How Music Powers The Message of NYC Charity God's Love We Deliver

Karen Pearl, John Varvatos and Greg Williamson
Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Karen Pearl, John Varvatos and Greg Williamson speak at Love Rocks NYC!, a Benefit Concert for God's Love We Deliver, at the Beacon Theatre on March 9, 2017 in New York City.

After three decades of aid to the sick and hungry, the organization last year staged its first music benefit. Love Rocks NYC! returns this month with Keith Richards, Norah Jones and more.

On March 9, 2017, at New York’s Beacon Theater, a remarkable all-star concert billed as Love Rocks NYC! delivered four hours of music, from the likes of Jackson Browne, Mavis Staples, Joe Walsh, Michael McDonald and many more, in a benefit for the charity God’s Love We Deliver -- which brings meals to the homes of some 1.8 million chronically ill New Yorkers a year.

“I was thrilled to be asked [to perform] with friends of mine and heroes of mine,” says singer/songwriter Marc Cohn, who was on the bill that evening. “It became quite a wonderful night.”

Love Rocks NYC! was new at the time; the benefit concert had never been staged before 2017. God’s Love We Deliver is not; the charity has a three-decade history of compassion and service in New York City.

On March 15, the second annual Love Rocks NYC! concert at the Beacon will feature Keith Richards, Norah Jones, Donald Fagen, Emmylou Harris, and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top among numerous other stars. The event’s return raises worthwhile questions which Billboard explored with God’s Love We Deliver. How can a well-established non-profit pivot into the benefit concert realm? And why might it consider doing so?  

First, to appreciate the mission, evolution and growth of God’s Love We Deliver (and to understand its unconventional name), look back 33 years, to 1985. New York was in the terrifying early days of the AIDS epidemic. Before 1981, according to city health records, fewer than 60 New Yorkers had been diagnosed with AIDS, the final stage of the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV. By 1985, the number of AIDS diagnoses had topped 6,000 -- then rose into the tens of thousands.

A hospice volunteer named Ganga Stone in 1985 prepared a meal for an AIDS patient who was too ill to care for himself. It was a simple but essential act of kindness. Stone then explored specifically what nutrition would support the patient’s medical treatment. She was en route to deliver another meal when she ran into a neighborhood preacher. He told her, “You’re not just delivering food -- you’re delivering God’s love.”

God’s Love We Deliver was founded in 1987 to minister with meals to AIDS patients. In 2001, the organization expanded its mission to serve people with all types of chronic illnesses, responding to growing requests for help.

“We had amassed all of this great knowledge about nutrition and the power of food to heal people and to make their lives better,” says Karen Pearl, president/CEO of God’s Love We Deliver. “How could we not say yes to those people? So we made that transition. Today, we have clients with 200 different diagnoses." Those diagnoses include also cancer, heart disease and multiple, overlapping medical conditions.

“We are really committed to doing everything we can to assure that people who are are sick and hungry, who need good nutrition to stay in their homes and out of hospitals and nursing homes, that they have access to our services," Pearl continues. "We have a principle that says, 'If you’re sick and hungry and you need our help, we will never turn anyone away.'”

But, adds Pearl, “with that commitment to not turn people away comes a need to raise funds.” With limited government funds for its mission, “fully 65 to 70 percent of the money we use every year comes from the generosity of individuals, foundations and corporations,” she says.

God’s Love We Deliver has an impressive history of fundraising. It raised some $3.8 million through events in its 2016 fiscal year alone -- the year before the first Love Rocks NYC! Concert -- according to published figures.

So, how and why exactly did this charity get into the rock’n’roll benefit business? “It’s a wonderful story because the opportunity came to us,” answers Pearl.

The opportunity was presented by Greg Williamson, a native Brooklynite, an investor and a real estate broker at Douglas Elliman Real Estate -- as well as a longtime supporter and board member of God’s Love We Deliver, whose “personal passion is music,” Pearl says.

After Williamson and his wife, Kate Yulman Williamson, were married in 2012, they chose God’s Love We Deliver as the focus of their personal philanthropy. They were among the supporters who helped the organization expand into providing meals for the children and caregivers of patients. After several years of involvement, Williamson says he knew that he "wanted to do something bigger for God’s Love.”

The idea of a benefit concert emerged a full year and a half before the 2017 show, as an alternative to more traditional fundraising galas, says Williamson. “I realized that to do it effectively, at the scope I wanted to do it, I needed a a partner," he explains. "And that was why I approached my co-producer John Varvatos.”

A music-centric fashion designer, Varvatos has a long history of enlisting musicians for his ad campaigns. John Varvatos Records, a joint venture with Big Machine Records, was announced last September. Williamson, coming from outside the music business, had nonetheless developed many friendships and connections with musicians and musical supervisors -- including Will Lee, longtime member of the house band on The Late Show With David Letterman -- through years as a concertgoer in New York. Lee signed on as musical supervisor for Love Rocks NYC! In 2017 and will reprise that role this month.

Williamson acknowledges that Lee “took a bit of a chance on me. But he saw my passion, my dedication, my understanding of music and how things work. And he saw my love for this organization. It’s been so rewarding for him, and every musician who’s been part of this.”

Cohn would agree. When he was approached to perform at Love Rocks NYC! in 2017, the singer best known for his 1991 hit “Walking In Memphis,” and more recently for his work with Stax Records legend William Bell and with David Crosby, said he learned organizers had already booked Mavis Staples. “I said, 'I’m in!'” (Both Staples and Cohn will return for the March 15 show).

Cohn offered a musician’s perspective on the decision to participate in a benefit concert. “To me, it’s not such a conscious thought process,” he says. “I either feel some sort of connection with the cause and the people, or I don’t. I just follow my intuitive sense about it. In this case, it was the cause. And what I learned about it very quickly -- it’s pretty magnificent what they accomplish.”

But Cohn, who has lived in New York since the '80s, acknowledges that he didn’t have a deep knowledge of God’s Love We Deliver prior to his presence at last year’s concert. And that’s a key point, say the benefit’s organizers.

“We knew that having a concert would open new doors to new supporters -- whether the musicians themselves, who have been remarkably committed to God’s Love, or concert goers who came for the lineup, and didn't necessarily know about us, and become supporters,” says Pearl.

For an organization that depends on the work of some 10,000 volunteers annually, Love Rocks NYC! also exposed the work of God’s Love We Deliver to legions of potential new workers to help meal delivery. In advance of the concert, media partnerships with the Wall Street Journal and New York classic rock radio station WAXQ (Q104) help spread word of the event. Public relations firm DKC promoted coverage for 2017 show, and is working with God’s Love We Deliver again this year.

Fans came to the Beacon in 2017 for the music.  But they also heard the message.

The show’s program described the activities of God's Love We Deliver. Onstage, screens projected messages about the organization’s work. Pearl talked about the charity's mission, as did emcee Bill Murray. (This year, Whoopi Goldberg will host). And during the concert, the musicians spoke onstage about the work of God’s Love We Deliver, thanks to one more of Williamson’s initiatives. 

“After getting everyone agreeing to do this show, then I say to them, 'I have one more ask,'” he explains. He invites artists to visit the home base of God’s Love We Deliver in the Michael Kors Building in Soho, which contains a 10,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art commercial kitchen and bakery. The musicians see first-hand what Jackson Browne called the “symphony” of meal preparation.

Cohn and Browne were so impressed with God’s Love We Deliver that, after volunteering to perform last year, both musicians have continued their support offstage. “So I’m on the phone trying to raise money,” says Cohn. “I’ve never done that before in my life and I have to say, I’m loving it.”

Raising funds as well as raising awareness for God’s Love We Deliver remain the core goals of Love Rocks NYC! as it returns this year. Special seating is offered to high-level donors, including corporations and family foundations. The 2017 concert raised $1.5 million, reports Pearl.

“This whole thing would not be possible without the extraordinary help of so many people,” says Williamson. While he’ll take credit for the idea of Love Rocks NYC!, he acknowledges that “if it wasn’t for my partner John Varvatos;  the musical director, Will Lee; Nicole Rechter and Integra Productions;  the staff at God’s Love, all the vendors that we work with, DKC, our creative team, and most of all, my family’s support -- none of this would be possible.”

Could one night’s benefit performance have a lasting impact on a charity? Williamson says he learned the answer a few days after Love Rocks NYC in 2017, when he went to see Eric Clapton a few weeks later at Madison Square Garden. “

A young man approached me and asked me if I produced the Love Rocks show at the Beacon,” Williamson recalls. “I told him that I did and asked him how he knew it was me. He said he saw me on stage... Then he proceeded to tell me it was one of the best concerts he had ever been to -- and that he had never heard of God’s Love, and came because some of his favorite performers, such as Gary Clark Jr., Jackson Browne, Derek Trucks and others were participating.

“Well, fast forward one year," Williamson continues. "And that young man -- his name is Zach Nash -- is now a donor, his parents are donors, he’s on the host committee for the concert and he organized a group of 15 young professionals to come into the kitchen and cook and volunteer. He’s now a big part of the Love Rocks / God’s Love We Deliver family.”