Music Exec Tony Martell's 40-Year Quest to Cure Cancer in Memory of His Son

Yoko Ono (L) and T.J. Martell Foundation founder and chairman Tony Martell
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for T.J. Martell Foundation

Yoko Ono and T.J. Martell Foundation founder and chairman Tony Martell pose backstage at the T.J. Martell Foundation's 39th Annual New York Honors Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on October 21, 2014 in New York City. 

The veteran music exec has raised $270 million in his son’s name.

Forty years ago, Tony Martell promised his terminally ill 21-year-old son, T.J., and the physician treating him, James F. Holland, that he would raise $1 million for cancer research. It took Martell three years to fulfill that ­promise -- but, he tells Billboard, his ­philanthropical quest was far from over. Holland “took me around to several patients to more or less lay a guilt trip on me.” One of those patients, recalls Martell, told him ­something that convinced him to stay in the game. “He said, ‘You can live 30 days without food, seven days without water. But you can’t live 60 seconds without hope.’”

When the T.J. Martell Foundation ­celebrates its 40th anniversary at its Top 40 Gala at Cipriani Wall Street in New York, ­scheduled for Oct. 15, the ­organization, named in memory of Martell’s son, will have raised a total of $270 million during that time period and funded breakthroughs in the research and treatment of leukemia, prostate, bladder and other ­cancers. “There is a cure for everything,” says Martell. “We just have to find it.”

The gala, which was set to feature ­performances by REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Train’s Pat Monahan and Australian singer-­songwriter Grace, will pay special tribute to its founder and ­chairman and also honor Palm Restaurant Group co-­chairmen/co-owners Bruce Bozzi Sr. and Wally Ganzi, Harman International ­chairman/president/CEO Dinesh Paliwal, fashion designer John Varvatos and Guggenheim Media Entertainment Group co-president/chief creative officer Janice Min and co-president John Amato.

Martell, a former CBS Records executive and longtime A&R man who signed Electric Light Orchestra, Joan Jett, Ozzy Osbourne and Stevie Ray Vaughan and worked with The Isley Brothers and The O’Jays, declined to divulge the total raised from this year’s event but says it was a record. “The question is always ‘How much have you raised?,’ when we should be asking ‘How many lives have you saved?’” he says. The two-time cancer survivor prefers to talk about advancements such as an approach to blood testing, funded by the Martell Foundation and developed by New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia urologist-in-chief Mitchell Benson and other researchers, that “not only detects prostate cancer but [determines] who needs treatment right away,” says Martell.

He also is excited about his foundation’s funding of organoid growing, a process in which cancer cells are harvested from a patient’s body, grown in vitro and used to determine the most effective path for treatment. “We let our researchers go off the beaten path to find new approaches,” says Martell, adding the foundation annually brings together approximately 30 researchers and doctors to exchange ideas and generate new ones at its annual Scientific Consortium.

The organization will announce at the gala that its annual $50,000 Clive Davis Research Fellow Award will go to a scientist or medical professional in the field of leukemia research, the disease that claimed Martell’s son. Martell, who lives in Madison, N.J., says he was in a grocery store recently when an elderly man approached him and said, “I want to thank your son for saving my life.” That, he says, “made me feel so good.” 

This article was first published in the Oct. 27 issue of Billboard.