If you are a Victoria Williams fan, then you most likely know about Sweet Relief, the INCREDIBLE organization established to provide financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems. If you are not yet familiar with this inspiring and ground-breaking foundation, Rob Max is here to tell you all about it and how you can help as well, particularly in this challenging economy when they have been able to help countless musicians who need health care.
Love and Water- When did Sweet Relief begin?
Rob Max- We’re in our 17th year, so we began around 1993, when one of America’s great songwriters, Victoria Williams, was touring with Neil Young. Part way through the tour she became ill, and had to leave the tour. She found out she had multiple sclerosis. At the time she had no health insurance and it can be very expensive to find the right treatments, especially since it’s a life-long treatment process. Several artists came together and performed a benefit show for her, and out of the benefit show came the album titled “Sweet Relief,” which included tracks by Pearl Jam, Lou Reed and Soul Asylum. It raised several million dollars for Victoria. She realized this was an ongoing issue for musicians who didn’t have health insurance, and so she decided to create a charity that could assist them. There have always been a few charities that are similar to what we do, but what sets us apart is that we try to fix problems when we can. We’ll give small amounts of money to artists for everyday needs, but we will also give larger amounts for cancer treatments and operations that could potentially end the problem at hand. One of our fastest growing programs right now is for elder musicians. Many of them are in their sixties and seventies, and are finding they’re in some trouble because they don’t have health care. Many musicians thought they would be able to rely on catalog sales of their music to provide for them, but not many people are buying those these days. We try to help them as much as possible. We also have an outreach program where we try to alert musicians to other programs that may be able to help them in areas we may not. We have our outreach manager spend time with them and decide what kind of plan is best for them.
L&W- How can musicians who need help contact you?
RM- They go to our website and email us or call us. We’ve received so many new cases this past year with the recession that we have been working non-stop to try to get as much help to as many musicians as we can. We return emails and calls. We’re mainly focused on fundraising right now in order to meet the demands of the cases we’ve received as a result of the recession. We reach out to the music and corporate industries for support in that area. There are well-known musicians who fall into trouble with their health and find themselves without health care. Alex Chilton is an example- he is a very well known recording artist who was set to play at South By Southwest, and he died in his hotel room before his performance of a heart attack. We found out from his wife that he had been experiencing pain for two weeks before he died but since he didn’t have health insurance he didn’t go to the doctor. We’re currently raising funds for Richie Hayward, the drummer for Little Feat and also Robert Plant’s drumer for years. He has liver cancer, and when we have an artist of note like he is we are able to hold larger concerts that raise a larger amount of money. Holding a concert on that scale gets the attention of corporations who then take the time to learn more about our cause and will often donate as a result, making it easier for us to help lesser-known musicians in similar situations.
L&W- You have a great presence on social media outlets- how has that worked for you as a means of spreading the word about Sweet Relief?
RM- It’s a process, and we’ve been really sure we’re in all the right places, like Facebook and Twitter. It’s a continuing learning process, and we’ve been able to raise over $5,000.00 through Facebook. It gets our message out and enables us to spread the word about our larger concerts. We’re working on an iPhone app right now as well.
L&W- Where would you say most of your funding comes from at this point?
RM- Most of our funding comes from benefits- when we do larger shows with big names, we’re able to raise a good amount that way. We’ve had a number of people make personal donations in the name of various musicians who have passed away.
L&W- What is the most moving moment you’ve had so far with Sweet Relief?
RM- On the phone a couple of weeks ago with Lester Chambers, who was a member of the Chambers Brothers, a great group from the 60’s and 70’s. They crossed over into the world of rock. He had 12 brothers and sisters and grew up as a sharecropper in Alabama. He now has ocular tumors, and he and his wife lost their house during the housing disaster. He and his brothers worked their tails off to become successful musicians and they made it. They reached out to us, and being on the phone with him and hearing how humble he is and how much he didn’t want to ask for help was very moving. He has tumors on his eyes, he can’t get his dental work done because Medicaid doesn’t cover what he needs, and he’s still out playing benefits for other musicians. It was heartbreaking. We agreed that we would help other musicians as well if we held a concert for him, as per his request. We reached out to his friends to see if we could put together a concert. His friends include Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt and Alice Cooper.
L&W- Is there anything else you want people to know about Sweet Relief?
RM- We welcome anyone who wants to help. If you are a musician who wants to participate in a show to help other musicians, let us know so that we can include you. If you want to include us on your list of charities who you donate to, we welcome that, because any amount is helpful, even $10.00 or $20.00. When enough people give that much it makes a big difference. We’re not about just helping rock stars who may have blown their money- we’re about supporting musicians who have worked hard and find themselves in an unfortunate position of not having insurance. And that’s who we will continue to support.