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Young@Heart singer dies at age 83

January 04, 2009

Fred Knittle, one of the old-timers from the recent documentary Young@Heart, about an senior citizen singing group that performs modern rock songs, died today at age 83 after a short battle with cancer.

Knittle, a World War II machine-gunner who spent most of his working life as an executive at The Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Mass., was a breakout figure in the film, released by Fox Searchlight last spring.

Though using an oxygen tube due to offset problems from his congestive heart failure, Knittle delivered a heartbreaking rendition of Coldplay's Fix You in the film, displaying a deep, steady baritone that was unhampered by his other health troubles.

It was an especially touching moment because Knittle had rehearsed the song to perform as a duet with friend Bob Salvini, who is seen in the movie during rehearsals but died shortly before the concert finale.

"What do some of the words mean? I still don't understand it," Knittle said of his signature song in an interview before the film's release. "We've got all these problems, but there's still a ray of hope, and at the end of them, 'I will try to fix you.' "

Young@Heart has such bittersweet moments but is largely a lighthearted exploration of how these people, late in life, rejuvenate themselves with music their children or grandchildren might listen to.

Before he started singing rock songs, Knittle wasn't exactly a fan. His feeling was, "Turn it down and turn it off. The Clash? We wouldn't have allowed that in our house. Sonic Youth? No way, shape or form. … Now we have the old and the young captured by this kind of music."

Knittle was frequently a source of comic relief in the film, playfully delivering one-liners to his wife of more than 55 years, Barbara, who was his devoted straight man.
In keeping with Knittle's offbeat sense of humor, the Young@Heart singing group often put a comical spin on their cover versions of hits, such as The Ramones' I Wanna Be Sedated or the Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive," the latter of which was performed in the movie with the heavyset Knittle playing a lothario in a white leisure suit.

Other rock songs about pain and melancholy had different meaning for the aged performers. Knittle said one of his favorites was The Flaming Lips' All We Have Is Now, a sad song to some, but he said he sang it thinking of ways to enjoy the present.

He is survived by his wife, their four children, 12 grandchildren, and a lifetime of corny jokes.

Just three weeks ago, after getting word that his cancer was inoperable, Knittle faced his fate with the resolve and humor of a life well lived: "Although I wish there was more pleasant news about my condition … Oh well, I don't expect to get out of this world alive."

Anthony Breznican, USA TODAY

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