Bob James has been making music in Western New York since he was a teenager inspired by the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.
He’s been involved with non-profit social activism ventures for over 30 years as well. These days he’s been dedicating his time toward the Buffalo Blues Benefit for Veterans music campaign and its efforts to raise money for support veterans in the area.
In fact, tomorrow (Sunday, May 3), he’ll be coordinating an online show (Facebook Live) at 3:30 p.m. featuring Buck Quigley of the Steam Donkeys, Dave Meinzer & Cathy Carfagna, Vin DeRosa and Brendan Shea.
Each performer will play for about 15 minutes – from the socially distanced and safe realms of their own homes.
Every cent raised from online donations during the show will be donated to help local veterans in need.
Here are some the details from a recent conversation with JAM editor Elmer Ploetz. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
EP: We’re here today to talk about your project with Buffalo veterans and raising money to help vets. So tell us a little bit first about the overall project.
RJ: Well, Buffalo Blues Benefit for Veterans started in 2016 as a very short series of concerts to promote a benefit CD that we produced with a bunch of local talent. And it kind of took off or it got real big real fast. … Now four years since then, we’ve had over 30-35 concerts and two CDs that were released, and we have a brand new CD coming out very soon that I did with Geno McManus.
So those donations get totaled up, usually by Monday. And then I go to Tops and I buy Tops cards and I deliver them to these nonprofits for them to distribute within three days. … And when I say 100% of the donations go to Tops cards, that’s true.
And we’ve raised and donated over $63,000 to local veterans charities. And along the way, I’ve learned a lot about the veterans and the military culture here in Western New York.
EP: You’re not a veteran yourself?
RJ: No, I’m not. My family, my dad and my grandfather were both World War II veterans My grandfather was also a World War I vet. And way back in my ancient family history, a guy named John Gibson came over from Cork, Ireland, and shortly joined the Georgia militia and he fought in the American Revolution. So within my DNA is some military history blood. So, I’m not a veteran myself, but I’ve made a lot of friends with veterans, connected with several ex-special forces military and heard a lot of compelling stories along the way about the challenges of veterans and military families.
EP: You said you’ve raised 60-some thousand dollars over the last four years. What kind of things does this go for.
RJ: Well, it’s been an evolution. When we first started it was going to a couple charities that were dealing with homeless veterans.
We’ve decided since,based on advice from local leaders, to diversify where money’s going, so we’ve donated money to seven or eight different charities. Of course homeless veterans is one of them.
More specifically, these concerts we’re doing on Sunday, the money gets quickly turned around to buy Tops grocery cards, and those cards go to two organizations. There is The Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York. The other one is a Buffalo Vet Center. They have veterans that they assess as being in urgent need, and they get these cards to them so they can buy groceries. The Tops cards also allow veterans to buy gas as well. So they decide who the veterans are that really need these … and they get them in their hands.
EP: What is the connection between the veterans you work with and music? How does the music connect with the veterans?
RJ: Way back at the beginning when this CD project was designed as a music campaign for veterans, I and a few other people said, “Most veterans love blues. So make it a blues collection, although a lot of the musicians that have done our events aren’t primarily blues players. That’s really how it started.
You know this as well. If you pull the threads on any local musician or national musician, eventually you’re going to go back to country music and blues music. So everything is based on the blues and in my book, sort of a common meeting ground. Music is universal. It unifies and brings people together.
James said the set-up for the online shows makes it fairly easy to donate.
RJ: Each performer plays for about 15 minutes, and we’re constantly posting our donation links. One is a Venmo link. One is a PayPal link, and during the performances people make donations.
One of the most essential part of the Sunday series is Chelsea O’Donnell’s teaching me more about digital media, Facebook and getting everything to happen. This would not be happening without her help, so I wanted to thank her for doing that. She’s been essential. Plus she played last week with her dad, which was really fun!
I’ve learned a lot from her. And this Sunday thing wouldn’t be happening without her help, so she’s a big part of the behind the curtain team.
Credit is also due to musician and financial brain, Rick Suto, who saved the project at the beginning when the promised CD funding sponsor failed to deliver. Also, the Sportmen’s Tavern has been the site of more of our events than other venues. So thank you Dwane and the Hall family as well the expert guidance of the SAM Foundation.
RJ: Its important to share that 24 hours after the Sunday Show’s over, we do a full accounting and see who donated and how much. And then I go to Tops and I buy Tops cards and I deliver them to these nonprofits for them to distribute.
EP: Who’s playing this event?
RJ: Well, this Sunday is kind of a Sportsman’s Tavern-themed event. We have Buck Quigley from the Steam Donkeys. We have a Brendan Shea (who has performed in the SAM Foundation’s Emerging Artists series).
We also have Cathy and Dave. Dave and I have been around. We go way back to the late ‘70s as far as being involved in the original scene, and you know that well because you did the documentary about the whole “This Is It” campaign. Then we have Vin DeRosa, who’s an incredibly talented guy. I invited him to come back. He did our first show when we were kind of testing what we were doing on (online) Sundays.
EP: These performers are going to be at their own places; they’re not going to be in the same place, right?
RJ: Everybody goes live at home. And we’re lucky to have had a couple of duos like Dave and Cathy that live together, husband and wife. … So it’s great to actually have duo do live. Caitlin Koch last week was going to use a recording of Dylan Hund playing guitar, but then he came over and sat at a safe distance on her outside deck, I think it was, so they could they could kind of go live.
EP: Over the last 30 years or more, you’ve been making your living in the nonprofit sector. And a lot of times people say, well, we’re giving money for the charity, but why should Bob get paid?
RJ: I don’t. Our CPA 990 tax filing lists me as CEO, working 50 hours a week for no compensation. That file is online for public view. Where most charities have paid staff, we rely 100% on donated time and talent.
EP: How do you make your living?
RJ: I’m 68 years old. I pulled the trigger early on Social Security. But up until then I was actually making my living through education grants. Way early on, I think when you and I first worked together, we were putting out some CDs for some school projects. And for 12 years, the nonprofit that I was running that was called Future Schools Network, also known as Student Voices, was getting a grant from State Ed to go out and work in 12 different school districts across the state to do leadership training.
That slowly emerged into doing some stuff with Music Is Art where Robby (Takac) and I designed a program called Music In Action, where we teach kids about the music industry.
When grants were available to run educational programs, I was getting paid for my time. But everything that you’re really aware of in terms of using music to raise money for charities, I don’t take any money for that.
And when I say 100% of the donations go to Tops cards, that’s true. So, I might look kind of stupid because I’ve never gotten reimbursed for all the money that I’ve put into it, but I’d be willing to stand up, stand along any other charity that’s doing this kind of work and compare the salaries that those others are making.
I do this for free, for the love of music, really, and I believe that music has the power to do things that are almost miraculous.
James said that when the Buffalo Blues project’s first CD was recorded, two funders promised to back it. When they pulled out, he wound up paying for the project himself – something he’s never been reimbursed for.
EP: Do you have anything to you’re looking forward to doing, goals that you want to do?
RJ: Well, I would love for this current campaign to get recognized nationally.
It would be nice to be able to show Buffalo as a source of something very innovative, but I also know that the larger the audiences, the more donations you get.
I’ve analyzed how many people are watching and then through Venmo and through PayPal, I get an exact listing of who made the donations and how much they gave. And I think about 3%, of people that are viewing actually make donations.
I understand it’s economically tough times. And a lot of people just tune in for the music, and that’s fine. But if we were able to get some kind of higher level attention for what we’re doing and if we were to go from, you know, 100 viewers to 1000 viewers, then we’d have a 10 times, likely increase in donations that came in.
I’m biased, and you are too, but we have amazing talent in Western New York. I’ve never been to Austin, but I know people that have been to Austin a lot, and they say that when you go into clubs in Buffalo there’s music at the national touring level, that we’re competitive with any other city in the country.
EP: Oh, I forgot one thing one last thing … you said you have a new CD coming out?
RJ: Yeah, we found out that the first two CDs, which I’m really proud of, they didn’t even pay for their costs, and a lot of the recording was donated a lot of bands gave us tracks. So it seemed like it was not going to make sense to put another one out from a charity’s point of view.
So we kind of stopped after that. But then an opportunity came along, a friend of Geno McManus said, “Well, how about if I paid to cover the cost for this?” So Geno and I went in the studio with Howard Wilson and Brian Burd and we laid down eight songs in like three hours live, and then we both took them home and did some overdubs.
So we have a brand new CD coming out. It’s the third Buffalo Blues benefit CD. It’s called “Initiation,” and it’s all British Invasion cover songs we played just for the love of it. It’ll be out sometime sometime in May, and we’ll put it up on Bandcamp for sale, all proceeds going to the different charities that we’re working with.
But it’s important for people to know that no money from charities went to pay for it; it was because of an outside sponsor who wanted to use it for veterans project, that they were willing to pay for the costs. No charity dollars were used.
Putting it together was a lot of fun. “Glad All Over,” “Sunshine Superman,””Heart of Stone,” “Secret Agent Man” are in there, some great songs. And it was a real privilege for me to get a chance to work with Geno McManus in the studio at GCR Audio (another Robby Takac connection).
So that’ll be out in May and will be available when the Sportsmen’s reopens, up in the (SAM Foundation) store. It also will be available online.
You can find the Buffalo Blues Sunday Live Stream Series on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/buffalobluessundayseries.