Sitting above a set of French doors inside Tupelo Honey, a landmark restaurant in the funky little town of Sea Cliff, Long Island, is a charming mosaic depicting a guitar-playing frog. The scene evokes smiles for the legions of fans who spent many Monday evenings listening to the music of Lee Grayson, the inspiration for the colorful mosaic. Lee had a true passion for the Muppets, and had adopted Kermit as his virtual alter ego. That's largely because he admired in the Muppet character the same things that others loved so much in Lee: his gentleness, quirky humor, and great sense of curiosity about the world.
After a nine-year battle, Lee succumbed to multiple myeloma in the fall of 2002, at only 55 years old. His signature song, the Muppets' "Rainbow Connection," was sung by all who attended his memorial. It was a bittersweet moment, as friends bid good-bye to a loving, talented man who is still sorely missed today.
Grayson's song, however, rang out loud and clear on July 17, 2005, a sultry New York day, as Tupelo Honey once again hosted "A Lee Grayson Production: Multiple Musicians Against Multiple Myeloma (MMAMM)." This year marked the fourth annual MMAMM concert, which benefits the International Myeloma Foundation by raising not just money, but also hope, support, and awareness.
The tradition began on another steamy July day in 2002, when Lee gathered his large group of friends from Long Island's musician community to perform at the first MMAMM benefit. It was an enormous effort for a man struggling in the latter stages of myeloma, making its success even more remarkable. Every year since, Tupelo Honey has served as host of the MMAMM benefit, where musicians lend their talents in celebration of their friend Lee, and in an effort to help eradicate the disease that took his life. The event serves as a fitting legacy for Lee, who spent many hours visiting (in person or by phone) with other myeloma patients, lending a loving ear and helping hand.
"In the first year of the benefit, everyone came to support Lee, rallying around someone they loved so dearly," recalls Naomi Margolin, Lee's girlfriend and the driving force behind the last three benefits. "Now, people who never heard of him travel many hours to come to the benefit, because there are so few events like this."
Lee, who never had children, or a hit song, or huge record deal, worried that his life would leave no mark on the planet. But those who knew him, and even those who never had the blessing of knowing him, feel his presence each year at MMAMM. "Ask anyone who's come to any of the benefits, and they all tell the same story," says Naomi. "People can't get over the healing energy, the support, the love that's in the air. That's what Lee left behind. That was Lee."
The musicians, restaurant staff, and all the other volunteers—close to 100 people altogether—freely give their time to honor their friend and help raise funds for the IMF. Tupelo Honey and its manager, Willie Stephens, donate all the proceeds from the event to the IMF, while the Village of Sea Cliff lends a hand by closing down the street for the day, making the benefit not only a concert but a street fair, with face painting, drumming circles, and auctions. Profits from MMAMM have grown each year, with this year's total at more than $18,000, but its real benefits extend far beyond the financial ones.
"Part of what I love so much about this event is that, while most fund-raisers are about making money, this one is about raising awareness," says Naomi. While expensive dinners or golf outings are the norm for many benefits, MMAMM costs $20 (a suggested donation) for an entire day of music, conversation, information, and connections.
"I spend more than half the day introducing patients and their families to each other," notes Naomi, who hopes to have a special tent set up at next year's benefit for patients to network and possibly meet with an IMF representative.
This year, those people included the Tuohy family, who drove several hours from Connecticut not only to attend the event but to lend their talents. Michael Tuohy, a myeloma patient and musician, played his song, "I'm Not Leavin'," which he wrote after his stem cell transplant in 2002. "It was our first year at the Multiple Musicians Against Multiple Myeloma event, and we were amazed at the amount of people and activities," says Michael's wife Robin, who heads up a local support group. "Everyone was there for a cause, but it was more than that: It was fun and contagious and inspiring. What a beautiful and lasting tribute to Lee!"
Manhattan resident, and myeloma patient, Myrna Shinnbaum was particularly moved by Michael Tuohy's performance, and spoke to the father of three after he sang. "He said that nothing would stop him from enjoying his life, and that he is a fighter," says Myrna. "He went through all the treatments and is still here to tell about it through his music and his songwriting." Myrna was introduced to many other myeloma patients, and met with an IMF representative who told her about the foundation and its programs, such as patient seminars and myeloma support groups. "I had the greatest time," says Myrna. "The music was incredible. You could not stop moving your feet, clapping your hands, and wanting to dance in the aisles. It was like being at the best open air concert."
Bob Romanoff, a Long Island resident who was diagnosed with myeloma about four years ago, found out about the benefit through an ad in the local Pennysaver. He'd never heard of the IMF before, or of MMAMM, which, ironically, had been held for years just minutes from his home. Now, he has the full support of the IMF and its many resources, plus the friendship and support of other patients he met that day.
This year, one regular MMAMM attendee was sorely missed. Sol Finkelstein, father of musicians Steve and Lee, attended the first two benefits in 2002 and 2003, but was too ill to make it the next year. "I held up the phone so everyone could yell, 'Get Well Sol' to my Dad, who was in the hospital at the time," says Steve, one of Lee's closest friends. Sol passed away several months before this year's benefit took place. "Lee helped so much when my Dad was first diagnosed with myeloma five years ago," says Steve. That's one reason Steve was so moved by an addition to this year's event: "Naomi hung a sign behind all the musicians that read 'Sol Finkelstein Memorial Stage'," says Steve. "It brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart."
Steve's eight-year-old daughter, along with her cousins and friends, got into the act this year, selling candy and carrot sticks (the candy sold better). "They raised more than $100!" says Steve. "It was just another amazing part of the day, which is such a positive celebration of life. It's a great way to gather people and increase their awareness about this horrible yet little-known disease."
Indeed, many people who attended the event and learned about myeloma for the first time ended up there virtually by accident. "People who happened to be driving by stopped out of curiosity to hear the music and see what all the activity is about," says Naomi. "They got information about the disease, and the work of the IMF, and then spread the word."
Spreading the word about myeloma became a passion for Lee Grayson in the years after his diagnosis. At one time, Lee summed up the devastating effects of the disease succinctly, stating, "Myeloma Sucks." Each year, Naomi makes sure that a bucketful of pins with that expression (and Lee's attribution, of course) are handed out to MMAMM attendees.
"This year, when the IMF emailed support groups offering the remaining pins, it was inundated with requests from all over the world," says Naomi. Although people often offered money for them, she was happy to send them for free. "I want this event to be about covering the world with these pins, to help get the message out," says Naomi. "Raising money is great, but raising awareness is what will foster the research and support to find a cure."
One day, when a cure does come, Lee Grayson will stand as a warrior who, though he lost his personal battle against myeloma, helped win the war for those who came after. And that's a mighty powerful legacy. Here's to you, Lee.