Four decades ago, music executive Tony Martell set out on a mission to raise a million dollars for cancer research. His teenage son, T.J., had made the request before dying from leukemia. Tony had no fundraising experience, but he rallied friends including Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, and hosted an event that raised $50,000.
Tony Martell died in November 2016, but last night (Feb. 27) his mission continued with the 9th Annual Nashville Honors Gala. Warner Music Nashville Chairman/CEO John Esposito led a tribute to Martell, recounting their friendship and the organization’s beginning. “The torch has been passed to us,” he said, challenging the crowd assembled at the Omni Hotel to make 2017 the “Year of Tony” with record-setting fundraising. While a slideshow of Martell played, Frankie Ballard performed “Helluva Life.”
Last night’s event added $535,000 to the fund for leukemia, cancer and AIDS research, totaling over $3 million raised by the dinner since 2009. The evening was co-chaired by Ali Harnell and Danielle Bouharoun. Boosting the total was a live auction hosted by Storme Warren and Shawn Parr, with top items including a trip to Las Vegas to see concerts by George Strait, and Reba with Brooks & Dunn, which brought in $20,000.
“Friends are continuing on with Tony’s life’s work,” said Master of Ceremonies actor Charles Esten, who credits organizations like Martell for his daughter surviving leukemia at age 2. Today she is in high school. Noting that his character on Nashville has had a rough week with the onscreen passing of “Rayna,” Esten brought out fellow Nashville star Clare Bowen. She performed “Love Steps In” and talked about how she and her brother are cancer survivors. “We were both given two weeks to live—me when I was four and he when he was 25,” she said.
Charlie Daniels presented the Medical Research Advancement Award to his urologist, Dr. Joseph Smith. Daniels discussed the doctor’s important work in third-world countries, adding, “What Dr. Smith does is truly an art.”
Brad Paisley honored longtime friend and figure skater Scott Hamilton with the Lifetime Humanitarian Award. “This is a man who spends every waking minute thinking about making the world a better place,” said the singer, who performed “Today” in tribute.
Esten said, “Imagine having an Olympic gold medal be the prelude to your life’s work.”
Since his first diagnosis in the 1980s, Hamilton has been a major advocate in the fight against cancer. He currently has his third brain tumor, and maintains an inspiring, positive outlook. “Every great thing that exists in my life is because I had cancer,” he told the audience.
Mayor Megan Barry honored good friend Janet Miller with the Spirit of Nashville Award, noting that she is a key figure in the city’s economic development, transportation and civic initiatives. In her honor, Kelsea Ballerini performed “Peter Pan.”
John Huie, President of the Southern Region T.J. Martell board, saluted his CAA co-head Rod Essig with the Frances Preston Outstanding Music Industry Achievement Award. Tommy Shaw of Styx played “Blue Collar Man” in tribute. Huie spoke about Essig’s passion and dedication to his career, and his keen communication skills. “He’s probably going to pass away with a phone stuck to his head,” joked Huie.
Essig recalled that the late Frances Preston once told him, “To lead is to serve,” and discussed his rewarding involvement with the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital board. “When I look at this award, I see nothing but ‘team,’” he summed.
Louis Messina, recipient of the Tony Martell Lifetime Entertainment Achievement Award, wanted to be in the music business since seeing an Elvis concert at age 7. Messina attributed his career success to “six-degrees of George Strait.” Through his work with Strait, and subsequent tours, he met then-rising stars Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran.
Strait saluted Messina with his song “Troubadour” and talked about their huge concerts together. Glancing at the crowd, Strait joked, “In fact, I thought there’d be more people here.” Strait and presenter Chesney spoke about Messina’s hard work, dedication to artists, encouragement, big ideas and friendship.
Messina reminded the audience about how it all started, with Tony Martell. “His dreams changed people’s lives and his spirit will always be with us,” he said.