Fitzpatrick’s love for music sparks 50-year pursuit
Classic country musician battling 2nd bout with cancer
CRESSON — Classic country musician John “Jack” Fitzpatrick of Cresson has played throughout Pennsylvania and beyond for the past 51 years — opening for Tanya Tucker, the Kendalls and Billy “Crash” Craddock, to name a few.
On Sept. 17, with Jean, his wife of 52 years by his side, Jack reminisced about his time in the spotlight, growing up in the Klondike area outside Patton and fighting lung cancer for the second time.
It’s been a life filled with music and family, the couple said.
While the cancer has taken away his ability to yodel and sing, Jack’s fingers deftly strummed his beloved Fender Telecaster guitar, a first wedding anniversary gift from Jean Ann. Once white, the now-brown woodgrain guitar had to be refurbished after the family lost their home to a fire in 1991.
“Music always came first and is his first love,” Jean said. “We bought a camper years ago, but used it to go play music all over on the weekends.”
Jack’s music reflects the sound and stylings of his favorite country performers — Buck Owens, Conway Twitty and George Jones.
In the early years of performing, Jack and his brothers formed their first band — Jack and the Ramblers — while students at Cambria Heights High School.
They played for sheer enjoyment, Jack said.
Later, they performed as the Back Country Band. Today, they’re known as Jack’s Crossfire and include Fitzpatrick brothers Robert, Allen and Jack, Sam Chilcote and Mark Keiter.
All the brothers are self-taught musicians who played locally, regionally and then across several states at honky-tonks, fairs, high school auditoriums, campgrounds and music festivals.
The oldest Fitzpatrick brother, Robert, 78, said the brothers began playing music for a quarter at the request of uncles and at family reunions. With practice, he and Jack developed a unique back-and-forth yodel segment that always seemed to delight listeners, he said.
The group broke up for a bit due to world events, but music has always filled his life, Jack said, including when he served during the Vietnam War.
He wrote more than 20 songs while aboard a ship during his first Navy deployment to Vietnam from 1964-67, but the songs were stolen, Jack said.
He also collaborated with another Patton area resident, Dianne (Holtz) Litzinger, on two songs she recorded on the Ohio Record label in the early 1970s: “I Got the Hurt” and “Blues Stay Away.”
Litzinger said Jack has always been a good musician and “a great guy.”
“They entertained a lot of people with their music,” she said, adding he is talented and “always happy.”
Well, almost always happy.
Those two songs Litzinger recorded were written over heartbreak, Jack said.
“I wrote them the same night. They just came to me,” he said. “I’d just had a heart-breaking breakup.”
While the records captured local airplay, they didn’t launch anyone to stardom.
“You had to have a lot of promotion back then,” Jack said.
After Vietnam, he served again from 1983-2001 as a member of the U.S. Naval Construction Battalions, known as the Navy Seabees.
In 2004, Jack, then 57, deployed to Iraq for a year.
“I barely made it in,” he said. “I was one of the oldest serving and among three others from Vietnam. I just wanted to serve. I could get killed just as easily here — so why not serve?”
Jack retired from the Navy in 2006, when he was diagnosed with squamous cell lung cancer, which he survived. Just 11 months ago, doctors diagnosed him with small cell lung cancer, which has spread despite treatment.
Jack said he chooses not to dwell on the cancer.
“It’s not good as there’s no cure. They can just slow it down,” he said. “It’s part of life. … It’s a natural path.”
The latest cancer diagnosis has slowed Jack down. He performed his last show with Jack’s Crossfire Band on Aug. 11 at the Cresson Volunteer Firefighters convention.
“He’s always been a social butterfly with the audience and a showman. It was hard to see him sitting down after the first set. He just couldn’t go anymore,” niece Lisa Shoap of Shippensburg said.
Growing up with her Uncle Jack and Aunt Jean Ann, she absorbed a love of music like a paper towel sucks up a spill.
She’s not the only one.
“We grew up with the band and going to shows,” said Jack’s nephew, Craig, 48, the son of Robert. “It was normal for us. We thought everybody’s dad had a band.”
Craig recalled how he would often play with the band at the former Ashville Inn on Wednesday nights.
“People really enjoyed it. We’d be joined by different guests on stage each week. The biggest thrill for me was to be able to play with my uncles and be part of the family’s musical tradition,” he said.
One of Craig’s favorite memories with his dad and uncles was being the live band for Cresson Lake Playhouse’s two-week engagement about the life of Patsy Cline in 1998.
Jack, Craig said, taught him: “We were there to entertain and not fool around. Uncle Jack has always been serious about stage presence and being professional in front of people.”
The Fitzpatricks “shared a connection on stage. You just know what they are going to do next. There’s a mental bond between all of us,” Craig said.
“I know when my dad wants to take the lead on the song. We never discuss it ahead of time,” he said, crediting Jack with “generously sharing the spotlight with all band members.”
Jack’s generosity extended to sharing his equipment — many times with bigger name acts — like Billie Walker, the Kendalls and a 15-year-old Tanya Tucker when she played in Altoona fresh off her first hit, “Delta Dawn.”
“She didn’t have enough equipment, so she borrowed ours,” Jack said. “I only bought the best equipment when I was younger and that’s where all my money went.”
One of Jack’s favorite memories is how he bested Hee Haw’s Elrod, country music star Kenny Price.
“I outsung him. I got a standing ovation and he didn’t,” Jack said.
“I did Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ When he did it, they just sat there,” he said. “He didn’t like that. He couldn’t believe a punk kid could get a standing ovation and he didn’t.”
“That’s the way it goes sometimes,” he added.
The Fitzpatrick file
Name: John “Jack” Fitzpatrick
Family: Wife Jean Ann; children, Tina Barentes in Ohio, Sharon Yingling of Morrisdale, Christine Pompa of Johnstown, John of Imler, Jennifer Digilarmo of Dillsburg; 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Employment: Retired as a railroad machinist in 2001 with 33 years of service.
Military service: Navy veteran, served in Vietnam and Iraq.