John Manion has the late Father Patrick Moffatt to thank for starting him on an 86-year career with the church choir.
When a young Manion approached Father Moffatt — who was then rector of the former Niagara Street chapel Our Lady of Sorrows in Rochester — about becoming an altar boy, Father Moffatt turned him down, noting that he had often seen Manion carrying a violin.
"He said, ‘No, you’re going to sing in the choir,’" recalled Manion, who said the comment prompted him to join the church choir at the tender age of 10.
Now 96, Manion has been singing ever since. He sang at Our Lady of Sorrows until it closed in 1938. Then he attended the former Ss. Peter and Paul Parish, singing in that choir for about 30 years, even as his wife and children went to Immaculate Conception. He then sang in the St. Mary Parish choir in Rochester for 20 years.
When he retired from his day job in sales with Wonder Bread, he decided to begin attending Church of the Good Shepherd in Henrietta with his late wife, Peg. He also thought he had retired from singing in choirs as well.
"I may have thought it was time enough that I went to church with my wife," Manion said. "I lasted about three or four weeks in the pews, and my wife kept saying, ‘When are you going to sing in this choir?’"
But his sacred music career was not Manion’s only foray into music. In addition to his day job, he spent more than five decades moonlighting as a singer, drummer and occasional violinist in house bands and such big bands as the Rhythm Kings Orchestra.
Manion recalled how he got his start on the drums: his uncle gave him a $5 gold piece for his 13th or 14th birthday, and he used it as a deposit on a drum set. The director of his school’s orchestra connected him with a teacher who gave him drum lessons. He had played the violin since he was 7 years old, so learning the drums came easy to him, he said.
"It was a lot of fun," Manion said. "Music was a profitable hobby. You couldn’t make a good living with just music, but it could be a profitable hobby."
He noted that he bought his first house in 1939 with $2,100 and paid his mortgage off in two years using just the money he made as a musician.
From 1933-34 — when Manion was in his early 20s — he was in a band that had a six-month contract as the Philco Radio Hour band. Manion also was in the house band at Oak Hill Country Club, and he was part of groups that regularly played Seabreeze Amusement Park’s former Danceland pavilion and various supper clubs throughout the area. At the pavilion, he recalled, couples were charged 10 cents a dance or three dances for a quarter for the chance to foxtrot, Charleston, waltz and jitterbug the night away.
Although his job with Wonder Bread was deemed an essential service, keeping him out of the fighting in World War II and in the music scene through the war, he said local music changed in the years afterwards.
"Those big bands had to disperse because it was too expensive, so then we went in small groups," said Manion, who noted that jam sessions grew in popularity.
In contrast, church choirs could never be big enough, and bass singers such as Manion were always in high demand, he said.
"I like music, I like singing," Manion said. "Just because I played dance music doesn’t mean I didn’t go to Eastman to listen to concerts."
He said he also shared his love of music with his family. For instance, his son, Michael, who now lives in Florida, became a noted organ and piano player who performed locally with Chuck Mangione and other Rochester music greats.
Although Manion said his own instrumental performance days are over due to an essential tremor, he still sings in Good Shepherd’s main choir, and was honored on his 90th and 95th birthdays. He also has sung with the local Father Beatini Choir for many years.
Several things, he said, have guided him over the years, including his faith and his patron saint, St. Jude the Apostle, the worker of miracles and patron of lost causes.
"Trust in God that today’s going to be a good day for you," Manion said.
He added: "Whatever you do, do it for him."