Covers aren’t usually Mutlu Onaral’s jam. He’s a popular singer-songwriter with a fan base devoted to his original music. Still, that didn’t stop him from belting out the Bill Withers classic, “Lovely Day.”
“Just one look at you, and I know it’s gonna be a lovely day.”
Singing along was Philly soul-rocker Amos Lee, who’s known nationally for writing and performing his own critically acclaimed music. They were performing for a guy who’d never heard of them, in a place they never imagined they’d be—the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
“The patient had been quite sick,” Onaral says. “We didn’t know what his illness was, but he recovered and was being released from the hospital in a few hours. It was a great day for him, a lovely day. We decided that was the most appropriate song to perform, and it turned into a joyous thing. The man sang along with us and actually started crying. It was a magical moment.”
Lee and Onaral were part of Musicians On Call, a program run by radio station WXPN. Every week, a rotating roster of musicians visit HUP, CHOP, St. Christopher’s, Bryn Mawr Hospital, VA Medical Center, Wilmington Hospital and other healthcare centers to perform for patients and their families. They go from room to room, escorted by experienced guides who ask if patients want to hear songs. Most say yes, delighted at the opportunity. They may not recognize the rocker standing at the foot of their bed, but they do recognize the music. It comes from an approved playlist that includes the Beatles, Bob Marley and other classic oldies.
“I actually had to learn how to play some of them,” says Jason Reed, a West Chester based singer-songwriter who regularly participates in Musicians On Call. “The covers I knew were Zeppelin and Hendrix, and they weren’t exactly appropriate.”
Now, “Dock of the Bay,” “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Grapevine” are in Reed’s repertoire. A Marine Corps veteran who served in Mogadishu, Somalia and other spots, Reed makes a point of visiting the VA Medical Center. But CHOP and St. Christopher’s Hospital are the toughest for him. “Seeing really sick kids is difficult, but making them smile is amazing for me as a musician and a dad,” he says. “A song like ‘Drift Away’ is great for a family sing-along. When I go, ‘Give me a beat boys, and free my soul, I want to get lost in your rock ’n’ roll,’ everyone sings, claps and is happy for a few minutes.”
The music is meant to be an audible ray of sunshine, says Helen Leicht, the WXPN on-air personality who helped bring Musicians On Call, which originated in Manhattan, to Philadelphia in 2004. Leicht went to check it out and ended up doing hospital visits with indie rocker Kenli Mattus. “We went into a room, and the patient was a child who was unconscious and hooked up to a lot of monitors. The mom was in the room, too. Kenli played a song, and all of a sudden, the monitors showed movement. The child was reacting to the sound of the music. The mom started crying. I started crying. It was beautiful.”
Leicht knows the power of music. “I’ve been on the radio for a long time, and if someone is having a bad day and calls in to request a song, I play it,” she says. “It’s a small thing I can do.”
There’s a more personal side to Leicht’s experience with music and illness. In 2009, her mother was at Delaware County Memorial Hospital being treated for the lung cancer that would ultimately end her life. One day, British songstress Melody Gardot was in town. Guitar in hand, she went to DCMH to visit Leicht’s mother and sing to her. “My mom was in bad shape and had bruises up and down her arms from the blood sticks,” Leicht says. “Melody sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and, as sick as she was, my mom mouthed the words with her. It was amazing.”
A few months later, Leicht was the patient. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Now cancer free for eight years, Leicht is one of the very few who survive the lethal disease. She still remembers the music she played during her treatment. “Genesis and the Beatles were my go-to bands, although I couldn’t tell you why,” she says with a laugh. “They aren’t very XPN-ish.”