Local musician Jerry Darby first heard of music producer Jim Ebert in 1984 when the two were teenagers and Ebert briefly played in Darby’s older brother’s band. Little did Darby know that 33 years later, Ebert would play a role in saving his life.
When Darby and his band (the Darby Brothers Band) met Ebert for a recording session, he knew Ebert was a cancer survivor and confided in him with some health issues. Ebert recommended he have them checked which resulted in a cancer diagnosis. Nine months later, Darby could declare himself a cancer survivor thanks to Ebert’s diagnosis recommendation and encouragement along the way.
“I needed to talk to him because he was a colon [cancer] survivor. I didn’t know anyone that dealt with it before. I spent many a night where I’m texting him for support,” said Darby.
Beyond the typical emotional support that Ebert gives to other cancer-stricken musicians, he also offers them something special as part of his non-profit foundation Cancer Can Rock — a free chance to record a song.
Through his foundation, Ebert invites each program participant into the studio for a day to record a song they’ve written. Ebert’s own team of musicians comes in to fill in the back up parts and the participant also receives a video of the day. An interview of the subject and his struggles is included in the video. As a longtime producer, Ebert has access to strings, winds, traditional rock and blues bands elements and recording expertise.
“I got a great team of musicians that come in and play on these recordings and we have a really enjoyable day,” said Ebert. “One artist came in here and said ‘I forgot about cancer for a day’ and that made it all worth it.”
A 1982 graduate of George Mason High School, Ebert was the chief engineer at Cue Recording studios for eight years and spent eight years in Los Angeles’s music industry before moving back to the area. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2001 and given a year to live. Through three years of radiation and chemotherapy, he managed to beat it.
“I was literally driving back from an appointment at Duke where I was being treated, and I said I’m going to start a foundation for people with cancer, the only thing I’m really qualified to do is this, in my opinion,” said Ebert.
As a result he has been able to connect with the Cancer Can Rock participants especially well and keeps in touch with many of them. He rarely diagnoses the cancer as he did with Darby but he has been able to provide support and keep in touch with patients.
“When I had cancer, it felt like mania, like I was out of control of my situation. Very confusing is the way I would put it, you’re always looking for the silver bullet that would cure that cancer and it’s a frustrating — that’s an understatement — frustrating task to find something that will work for you,” said Ebert.
When he talks with survivors, he says, “We talk about fighting cancer but we mainly talk about music and the song we’re gonna do, how it impacted their cancer, what lyrics specifically deal through the cancer aspect and I’ve become friends with everyone that I’ve worked with”
“Having been told I’m having surgery with cancer it’s like having an atom bomb go off in your life,” said participating musician Cathy Poynton King of Vienna, Virginia. “It’s super great, because they’re like minded people, they’ve been there. It’s just really great to have a support system around and somebody who understands what it’s like to have all that happen to you.”
King connected to the program because she knew Ebert’s drummer. She contributed the song “No Friction, No Fire” which she explained was about how “When you go through what’s considered friction, that’s how, you know, that’s how life is sparked. The pearl is formed because the oyster gets agitated”
Ebert noted that part of what makes the project special is the life experiences of the musicians through this difficult time. In addition to recording a song and making a video, Ebert interviews each participant about their experiences to complement their performance.
Three of the program’s participants have passed away. For those who do pass on, significant others, friends and family members of the deceased have been especially grateful for the video as a memento.
So far, the program has had 20 participants and Ebert hopes to expand that. He is willing to fly out to meet people and has flown to Los Angeles and Nashville and hopes to fundraise to do more.
Celebrities such as actress Mary Louise Parker from “Weeds” (whose brother was involved in Cancer Can Rock), “The Voice” contestant Peter Pfau and musician Art Alexakis of Everclear have endorsed his brand.
The biggest key to Ebert’s success has been his team on the Board of Directors who all came to the organization through personal experiences with cancer or Ebert as a producer. Donna Speckhard , whose songwriter daughter lost a friend to cancer, acts as secretary; Jeff Brasfield, who had his first CD produced by Ebert, is the organization’s accountant and CFO Rich Forson met Ebert at a fundraising concert and was blown away. Forson’s sister passed away from cancer.
His eventual goal is to be able to serve those afflicted with cancer at a rate of one per week.
The greatest part of his support network is the cancer survivors who fuel him to greater heights.
“I would be more than willing to do anything for cancer can rock. If Jim asks me to do anything for Cancer Can Rock, I’m there,” said Darby.
Cancer Can Rock’s next concert is May 18 at Union Stage in Washington with the group Fighting Gravity.