, and another celebrating the great Jewish American composers and entertainers.
And some of the tenets of Judaism even carry over into his work.
“The foundation of Judaism,” he says, “is to be kind to others, to be good to others. Never hurt anybody. I think I try to subconsciously promote that kind of love in my songs. That’s the whole premise behind why I do this. I’m only here for another 20 or 30 summers. Be glad, enjoy. Some of the places I go, they ain’t leavin’. That’s the last train to Clarksville.”
So far, he’s received nothing but rave reviews, from activity directors, seniors, CNAs and audiences at his other venues. Aviva Saad and Arlene Gussin work together to coordinate activities at the University City Older Adult Center.
“I think Peter connects beautifully with our senior members,” says Gussin, assistant program coordinator. “He’s very warm, he connects with all of them, he doesn’t act like he’s here to entertain for a paycheck. It’s really from the heart, and he loves what he does.”
Adds Saad, the center’s director, “Peter’s music is different, and he’s interesting. It’s a refreshing program. My people come and they love him. He goes and sings to every person. The women think, ‘Oh, my God, I am the chosen one, he has a crush on me.’ He makes the person imagine that it’s like Tom Jones coming over to you. He knows how to really touch them in their hearts. He’s a mensch.”
As Saad and Gussin talk, Seltser croons to a senior at the front of the room, 98-year-old redhead Blanche, who has stood up and flits around Seltser, batting her eyelashes and smiling flirtatiously.
“I’ve got a crush on you,” he sings, much like Frank Sinatra did when performing the George Gershwin song. “I’ve got a crush on you, sweetie pie / All the day and nighttime, hear me sigh / I never had the least notion / that I could fall with so much emotion.”
The audience claps and cheers, laughing delightedly at the spectacle before them.
“I love him,” says Leonore Frankel, another senior who often attends midday activities at the Older Adult Center. “I love him. He has a very nice personality. He goes around and greets people. He gives that personal touch to it. He’s very nice.”
Seltser may garner praise from his clients and audiences each day, but nothing is clearer than his humility, modesty and genuine love of people, especially seniors.
“I love to give them self-esteem, make them feel great,” he says of inviting them to sing and dance with him. “I love that when I see that. It makes me feel very happy to be able, thank God, to do this service.”