On a Sunday night at a dim neighborhood bar in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of D.C., the house band unpacks its equipment.
Amps, keyboards and microphones fill a cramped corner near the bartender. The sonorous chords of tuning instruments drift over the ebb and flow of cheerful conversation.
While the band leader sets up his microphone, one of the bar’s patrons, pointing, asks him a question—is she really part of the band?
Yes. She really is.
They’re talking about the band’s most noteworthy member, Granny. Not only does Granny play in the band, but she’s the group’s namesake.
Granny’s real name is Alice Donahue. She’s the 84-year-old keyboard player for D.C. funk band Granny and the Boys.
It’s not hard to see why Granny turns heads. A white grandmother, she jams right alongside The Boys, a group of black, mostly middle-aged men.
If her appearance is unexpected, then her story is even more so.
Alice grew up playing classical piano. She loved making music, but as she got older, life got in the way. She got married, had children and stopped playing the piano as much as she used to.
It wasn’t until her husband’s health started declining from lung disease many years later that she considered playing again.
“When I pass, you’re going to need something,” Alice recollects him telling her. “You’ve got to get back into your music.”
After his death, Alice’s daughter encouraged her to take piano classes again at the University of Maryland. So she signed up for a senior course and began flexing her musical muscles once again.
Introduction to funk
It was while she was studying music at UMD almost 20 years ago that she was first introduced to the band that would one day become Granny and the Boys.
While grabbing food at the Roy Rogers near campus one day, a man 20 years her junior playfully snatched a music book out of her hand.
Drummer Richard Lynch shared an interest in music and took a liking to Alice, offering her free coffee at Roy Rogers. Eventually, defying expectations, the two started dating.
“The best thing that happened to me in my life, meeting her,” Richard said about Alice.
Alice started out as the manager for Richard’s band for about a year. Then one night, she got her big break when the keyboard player got tied up the day of a show and Richard asked Alice to fill in. It was an adjustment to learn how to play funk music, but once she got the groovy feel of it down, she never left the keyboard.
Playing in a band was thrilling, Alice said. She was instantly enamored by the full sounds of instruments and musicians playing together, regardless of age or background.
“To hear all those instruments blending together… you can’t touch it—unbelievable,” she said. “There’s no racial lines in music, there’s beginning to be no age lines in music.”
Granny and the Boys
The band played periodic shows for a while until the owner of a small neighborhood bar called Showtime offered them a regular gig. First they played once a month at the bar, then once a week after the band’s younger-skewing fan base kept coming back to see them on Sunday nights.
Though she may look out a bit of place at Showtime, Alice loves playing every week. She says the shows are a way to keep herself active. In fact, her doctors have told her the music has been good for her physically.
“I really think my health has been good since I’ve been into music,” Alice said.
“Music keeps people healthy, mentally and emotionally.”
She plans to keep playing with the band as long as she can.
“We’ve got a tip jar,” the 84-year-old said.
“I like to call it my retirement fund.”