Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and, most of all, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson inspired Gloria Peay to raise her voice when she was growing up in the 1960s on the East Side.
"I've always sang at church," said Peay, who fondly recalled cutting an album at age 12 with the youth choir at Mount Ararat Baptist Church. She lent her pipes for the lead of a song called “God Can.”
Her most recent stage? Kenmore Mercy Hospital.
Her favorite performance time? Holiday season.
“I like the traditional Christmas carols,” said Peay, who has worked at Kenmore Mercy for nearly 35 years, including more than a decade delivering patient meals – often with a song – as a food service ambassador.
Peay sang “O Come All Ye Faithful” earlier this month to Gale Moore and her daughter-in-law, Lindsay Kryszak, a day after Moore underwent left knee replacement surgery.
"It's hard when you're in a place like this," said Moore, a receptionist at a Town of Tonawanda animal clinic. "You're stressing out. You're worried. When somebody comes in and cheers you up like that, it feels good. It was beautiful."
Peay, 63, said she was glad to oblige.
Q: When did you start singing to patients?
When they started room service about 14, 15 years ago. There was a little guy, about 89, 90 years old. He was upset because he couldn't get to his Christmas Mass. I just struck up a song. I think it was "Oh Holy Night." He started crying. I started crying. I've been singing ever since.
Q: Is this pretty much a daily thing for you?
When I have a chance, I work it into my [scheduled] time. When I meet new patients for the first time, I tell them I've got a welcome song for them and I usually sing a song from ‘The King and I" – "Getting to Know You." I tell them, 'You won't hear me anymore until you leave.' Then I sing the closing song from “The Carol Burnett Show" – "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together."
Q: Do people sometimes ask for requests?
Yes, they do. The most popular request is "Amazing Grace." They might make a request I don't know, so I'll give them something like, "You Are My Sunshine." I have a few in my repertoire that work. One lady wanted to hear, "He Looked Beyond My Thoughts and Saw My Needs." I knew that one from church.
Q: What has been the reaction?
I have a few staff members who will go into a room and say, "Have you seen Gloria yet? She's coming down the hall, she'll come and sing for you."Some of the patients say [half-heartedly], "Sure, go ahead and sing," but when I do start singing, they say, "Can you sing again? I want to videotape it and send it to my aunt or my grandmother, or somebody like that." I consider myself a plain Jane, but if it makes them feel good, I'll do it.
Q: What are your three favorite Christmas songs?
"O Holy Night," "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Sometimes when my nieces and nephews come over, we'll sit around and sing "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Q: How does your husband, Andre, a school bus driver, like your singing?
He's a typical husband. It depends on what's on TV. If it's sports, he'll say, "Can you keep it down? I'm watching the game." Other times, it's OK.
Q: Most patients who have heard you sing have recovered. Have you ever heard from family members of folks who've passed away?
I had a family a couple of years ago. I sang to their mother and two or three weeks later, she passed. The family wanted me to sing at the funeral. I had already booked a vacation at the same time. Had I known beforehand, I gladly would have done it.
Q: What dishes do patients seem to like best, and least, on the hospital floors?
They love baked tilapia. Omelets are the biggest ones in the morning. They're cooked to order. People on restricted diets like that the least. They say, "All I get is clear liquids? I want food and coffee."