If your idea of a perfect late afternoon in Paradise is singing along to classic music from the 1960s and 1970s in one of the most beautiful locations on Fort Myers Beach and then enjoying a stupendous beach sunset, the free “Sunset Singalong” by Lee County Parks & Recreation at Bowditch Point Park is for you!
Musicians and vocalists Mike Leising, Salli Donaldson, and Jon and Carol Van Dyke, who are Parks & Recreation volunteers, lead the program that Mike and Salli began five years ago, with Jon and Carol in their 3rd season. Mike and Jon play acoustic guitar, with Salli and Carol singing backup.
Salli explained that she and Mike played music in Kentucky for about 20 years, and when they moved to Lee County, they looked for an entertainment opportunity, “so we approached Parks & Recreation and they thought it a great idea! We met Carol and Jon while jamming together at the ‘Pickle & Pub’ and invited them to join us at the ‘Sunset Singalong.’ It is so fun to see people come together here, as they are so happy singing songs by the beach.”
“It turns out Mike, Salli and I are from the same County,” added Carol. “While we did not know one another, we have friends who are friends, so it is a ‘Small World After All,’ as I keep hearing that song in my head! We have a ball, jamming along, and when little kids start dancing, there is nothing better!” Jon most enjoys “the smiles on the faces of the people while they sing along,” while for Mike, it is “meeting people from all over the country, because the music we play crosses all the borders, and that is just amazing. I can’t believe this is our 5th year, as the time goes by so fast!”
As the audience gathered under a perfect cloudless sky for a recent Thursday afternoon sing along, the four entertainers played a few warm-up songs beginning at 4:45 p.m. “I only know two kinds of songs – Country & Western,” Mike joked, “so this is a Country & Western Song,” as they launched into “Fire on the Mountain” by The Marshall Tucker Band. They segued into “Black Magic Woman” by Santana, with Mike cautioning that “we are still doing warm-up material, so these are not in your singalong books.” He pointed out that Jon wore an authentic Carlos Santana hat, with Jon explaining that “I collect them, because the proceeds go to impoverished children throughout the world; they are pretty expensive!” Warm-up songs concluded with Jimmy Buffet’s “5 O’clock Somewhere,” because, as Jon observed, “it’s almost 5 o’clock!”
“Now that it is 5 o’clock,” Mike said, “I promise all songs from now on are in your songbook, to expand everyone’s musical horizons!” The first is “Love Potion #9” by The Searchers. Next, Mike explained, “a little Motown, with ‘Under the Boardwalk’ by The Drifters.” Even though the audience has songbooks with all the words, the selections are so well-known that few people need them to join in.
“For those unfamiliar with Bowditch Point Park, it has a beautiful beach and short walking trails full of gopher tortoises and a butterfly garden and this shelter area with restrooms,” explained Mike. “It is a fantastic place to witness the sunset; don’t worry, we finish early enough so you can enjoy it!” Before they play “I Should Have Known Better,” Mike asks the crowd if anyone ever saw “The Beatles” in concert, and when no one has, he explained that “Salli is still the only one again tonight!” “They performed in Cincinnati and arrived for the concert in a paddy wagon,” she recalled, “and I actually touched George Harrison’s hair!”
Mike went around the crowd, asking where everyone was from. People answered, “Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin,” with Mike saying, “nice to be here during the Winter, isn’t it? Thank you all for coming as we really appreciate it! Now here is a song from the only artist who wrote two state songs: John Denver, with ‘Rocky Mountain High’ for Colorado, and this for West Virginia, ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads.’” Before “Margaritaville” from Jimmy Buffett, Mike encouraged everyone to sing louder, saying, “you’ve heard us and know we are not that good, so your confidence should be high right now; just enjoy yourself and sing at the top of your lungs!” In addition to singing, several people joined in with tambourines and one even brought his own acoustic guitar to play along.
After singing “My Girl” by The Temptations, Mike stated that “we are going to end with a cross-generation song for the younger people here. It was a hit a few years ago by Bob Dylan for the movie, ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,’ though more people today know the version by Darius Rucker: ‘Wagon Wheel!’” Upon finishing, Mike said, “I hope you all enjoyed yourself; as we went along, you guys all sounded better and better! Now go see that terrific sunset!” Like the music and performers, Mother Nature did not disappoint, as the sun set majestically under a cloudless Fort Myers Beach sky, ending another perfect day in Paradise!
The “Sunset Singalong” is at Bowditch Point Park, at the very northern tip of Fort Myers Beach, each Thursday through March 7. Warmup songs begin at 4:45 p.m., with the singalong at 5 p.m., ending roughly 5 minutes before sunset, so participants can take the short walk to the beach to enjoy the magnificent experience. While the “Singalong” is free, parking is $2-per-hour; plan on at least 2 hours, or ride the Trolley or Tram. There are several seats, with picnic tables along the periphery, or you can bring your own chairs. Southwest Florida can be cool as sunset approaches, so dress appropriately.
By Gary Mooney