What do James Taylor and The Beatles have in common with the Head of the National Institute of Health? Quite a bit, I recently found out when I was hired by legendary financier and philanthropist Michael Milken as Musical Director for a concert during the Celebration of Science, a major event in Washington, D.C.
The Celebration was a three-day gathering of the world’s most brilliant and influential medical researchers and public officials, members of Congress and heads of universities. In panels and talks, they gathered to share ideas and deliver the message that America should recommit itself to bioscience.
On the Saturday night of the Celebration, there would be a Kennedy Center event featuring patient stories, talks by political leaders and performances by Kenny Edmonds, Stevie Nicks and Melissa Manchester. I would arrange, conduct and produce the music for the live event and the subsequent TV broadcast.
At an early meeting Mike told me his idea (every show Milken produces -- whether it be for the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the Milken Educator Awards or FasterCures -- is centered on one of Mike’s “ideas”): “So many of these amazing doctors are musicians,” he said, “I want you to put together a band of doctors.”
Just because a doctor can map the Human Genome, doesn’t mean he can play the guitar well enough to perform in front of 1,000 people, not to mention a televised audience of millions. (Conversely, I don’t think anyone would want me to take out an appendix.)
Instinctively I started to say to Mike, “But what if…”
Mike smiled his Cheshire Cat smile. I didn’t even bother to finish my sentence. I was going to put together a band of famous doctors and they were going to play live at the Kennedy Center.
As he disappeared to another meeting Mike called back over his shoulder, “Call Francis Collins. He plays guitar.”
I’m not a scientist or even particularly interested in science, but I did have cancer (in remission, thanks docs!) so I knew that not only is Collins the head of the NIH, but he was also the man who led the mapping of the aforementioned Human Genome. I simply couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone and say, “Hey Francis baby, let’s jam.” I sent an email.
Within seconds, my phone rang. “Hello Glen, This is Francis.” We talked for a half hour about music and how much music means to him and how he couldn’t wait for this gig. All the time I was talking I tried not to imagine the day that President Obama must have callEd Francis to inform him of his nomination to be head of the NIH. He gave me a few of his colleagues to call, people like Dr. Steve Libutti who played drums. Libutti’s day job is Director of Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care and he was one of the pioneers of regional and targeted cancer therapy as well as an internationally recognized surgical oncologist and endocrine surgeon. Jonathan Lewin, Francis continued, played a mean sax and his day job was as Radiologist-in-Chief at John Hopkins Hospital, with secondary appointments as Professor of Oncology, Neurosurgery and Biomedical Engineering. I loved talking to them but kept thinking, I hope these guys can swing.
I made more calls and everyone was thrilled to talk, probably because I was the only one calling that day, or that year perhaps, who was not fighting a terminal disease or asking about the side effects of a particular chemo. Or calling to cut their funding. I just wanted to know if they could read chord changes. I left a phone message for John Burklow, Director of Communications for NIH. “If I’m out of the office, and this is a reporter who needs me immediately for a comment, please call my cell phone.” He had to be glad it was me calling about his sight-reading abilities and not 60 Minutes calling about some new cancer drug that causes a third eye to suddenly appear.
Once everyone was in place, I discovered I had four keyboard players, five guitars, one singing bass player, one drummer, one flute player, one harmonica, two trumpets and a sax. Not exactly a standard band configuration. I now had to figure out what the hell they were going to play.
Mike was very clear the concert had to serve the greater purpose of research and FasterCures, so the doctors or Rock Docs as I was now calling them (Francis didn’t like Amino Acid) couldn’t just play the songs from Oklahoma! I concocted a medley of You’ve Got a Friend, Here Comes the Sun, and Help, songs I thought the doctors and audience could relate to. My partner Irwin Fisch and I started writing for four keyboard players, five guitars, one singing bass player, one drummer, one flute player, one harmonica, two trumpets and a sax. We didn’t have a clue as to the level of musicianship, let alone if they could sing. They said they could play, so I trusted them. If you can’t trust a doctor, whom can you trust?
I made demos of the music with me singing the parts and sent them to the Roc Docs. One of the guitar players dropped out immediately. He said he would be much happier (and I would be much happier) to sit in the audience.
Francis, who struck me as a winning combination of James Taylor and Jimmy Stewart, arranged for the local DC doctors to get together over Labor Day and run through some of the music as a pre-rehearsal rehearsal. I mentioned this to Larry Lesser, Mike’s producer, and before I could get out, “Should I…?” he said, “Go!”
On Labor Day, I met all these brilliant people in Francis’s living room and frankly, I hadn’t encountered such enthusiasm in my bands since I was a kid. No “when is the break?” “How much is this paying?” “Who’s got the weed?” They were dying to do this. Although they were all completely terrified. They tried to smile and joke, but I know terror when I see it. They were on the high diving board and they really could only dog paddle. They were getting into a Ferrari and didn’t quite know how to use a clutch.
They had diligently practiced the music I sent. A few surprises: the keyboard players asked me to write out the chord notes as opposed to the chord symbols, something no high school player would ask, but fair enough. High school players can’t cure cancer. Most of The Players were uncomfortable with just their own music parts and wanted the words written in. Again, fair enough. One musician asked if he should bring a music stand. I gently said, “Do you ask if you should bring a scalpel to the operating theater.” “We will supply music stands. And even lights.”
They started to play. Francis has a lovely, sweet, folk-type voice and we ran through You’ve Got A Friend. It wasn’t half bad. Some of the chords were misread, the rhythm was all over the place, the bass player forgot to bring the music, so he didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about when I said let’s start at bar five, but all in all, I was thrilled.