Lying in a hospital bed, a music therapist playing keyboard at his bedside, Chester Lowe closed his eyes and let the music touch his soul.
He rocked his head, raised his finger in the air and crashed it down as a cymbal clanged in a recorded version of “Sir Duke.”
For a moment, Lowe’s mind migrated back to Motown—back to Detroit, where he grew up. Back to visiting Gladys Knight at her aunt’s home a couple of doors down. Back to meeting Stevie Wonder and working behind the scenes for The Temptations.
The music faded, but Lowe’s smile continued to reverberate in his fifth-floor room at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, where he’d been for several weeks. He’s been there off and on for several years, navigating a cancer journey with multiple myeloma.
Lowe, 68, knew where his life’s lyrics led. He passed away five days after his Health Beat interview. His final wish? To share these life stories.
He seemed OK with facing his last days. Calm, really. He wanted to absorb the music while he could and share all he’s learned about the important bits between the notes.
Music has composed his life. It’s only fitting that, until his heartbeat stopped, he wanted the beat to continue, whenever and wherever possible.
Spectrum Health music therapist Erin Wegener first met Lowe in 2016, when Lowe spent time on Butterworth Hospital’s fifth floor during cancer treatment. Wegener has been providing music therapy ever since.
“He’s been in and out several times,” Wegener said. “This time when he came back, he told me he had stopped some of his treatments in the last year or two and that he was taking a risk doing that, but he wanted more quality of life.”
Wegener worked with Lowe on guided imagery with relaxing music. She even joined him during a recent radiation treatment.
“We talked about how relaxing music might be beneficial during radiation,” Wegener said. “He requested ‘Greensleeves.’ We set up a recorded piece of music and other relaxing meditations just to help relieve some of the anxiety that goes with radiation.”
Wegener set up a keyboard while Lowe waited in the infusion area.
“He ended up playing some melodies that he remembered from many, many years ago,” she said. “He played ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.’ The more he played, the more melodies he could remember. You could tell he was playing from auditory memory.”
On a recent December weekday, Lowe worked with Wegener again, as he has so many days before.
Lowe spoke of his childhood, growing up in Detroit, hanging out with Gladys Knight and her brother, David, one of his best friends.
“She moved from Atlanta to Detroit to be part of Motown,” Lowe said. “I was about 10 or 11. I had a strong rapport with her. She lived two doors down from where I lived. I ran errands for her. I was introduced to Stevie Wonder through Gladys Knight.”
When Lowe moved to Saginaw, Michigan, in his late teens, he met up with Stevie Wonder again.
“There were a lot of things we had in common,” Lowe said. “He wrote a lot of different songs that people didn’t even know about.”
Lowe brought the conversation back around to Gladys and how he used to sweep for her aunt.
As he spoke, Wegener started playing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” on the keyboard, a song written for Motown Records in 1966 and released by Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1967, followed by a Marvin Gaye release of the hit song the following year.
“I heard it through the grapevine, how much longer will you be my baby?” Wegener sang.
With Lowe’s Gladys Knight connection—and working backstage at several of her concerts, doing clean-up work—he landed a couple of gigs cleaning up backstage for The Temptations.
Asked if The Temptations were messy, Lowe threw his head back, rolled his eyes and nodded.
“No comment,” he said, laughing.
Lowe stayed in the music field into adulthood, landing a job with the Pittsburgh Symphony from 1988 to the mid-’90s.
He then took a job in the marketing department with the Grand Rapids Symphony. During his time there, he arranged for some symphony members to perform Christmas carols for the homeless.
Music has always brought a harmony and sensibility into his life, especially during his days in the hospital.
He speaks of composers, jazz, classical music and the many genres that sometimes coalesce and form other genres. Native American music. Black gospel. Motown.
America’s music history is storied and fascinating—much like Lowe himself.
“There are a lot of things in the music field which come from not only Europe, but from Africa, Egypt and various parts of the world,” Lowe said. “We get a lot of music from various other countries.”
As Lowe spoke, Wegener played soothing keyboard notes at his bedside. It’s the music he craved. Relaxing sounds. The ones that carried him to Motown memories and beyond, to places and feelings far beyond hospital walls and cancer.
“When she comes in, not only does the beat go on, but the sleeping starts,” Lowe said, laughing. “It’s very relaxing. It makes me feel better. It brings back memories of the past when I hear music.”
On her keyboard Wegener began to softly play “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a 1926 tune composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics written by Ira Gershwin.
Wegener sang in a lilting, soprano voice, the notes rising up with a deep reverberation.
“Good ol’ Gershwin,” Lowe said.
Wegener then broke into Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” It had originally been titled “Never No Lament,” when Ellington first recorded it in 1940.
As Wegener played, Lowe sang along. The truth in the songs weren’t lost on anyone.
When the last note faded, Lowe requested “Sir Duke,” by Stevie Wonder.
They used a cell phone to play it, Wegener banging out percussion on the keyboard.
“You can feel it all over, you can feel it all over, people,” the lyrics blared.
Lowe’s eyes closed and he slipped inside his mind, migrating off to Motown.
“Does this take you back there?” Wegener asked.
Eyes still closed, Lowe sighed deeply and nodded.
At that moment, there was no place he’d rather be.