Danny Thomas became just about everything in show business — except maybe a country singer.
He was a nightclub comedian, a Hollywood leading man and an Emmy-winning TV star. He produced some of the small screen’s most beloved shows. He sang, too — everything from pop and jazz to Memphis blues to the Lebanese folk songs that were part of his heritage.
But in his greatest role — founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — he understood the power of country music to help sick children.
He saw the close-knit bond between artists and radio, between radio and fans.
He saw that country wasn’t just a format. It was a family — and we know how families react when one of their own needs help.
The result was Country Cares for St. Jude Kids®, one of the most successful fundraising programs in radio history at $800 million. This year we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of Country Cares, which began after Danny approached Alabama lead singer Randy Owen and said, “I really need your people to get involved.”
He meant all the people of country music, who embraced the children of St. Jude as their own. There have been benefit concerts, campaigns for St. Jude such as “This Shirt Saves Lives,” and especially the annual St. Jude Radiothons at some 200 stations across the country. The result is nothing less than one of country music’s greatest hits ever.
Alabama has sold 75 million records, but Randy says, “Probably the most important thing I’ll ever do, except being a daddy and a husband, is St. Jude.”
Like Danny, Randy didn’t just lend his famous name to a cause. He’s taken it to heart over decades of devotion. He’s visited with our patients and families, he’s sung to them and for them. And, like Danny, he has a gift for getting others to share his passion.
Up-and-coming country artists learn early on about St. Jude, from the ground-breaking research that’s freely shared around the world to the no-bill model that means patient families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food – because all a family should worry about is helping their child live.
Take Ashley McBryde. Long before she was a GRAMMY®-nominated artist for her album “Girl Going Nowhere,” she was learning her craft in the clubs and bars of Memphis — and with a Wednesday-night volunteer gig at Target House, a housing facility for families at St. Jude.
Last year, she was back in Memphis for the Country Cares seminar, an annual gathering of artists and radio personnel. She toured the hospital for the first time, and later talked about why she supports St. Jude: “If you have a soapbox, and you don’t use it in a way that helps other people, then you don’t deserve a soapbox.”
I’d say I’m rooting for Ashley to win the GRAMMY Award for Best Country Album, but I have to be careful. Her fellow competitors for the award are Kacey Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini, the Brothers Osborne and Chris Stapleton — all supporters of St. Jude.
That’s the kind of support St. Jude has in country music. And for every star, there are hundreds of radio stations, and millions of fans, all rallying around St. Jude.
We’re incredibly grateful for country music’s support over the past 30 years — and for the support to come. Because, despite great advances in treatment, children still die from cancer.
Four of five survive in the United States, which means we’ve come remarkably far but aren’t there yet. The situation is far worse in low- and middle-income countries around the world, where only one in five survives. That’s why St. Jude launched the St. Jude Global initiative and is collaborating with the World Health Organization, to reach more of the world’s sickest children.
We couldn’t do it without our friends — our family — in the country music community. On this 30th anniversary of Country Cares for St. Jude Kids, I can’t sing their praises enough.
Richard C. Shadyac Jr. is President and CEO of American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.