At age, 79, McGarvey recently performed at the Nillie Bipper Arts Festival, closing the show with her toe-tapping, audience-rousing accordion playing. The Cleveland resident plays regularly in at least 20 nursing homes and assisted living centers in Cleveland, Chattanooga, Hixon, Dayton and Athens, and as far away as Connecticut.
The charismatic entertainer worked with the International Cultural Festival and landed a songwriter’s contract in Nashville. She wrote songs for Broadcast Music Incorporated, meeting country music legends and superstars like Loretta Lynn, Reba McIntire, Boxcar Willie and the Mandrell sisters.
McGarvey recently performed with Grand Ole Opry veteran Doyle Dykes in Nashville at his daughter’s wedding. Even Dykes, one of the world’s greatest guitarists, was impressed with her fast fingers and youthful agility. McGarvey smiled when describing the look on Dykes’ face while she was playing her accordion.
“He was shocked! He said, ‘I didn’t know you could work that thing like that!” she recalled.
Born in Bavaria, Germany, McGarvey took two years of piano lessons starting at age 8. She has been playing the accordion since she was 12. Everything else has been self-taught and raw talent, according to the cheerful musician.
Her mother, Victoria Scherer, played the mandolin and the banjo. Her father, Casper, played the zither, a musical instrument with strings stretched over a flat sounding board. Her sister, Inge, played the accordion. Her uncle, Franz Schwarzkopf, was a famous conductor for the state’s philharmonic in East Berlin.
“I come from a very musical family,” McGarvey said. “Music is in our blood. Everyone played an instrument in our family and we always had a house full of company.”
Her late husband, “Hungry” George McGarvey, played the guitar and mandolin with “Grandpa” Jones in Nashville. After 56 years of marriage, the ever-optimistic widow has been taking her accordion and making it on her own, proving that talent and tenacity can thrive in any economy.
“I love to see people happy and music makes people happy!” McGarvey said. “I can play a song from just about every country — Spanish, French, Italian, Irish, German — you name it. I don’t leave anyone out. When people hear my music they feel it. They become part of it.”
According to McGarvey, seniors and music lovers of all ages have been caught up in the rapture of her rollicking music.
“It’s a gift God gave me,” she said. “He rewards me by keeping me in good health. I get such a thrill out of seeing people so happy when they hear my music. They love it. When I first started at some health care facilities the people were hanging over their wheelchairs like they were taking their last breath.
“Now, they want to dance — do the chicken dance and the hokey-pokey. They get up and shuffle their feet! They really love it!”
It is her love of music and love of people that makes McGarvey an authentic artist, as rare as the accordion she plays. Growing up in Nazi Germany, McGarvey still remember lessons in love her parents taught her as a child — lessons that molded her into the person she is today.
“I was 9 years old when the war broke out in Germany,” she said. “I saw people mistreated, like they did the Jews, loaded up and brought to Germany for hard labor. They didn’t get much to eat. We didn’t have much to eat at that time either.
“My mom would boil a big pot of potatoes and put them in our pockets, me and my sister. She’d say, ‘Walk along the fence, but don’t let the guards catch you. Just drop them. They’re going to reach out for them.’ When they saw us coming they knew what to do. My mom just felt bad for them because they had little kids. The place was surrounded by barbwire.”
Even though the risk of being caught could have brought dire consequences, McGarvey said she never forgot the example her parents set in making sacrifices for others and showing love for people, regardless of their race or faith.
“I had wonderful parents. We could never use the word ‘hate,’” she said. “We were taught to love and respect all people. I learned compassion and love from what I experienced. I have friends who are Jewish, Hispanic, African-American — it doesn’t matter what color or religion you are, as long as you strive to be a good person. We are all God’s children.”
McGarvey has had the same accordion since she was age 10 — a gift given to her when she was leaving for America.
That gift proved to be a blessing, not only for the little girl who grew up to become an accomplished accordionist, but for all those who love music and the indomitable spirit of a woman who was taught from birth that love for others and a medley of music are the sweetest sounds in heaven and on earth.