Rockin' out is no sweat for mid-life minstrels

By Deborah Wolfe
June 17, 2010

Seldom do vision problems lead to one's second calling, but that is exactly what happened seven years ago when Sherre Birenbaum arrived for an appointment with her eye doctor.

"If I didn't have bad eyesight, I wouldn't have been in the band," Birenbaum said while explaining her surprising venture into live entertainment at the mid-point of her life.

The Hot Flashes
As a vocalist and lead guitar player for the five-piece "women of a certain age" band, The Hot Flashes, irenbaum regularly joins cohorts Mary Dobbs, Carol Jennings, Rose Maguire and Julie Moore on stage for performances that meld a broad range of artistic influences and musical genres.

Dobbs, an ophthalmic technician, co-founded the band with Jennings and worked with the doctor's office that Birenbaum visited on the day of her fateful appointment.

Since their initial rehearsal in Birenbaum's basement, the "young at heart" ensemble has won the hearts of audiences of all ages with energetic performances of jazz, rockabilly, folk and hard rock hits from their younger days.

More than just another "boomer band," music played a significant role in each of these women's lives until work and family stole their attention.

Founders, Mary Dobbs and Carol Jennings forged their friendship as members of the band, Teen Queens. Believed to be the first all-female rock group in St. Louis, the band played at the dedication ceremony for the Gateway Arch.
The Hot Flashes

"That gives you an idea how far back their friendship and their musical partnership goes," Birenbaum said.

Now pushing 60, Dobbs gained her musical knowledge literally on her father's knee. Her first professional gigs were with her father's big band and jazz trio. She went on to study bass, piano, organ, guitar and drums under notable mentors who include legendary St. Louis drummer and bandleader, Bob Kuban.

Jennings switched to trumpet and saxophone after playing piano in grade school. While studying music at Southern Illinois University, she took lessons from Susan Slaughter of the St. Louis Symphony.

United by music in their youth, Dobbs and Jennings had lost touch through the years until a traumatic event caused Dobbs to reevaluate her life choices.

A serious auto accident in the late 1990s left Dobbs searching for ways to bring more meaning to her life.

"That's when I started thinking that life was too short for such long hours. And I began asking myself, 'What do I want to do for fun?'" Dobbs told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 2004. "Music was the obvious answer."

Looking back to the happiest memories from her past, she reached out to an old friend in an effort to create a new beginning.

Twenty years since their days as Teen Queens, Dobbs and Jennings reunited with a plan to once again take the stage.

The Hot Flashes
Keeping an eye out for new members, the pair found another musical sister when optical company representative, Rose Maguire, mentioned her own melodic background. The daughter of a philharmonic musician mother and symphony violinist stepfather, Maguire studied piano and bassoon. She extended her training to keyboards and went on to play with several blues groups including Mr. Chesterfield and the Smokers, and the band Streamline. After forming her own group in the late 90s, Twilight Jump, Maguire entertained troops in Bahrain and the Azores during a U. S. Department of Defense tour.

An executive assistant by day, Maguire regularly joins the band on keyboards during her off-hours.

Challenged by her grade school band director that "girls shouldn't play drums" Julie Moore set her sights on drumming her way through every band, orchestra, jazz band and marching band that was offered in elementary and high school, including the Indiana All-State Orchestra. The summer before college, she played in the Imperial Guard Drum and Bugle Corps.

A product development manager by day, Moore keeps the beat with several St. Louis bands when not performing with The Hot Flashes.

After that fateful doctor's visit, Birenbaum brought guitar skills influenced by her adolescent admiration of Bob Dylan and he '60s folk movement to the band.

A professional musician at age 15, Birenbaum played in the coffee houses of the famed Gaslight Square. She performed with numerous rock groups into the early '80s and went on to use her extensive knowledge of music history for 25 years in her business, The Disc-Connection, a CD store that specialized in classic rock.

Birenbaumcurrentlyworks as a financial aid administrator at a private college.

"It is not just that we are playing together," Birenbaum said. "We are all friends. We celebrate the good times together and we are there to comfort each other through the difficult times, too."

With instruments, talent and a surplus of humor, the group of musical girlfriends gathered in 2003 for their first gig at the second wedding of a mature couple.

It proved to be more of a hit for the band than for the bride and groom.

"We outlasted our first gig," Birenbaum said with a laugh. "Seven years later the band is still together, but the marriage didn't last."

Today, The Hot Flashes play an average of three gigs each month ranging from high school reunions, weddings, women's seminars and special engagements. While their popularity continues to grow, their still busy work schedules and family lives prohibit them from over extending their performance schedule.

Still, The Hot Flashes look forward to picking up the tempo and lifting the spirits of their growing fan base during their upcoming Lake Area performance at LAF Fest.

"We do it because we have a really good time together," Birenbaum said. "The audiences like that, they always comment on how much fun we are having."

With a set list that includes songs from the 1940s through the late 1990s; the band has built an upbeat repertoire, intent on bringing back nostalgic memories of a simpler time. Songs like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Soak up the Sun" by Sheryl Crow are guaranteed to get fans on their feet and send them home, humming a happy tune.
The Hot Flashes

"We try to play songs that have meaning for us," Birenbaum said. "Playing songs from a simpler, more innocent time of life brings back a lot of good feelings for us and our audience."

They encourage audiences to participate in dances like the stroll, electric glide and the hand jive.

"Our goal is to allow people to escape their worries for a few hours," she continued. "How can anyone stay angry or upset when they hear Bobby Darin's 'Splish, Splash' or Manfred Mann's 'Do Wah Diddy'?"

Though the bulk of their repertoire consists of toe tapping, finger snapping feel good tunes, regular chiding by primarily male audience members inspired the addition of a few hard rock classics to the set list.

"Especially men would taunt us to play Led Zeppelin as a joke," Birenbaum said. "We finally thought, we can do that, so we put 'Rock and Roll' on the set list and it blows their minds when we start playing it."

Changing attitudes about aging has been a pleasant, if unexpected effect of the group's collaboration. Becoming "poster women" for living life to the fullest regardless of one's age was never part of the plan, but it is a message they gladly share with each new audience.

"We have ladies come up to us of almost every age that tell us they gave it all up when they got married and had a family and we inspired them to pick up where they left off," Birenbaum said. "The message is that you are never too old to try again. Maybe you had to put your interests on the back burner but if you were happy doing it at one time in your life, you will be happy doing it again."