Just Between You and Me
05/05/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
LAUREN SNELL OF MANORVILLE, N.Y., was 5 years old and recuperating from 16 harrowing months of treatment for rare forms of tongue and neck cancer when she first heard the song. "I put it on and danced to it," says Lauren, now fully recovered. Then she put it on and danced to it again—and again. "She was just thrilled," says her mother, Beth. "She just felt so special. I think she listened to it 25 times in two days." No wonder: The song, an upbeat pop ditty called "Lauren Snell" with lyrics about painting, bike riding and horses, is all about Lauren.
Her reaction was just the sort singer-songwriter John Beltzer was hoping for when he started Songs of Love, a nonprofit organization devoted to delivering personalized songs via cassette to gravely ill children. "Music has such penetrating qualities," says Beltzer, 37, who wrote and performed Lauren's song. "Coupled with the fact that it's targeted for each child, it's sort of like a double dose of medicine."
Just 14 months ago, Beltzer was so certain of the curative powers of music that he took on $11,000 of credit card debt to transform a tiny recording studio he had built in his parents' cramped Queens, N.Y., basement into Songs of Love headquarters. Since then he has enlisted some 70 volunteers, including singer Ronnie Spector and Tom Bowes, formerly of the R&B group Tower of Power, to help write and perform songs—350 so far—for children in hospitals nationwide.
"This organization is special to me," says Angela Workman, a backup singer to Ray Charles and a Songs of Love volunteer. "When you have a sick child in the family, the music radiates throughout the family, and it heals them too." Adds Karen Nisenson, a New Canaan, Conn., music therapist who has donated some 40 compositions of her own to Beltzer's effort: "A song puts a child at the center of attention—it makes them so happy."
As a child growing up first in São Paulo, Brazil, where he was born to Romanian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, and later in New York City, where the family moved when he was 8, all Beltzer ever wanted was to be a musician. He was a 15-year-old high school student when he and his fraternal twin, Julio, formed their first band—John on drums, Julio on guitar. John tried college for two years but dropped out to make it as a musician with his brother. Then one morning in April 1984, Julio, diagnosed a year earlier with schizophrenia, jumped to his death from the roof of a six-story building. The suicide traumatized John. For the next 11 years he worked odd jobs, such as selling towels at Macy's and running a one-man moving service, while trying to make it as a songwriter. "I didn't want the music to die," he explains.
In 1987 his band, Cinema, performed on Ed McMahon's Star Search. A song he wrote, "Holding On to Promises," won third place in a 1989 contest sponsored by the music weekly Billboard. But in 1995 everything seemed to fall apart. He and his girlfriend had a deal with Elektra Records, but first the romance failed, then Elektra dropped him—and kept her. "I was walking down the street, and all of a sudden it was right there," says Beltzer. "I had written songs for family members, and I thought,. 'What if I were to write songs for children who were ill?' " Beltzer can only explain his inspiration as a kind of "religious revelation."
Beltzer promptly phoned St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, where his proposal was warmly received. It took him four days, using scant biographical information provided by St. Jude's, to produce the first six songs. He dedicated his work to Julio, who had once written the lyric, "Songs of love are really what we need/To take away our fear."
To date, Beltzer, who lives with his retired parents, has paid himself a total of $4,000 as head of his foundation. He hopes to expand through the sale of an album of songs written for individual children. But there is also psychic compensation: Beltzer recalls getting a call early on from a 5-year-old girl, a cancer patient at St. Jude's for whom he had written a song. "For half an hour afterward, I was just crying," he recalls. "All those years of trying to get a record deal, and this moment was so much more significant than everything else I had ever done. It was a soul-opening experience."
MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City