July 03, 1989 12:00 PM

Take it away, Georgia!” says bandleader and sax player Peggy Gilbert. On cue, keyboardist Georgia Shilling launches into a dazzling Dixieland riff. Marnie Wells and Natalie Robin kick in on trumpet and clarinet. Pearl Powers plucks away on the bass while Jerrie Thill, drummer and smoky-voiced lead singer, twirls the drumsticks over her head. Once again the Dixie Belles are in full swing and, as is often the case, their Palm Springs, Calif., audience appears to be in shock.

The reaction of stunned surprise among those who have never seen or heard the Dixie Belles is understandable. For starters, says Gilbert, “We’re the only all-girl Dixieland band that we know of.” And then there’s the matter of their ages: Gilbert is 84; Shilling, 72; Wells, 73; Robin, 67; Powers, 70, and Thill, 72. The Belles must be one of the few regularly performing professional bands in which every member collects social security.

By the time they’re halfway through their first number, toes are tapping, hands are clapping. Despite a repertoire of “a few thousand tunes”—mostly Dixieland standards, old dance favorites and R&B—they perform from memory without even a peek at sheet music. “Even if your song dates back to the Middle Ages,” Gilbert quips, while inviting audience requests, “we probably know it.”

The Belles have a lot in common. Four of them were born in Iowa. Four are divorcées and two are widows. All but one polished their talents in all-girl dance bands. They were acquainted with one another, at least on a nodding basis, when Gilbert first assembled the group for a 1974 concert. “We figured it would be a fun thing,” Peggy says, expecting a onetime fling, “and it turned out to be a steady gig.”

The group has succeeded, even though they have never had an agent and never wander too far from their Los Angeles base. “At this time of life,” says Gilbert, “we don’t want anybody telling us what to do and where or when to go.” But their fame has traveled well. They average 150 jobs a year, earning at least union scale for each appearance. They received 11 standing ovations at the 1983 Sacramento Dixieland Jubilee. They were a hit on The Tonight Show. And in 1986 they cut an album, Peggy Gilbert and the Dixie Belles, on the Cambria label.

Several years ago the Belles lost their trombone player after she was incapacitated by a stroke, and Gilbert laments the fact that “you can’t find anybody in our age bracket to take her place. They’ve all hung up their horns—and that’s it!” But the remaining members vow to keep playing together for as long as they can. Perhaps the best summation of the Belles’ attitude comes from trumpeter Wells, who says, “I’ll be okay as long as I have my teeth.”

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