Bobby Derricotte just can’t stop singing. The 82-year-old Vietnam veteran has performed at schools, retirement homes and libraries. Sometimes he’ll stand in Vancouver’s Esther Short Park, belting out the oldies with an occasional rap thrown in.
He calls himself the Singin’ Senior. His mission? Make people feel good. When you’re talking to Derricotte, it’s hard not to.
“I want people to remember the good young days, not the good old days,” said Derricotte, who lives in east Vancouver. “When we were kids, we had a great time together. We knew everybody. If I was 5 miles away from home and got in trouble, before I got home my mom and dad knew it. That’s what it was like. Everybody took care of each other. I love bringing back the music of that time.”
Born in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, just nine months before the infamous bombing, Derricotte grew up under two powerful influences: music and the military. His father, a professional musician and Navy man known as Dizzy Derricotte, sang, danced and played saxophone, entertaining troops on the island. Derricotte said the troops called his father “the Bob Hope of Oahu.”
Bobby Derricotte enlisted in 1961 and served in the U.S. Navy until 1965. He had a talent for code-making and code-breaking and was granted top-secret clearance, working to encrypt and decrypt classified messages aboard the USS Taussig. He was deployed on special operations to Cambodia and Laos, although he never spoke of it until the missions were declassified in 2001.
After completing his military service, he held various jobs around Southern California before using his GI Bill benefits to go to diesel truck driving school. In 1985, he was hired by a Long Beach, Calif., transit company. Six years later, at age 50, he returned to Hawaii and got a job as a public bus driver and stayed put until he retired at 70. He moved to Washington to live near his two sisters. He had free time on his hands and knew exactly how he wanted to fill it.
“I wanted to sing. I went to different rest homes and I asked if I could come in and sing to the seniors,” Derricotte said. “One day I went down to Esther Short Park and I just started singing. I had my Vietnam veteran’s uniform on and I sang for people at the farmers market.”
Derricotte said that the joy his singing brings to others makes him feel “honored and blessed,” a far cry from the reception he received when he returned from war to re-enter civilian life.
“When I came home from Vietnam, people would give me the finger or call me a killer but I didn’t say anything because I knew I was fighting for freedom,” Derricotte said. “The key in life as a veteran is ‘somebody loves me.’ So I came up with the Singin’ Senior.”
Derricotte peppers his conversation with 1960s slang and a smattering of musical references from Chubby Checker and the Bee Gees to the Hawaiian-born Bruno Mars (who he says is a family friend). He loves to surprise people by rapping — “Bobby Derricotte, that’s what they call me / I’m the oldest rapper you ever did see” — and reeling off facts about the rapper Eminem. But he has a soft spot for patriotic songs. He was among the veterans honored at last year’s Veterans Day ceremony at Fort Vancouver High School, where he sang Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
Derricotte is a veritable one-man show, using his cellphone to connect via Bluetooth to a small karaoke machine. (“I call it my rolling boombox, man,” Derricotte said. “Boom, boom.”) He encourages people to dance, sing along or snap their fingers to the rhythm. Any way listeners express their enthusiasm is fine with Derricotte. The point is to live life to the fullest, he said.
“I do whatever I need to do to get people motivated and enjoy the hour we spend together,” Derricotte said. “A lot of people are kind of bashful. I see them sitting in the seat and they’re tapping their toes or wiggling their nose or clapping their hands and smiling. That’s dancing. You can sit down and dance, you know what I mean?”
Derricotte says his wife, Claudette, is his biggest supporter. He’s also a self-published poet (“Reflections of a Human Being,” available on Amazon) and is working on his second volume. He has a code-maker’s penchant for numbers and letters and enjoys creating acronyms for concepts he wants to remember or share. He considers himself a M.E.N.T.O.R.: someone who Meets another person’s Emotional, spiritual or physical Needs To Open them up to Responsibility — that is, a person who encourages others to make a positive contribution to society.
“There’s a saying I came up with: If at first you don’t succeed, make an attitude adjustment. Go from negative to positive,” Derricotte said. “Most people are in a negative mood, thinking ‘Nobody likes me.’ Well, how do you know that? Get out of yourself. I’m here to build you up, buttercup.”
This story was updated to reflect that Derricotte worked with Navy SEALs on covert operations due to his expertise in encryption and decryption. An earlier version contained incorrect information.