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VOL. 123 | NO. 42 | Friday, February 29, 2008

MusiCares Provides Hope to Entertainers

SCOTT SHEPARD | Special to The Daily News

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SAFETY NET: Thirty-eight-year-old singer, guitar player and songwriter E.J. Friedman turned to MusiCares, which provides health and wellness services for musicians and related artists, when he hit a low point in life. -- Photo By Scott Shepard

In the past 12 months, singing diva Celine Dion pulled down a cool $45 million, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, country crooner Tim McGraw earned $37 million and rapper 50 Cent had to make do on $33 million.

Such handsome salaries by a few top acts overshadow the many thousands of musicians who make ends meet by serving you coffee at Starbuck's or stock the shelves at Wal-Mart, doing what they have to while making time dedicated to their art. And when they get sick, they have few places to turn.

Some of them discover MusiCares.

"I don't have any hit songs; I don't have a big track record," says E.J. Friedman, a singer, guitar player and songwriter. "There was a period in my life in 2001 when I needed to make sweeping changes, but I couldn't afford rehab and I had no health insurance."

The 38-year-old native Memphian was working in Seattle at the time and turned to a friend, promoter David Meinert, who today is part of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Grammy Foundation. Meinert pointed Friedman to MusiCares, which picked up the bill for eight months of drug and alcohol rehabilitation at Michael's House Men's Center near Los Angeles.

Taking care of their own

MusiCares was founded in 1989 by The Recording Academy, two years after Woody Herman died, spending his declining years performing night after night to pay back taxes to the IRS. Herman was a jazz great, known especially for his clarinet and saxophone. When someone so respected died, nearly destitute, the music industry sought to help their own.

"We've been providing health and wellness services since that time," said Debbie Carroll, executive director of health and human services for MusiCares. "This year we're on target to contribute $3 million in aid to over 1,000 individuals nationwide."

The Recording Academy, owner of the Grammy Awards, is based in Los Angeles, though Carroll is based in Nashville. Much of that $3 million is raised in a single night, at the annual Person of the Year Awards dinner, two nights before the Grammy Awards. This year Memphis-born Aretha Franklin was honored at the Feb. 8 bash, which included an online auction of music memorabilia.

Among the auction items were a private painting lesson with Tony Bennett; the guitar Elvis Presley used during his last show at the Las Vegas Hilton; a Bill Clinton-signed saxophone; and "Stairway To Heaven" sheet music autographed by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones.

Around the nation there also are Grammy Award viewing parties and other opportunities to donate to MusiCares.

Those such as Friedman who personally have benefited also do their part. Recently, Friedman has had steady work on several local movies, including Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan" and the recently completed "Nothing But The Truth." When he has some extra cash, direct gifts to MusiCares are just as important as paying the rent.

Friedman recently turned to MusiCares to get help with emergency dental treatment. They came through for him again, but it was the intensive treatment in California that he is still humbled by.

"Without it, I would be in jail today or an institution somewhere," he said. "Without someone to put me back in touch with myself, I'd be in a serious situation. I owe them my life."

The most pressing needs that come to MusiCares, Carroll said, are urgent medical and dental problems.

There sometimes are needs for urgent surgery or a musician has terminal cancer. Sometimes musicians break an arm and can't work for a few months, so they also need help with the rent, utilities and car notes.

Swallow that pride

Musicians can be a proud bunch, and sometimes stubborn. Carroll encourages her clients to take advantage of free health fairs, and discount medical care at clinics and medical schools. Carroll even has stayed on the phone with a hospital, cajoling for the same discount they already give to Blue Cross and Cigna members.

She also counsels her clients to seek out temporary agencies for survival work, and apply in new ways the various personal skills they've developed.

"They've been a musician all their life and notice things are slowing down," she said. "We offer them counseling on careers they may have never thought about. Some people have blinders; they've done something their entire life and don't know what else to do for work."

Like many people, musicians also don't take advantage of opportunities in front of them. In Memphis the Church Health Center offers its $45-a-month Memphis Plan to those who make their primary income from music. While some local musicians go to the Church Health Center independently, only 16 have availed themselves of the service offered through the Memphis Music Commission.

"We actually offered low-cost medical coverage nationwide and found that very few people took advantage of it," Carroll said. "In order to offer a plan that's affordable, you need a lot of participants."

MusiCares since has partnered with the Actors Fund of America and, to get the risk pool as big as possible, opened the service up to anyone in entertainment.

"Sometimes people won't prioritize insurance until they need it, and then it's too late," Carroll said. "So we work with them to find and pay for insurance as a priority."

Twenty-five percent of MusiCares money goes to drug and alcohol rehab, but that's not a commentary on entertainers in particular. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration calculates that more than 45 percent of people abuse something, be it alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription medications, even mouthwash, which can be 80 proof.

"It tells us something about individuals everywhere," Carroll said. "Addiction is everywhere, but these people have something of an occupational hazard. They perform in venues where alcohol is readily served."

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