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THE KEYS TO HIS SMILE

A Dunedin resident shares the extensive repertoire of songs locked away in his mind.

Twice a day, Syd Keithly plays the piano for his fellow residents at Manor Care Dunedin. He's recovering from a stroke that damaged his memory, but the 91-year-old jazz musician can recall and flawlessly play hundreds of songs.

"He knows 300 songs. They're all in his head. But he doesn't know his own name," said his wife, Ellie.

Keithly grew up in Chester, Pa., home of the pop music quartet the Four Aces, known for hits like Three Coins in the Fountain. In the early 1950s, he so impressed the Aces that they hired him as their piano player.

"I started playing piano at 3," said Keithly. "My father played and he bought us a piano, but he didn't teach me to play. He hired this old German man who must have been around 70 years old. He could play any kind of music, and I'd watch him pull up to the house in an old Model T."

Those are the kinds of memories Keithly is left with. In March he suffered a stroke and landed in Manor Care, a nursing and rehabilitation center.

And while the switch from Manor Care resident back to piano player may not seem like a stretch, it is. In every other aspect of his daily life, Keithly needs assistance.

With the exception of his wife, people can't always understand the thoughts he tries to convey. Music is the way Keithly communicates best with everyone. He played for years when jazz was anything but smooth, and at 91, music remains his passion.

"We met for the first time in a nightclub," said Ellie Keithly, 81, his wife of almost 60 years. "He was a good looking bachelor playing the piano."

Now she sits beside his piano with his list of songs. With her help, he can take requests. She gently hums the tune when someone walks up and asks for a song. After a few notes, Keithly shakes his head, smiles and positions his fingers.

When he plays, no one would guess he has any disability.

His speech is intact. His piano-playing skills shake up the joint. But the stroke left him with little recall of what he does five minutes after he does it.

He seems happiest at the piano. There he is transformed. Bony hands glide over the keys. His blue eyes light up. His body sways over the keyboard.

Keithly doesn't need sheet music. Maybe his mind slips back to his days on stage. But whatever keeps him going, he plays from an extensive repertoire of songs locked away in his mind. The ivory keys have the power to unlock the notes.

"We can still communicate, and I am thankful for that and for his music," said Ellie. "I still get chills listening to him and seeing him play."

Most of Keithly's conversations focus on music too.

"During the war, strangely enough, wherever I was sent for pilot's training, the unit always had a piano," Keithly said. His wife added that he served stateside in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

Besides playing music professionally, Keithly worked as an electrical engineer. He and Ellie have one son, a professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia. And when the conversation turned to education and his son's Ph.D, Keithly said, "I always wanted one. "

His wife added that he had all his credits for a doctorate but never completed the dissertation. Keithly nodded and smiled, happy that Ellie knew what he meant and could complete the thought that his mind could not.

In the late 1980s, Keithly played with a group called the Not-So-Modern Jazz Quartet, affiliated with a nonprofit organization called the Potomac River Jazz Club.

After he moved to Dunedin in 1991, he continued to play local venues until he began having trouble moving equipment around.

On Mother's Day at Manor Care, Keithly played a variety of sing-along tunes for his fellow residents. His songs ranged from Birth of the Blues to As Time Goes By. The sing-along songs included tunes like Let Me Call You Sweetheart and Ain't She Sweet and For Me and My Gal.

"I like that he plays the music from way back and more modern music, too," said May E. Bloodworth, 88, a Clearwater native and Manor Care resident.

Keithly sits in his wheelchair and plays for about 20 minutes before lunch and dinner for the residents, their visitors and the staff. Feet tap. Some people dance in their chairs while others sing along, clapping when he finishes their favorite tunes.

And he ends every little concert with the same song: God Bless America.

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FAST FACTS

Music notes

The Four Aces were founded by Al Alberts of Chester, Pa., in the 1940s. They recorded Three Coins in the Fountain and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing and other hits. Alberts died in Arcadia in 2009.

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