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Jo Purvis, The Disco Queen

18 May 2023

When I step into Jo’s room in Nightingale House in south London, she isn’t happy to see me. “I’m not very sociable,” she says.

She is sitting in a chair but usually she is supported in bed. As she begins to relate her interesting and eclectic life, she chides herself whenever she forgets the name of a venue or a London Street. But the names flood back within seconds. She has a young looking face, perfect skin and very few wrinkles so I assume she is in her early 80’s.

“I’m 101 in October,” she tells me. “I grew up in the East End and I was a free spirit which was unusual for the time. I didn’t get married; I didn’t have children. I wanted to be a doctor but my stepfather said no.”

Jo left school at a young age and got a job with British Airways, as a receptionist in the Piccadilly branch. She met lots of interesting people and spent evenings in the West End, where she became involved in promoting club nights in different venues.

“Someone I knew was working in a Soho club, The Rehearsal, behind the Windmill Theatre,” she recounts as the names trip off her tongue with no hesitation, “but they didn’t have enough customers. I asked if I could have the room for the night and pull in the punters.”

With her entrepreneurial skills, Jo amassed potential customers from BA and Fortnum and Mason. Very soon she had 3 piece bands playing for “half a crown a night,” and drag queens performing. It was 1967 and this was a novelty. Hinge and Bracket started their routine at the Rehearsal, she says with pride.

One club led to another and one day, whilst working at Stallions, off the Charring Cross Road, the resident DJ failed to turn up. Jack the manager asked Jo to step in. “I didn’t know what to do, but Jack said, just press this and press that. And that’s how I became a DJ!”

It was unusual at the time to be a female DJ, but she was successful and built up a following. She tells me it is a wonderful profession for older people as you are hidden on a stage, behind a box and nobody sees you. “When I did my discos with vinyl, I used to carry a case of vinyl in my eighties. I didn’t look my age, so nobody offered to help me. I carried on until I came to Nightingale House. I was still DJ’ing at 99 in my local pub!”

When Jo moved to Nightingale House Care Home at the beginning of 2022, she took part in a music activity. She showed Jacqui, one of the Engagement Leads, all the songs on her phone. “I have so many. They used to be on my laptop, but I transferred them all to my iPad and now I have them on my phone. I’m quite technical you see.”

Soon she began to run the “wheelchair discos” at Nightingale House.  The Residents turn up, some in their wheelchairs, and tap their arms and legs in time with the music. When she organises a session, she can usually sense the type of music the other Residents will like. She enjoys watching their faces light up as she plays Fred and Ginger or Spike Jones or the Andrew Sisters. Then she moves onto Motown, Reggae, Kylie and Madonna. Sometimes Country and Western.

“I used to play Kylie and Madonna at the wheelchair discos and they would all be dancing in their wheelchairs. Then I’d suddenly stop and play the Blue Danube, and everyone would laugh.”

“Do you ever play classical music,” I ask. “G-d forbid,” is her reply.

Jo loved her job as music is her passion, and even now she enjoys testing her own knowledge about her fellow Residents and what music she thinks they will like. It is through music she can tell the type of person they are.

“I can sort of smell the music someone is going to like. I do it with the carers, I think, hmmm she’s a bit of Reggae, so I put Reggae on when she comes in to close my curtains. Or, this one is a Latin music lover, so on goes a bit of Latin.”

I ask her what she thinks I will like. She hums and hahs and comes up with The Beatles.

Not bad, but I tell her my favourite is Leonard Cohen. She doesn’t recognise the name but promises to download his music and have a listen.  She is nearly 101!

Before I leave, she tells me how much she loves running the wheelchair discos, as for five minutes, she feels like her old self. “It stops me moaning,” she says with a chuckle.

As I close the door, I feel revitalised by Jo’s knowledge, her sharp wit, technical prowess and fascinating story.

Amanda Weinberg

Nightingale Hammerson

 

Nightingale House is CQC rated Outstanding and offers Residential, Nursing, Dementia, Respite and Palliative care to the community.  If you would like to make an enquiry or to book a tour, please contact our Residents’ Services Team on residentsservices@nightingalehammerson.org or telephone 020 8673 3495.