Rock guitarist Ernie White says the charity fundraiser he organizes annually has had some ups and downs over the years, but now it seems there’s a built-in audience and repeat patrons to ensure success.
The Hamilton-based musician, teacher, and studio owner says the Ernie White Band and Friends Christmas Benefit Concert — slated this year for Sunday, December 20, at Princeton Manor in Hamilton — started in 1999 with a small group of musicians at Bob’s Woodside Tavern on Route 130 in Robbinsville. The cause was to aid the recent New Jersey refugees from then war-torn Kosovo.
Now the concert has evolved into something hundreds of area rock fans look forward to.
White says part of the reason is that veteran Trenton-area musicians Paul Plumeri, Joe Zook, John Bushnell, and Duke Williams donate their time and draw music lovers to the concert. And, he adds, the event is also the chance for patrons to catch up with friends they haven’t seen in weeks, months, or even since last December.
Yet it is also a way to help a cause, and White credits the musicians and a small army of volunteers with raising close to $200,000 over the last 15 years. And while some dollars have gone to the New York Times 911 Fund and the post-Katrina New Orleans musicians’ clinic, by and large the charities have been local, says White — the son of the owners of the former White’s Market on the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Kuser Road in Hamilton.
Looking back to the fundraiser’s beginning, White says the Kosovo refugees had been transported to McGuire Air Force base. “We did it because my friend [photographer] Phil McAuliffe had been over to Kosovo and seen the horrors of war over there. We all brought cans of food and clothing. Now we have a similar situation with all these people streaming out of Syria.”
After that the married father of two sons, and now a grandfather, says something touched him and made him want to follow through with an annual event, even though he had been participating in similar events organized by North Brunswick singer-songwriter and former member of the band Styx, Glen Burtnik. Yet those events were in New York City, New Brunswick, and other venues.
Years later the holiday event has a shape of its own. And with volunteers helping with stage transitions and keeping the musicians clear on who is doing what and when, White says they will be able to provide three hours of Christmas songs with an ever-changing cast.
“Last year we had over 40 [holiday] songs over the course of the night, and we have individual acts coming up on stage to do two and three tunes. We’re going to try to condense it a little bit this year — which is hard to do because I have the habit of not saying no to anybody. But it’s a long night for people.”
White emphasizes the group effort. “One person we have to credit is [keyboardist] Tom Reock, because we have one big rehearsal before the show, and we rehearse at his studio in Hamilton,” White says.
Then there are the musicians who volunteer to perform, and the venues themselves are offered at no charge, with costs covered by sales of food and drink. The only fixed costs are for the sound and light systems for the stage and their crews.
Talking about his own learning curve, White says, “I learned how to delegate more to other people, because as the event got bigger and bigger over the years, and we moved to bigger venues, the hardest thing we do is get people on and off the stage on time and coordinate the songs and the musicians. We have people helping out with sound, lights, working the doors, and it seems the community comes out and supports this thing.”
In addition to the already mentioned musicians, others involved are well-regarded area performers Hal Selzer, Lisa Bouchelle, and Charles Laurita, one of White’s guitar students who — while still in high school — made his debut at White’s Christmas benefit a number of years back and blew the crowd away.
White says that one holiday concert highlight came in 2013 when former Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora showed up as a surprise guest. White says Sambora was as gracious and accommodating as he could be to the crowd of several hundred. Every patron who was there that night who wanted one went home with a “selfie” with Sambora.
White says local beneficiaries of the concert have included the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund, the Hamilton Elks Handicapped Children’s Fund, the ARC of Mercer County, the Boys and Girls Club of Trenton, and Mercer Street Friends.
But for the past several years the musicians have settled on Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. “They do great work locally,” White says.
While the holiday show fills his schedule this time of the year, White — whose background includes working with bands signed for Casablanca and RCA records — divides his time performing locally, recording, teaching guitar students out of his house, and writing songs.
In the fall he released his latest album, “Coming of Age,” on his own label, joining other his other recordings “Scenes From America,” “Rude Awakening,” “Unplugged,” and “Rock and Rarities.”
White, Zook, Plumeri, and other veterans of the Trenton-area club scene will be the first to tell you the nightclub scene and number of live music venues in this area is not anywhere near as healthy as it once was.
“There are perhaps three or four places that bands can play in Trenton and Hamilton now,” White says, adding, “I don’t understand the mentality of the world today where people have to stay home and watch big screen TVs. I feel sorry for younger musicians who are good. They have good bands, and they’re telling me they’re having a tough time to get their own peer group to come out. I think live music now has taken a back seat to everything else. I advise kids to get out, find a place to play, and play there every Friday or Saturday if you can.”
By contrast, musicians of White’s era had the opportunity when they were starting out in the 1970s to play five and six nights a week, he says, “and there weren’t all these TV screens in the room. It was just the band.”
As a result, White makes an effort every year to include some young bands in his lineup at the Christmas benefit concert, including Laurita, whose band has been involved for at least six years.
“We make room for guys like Richie Sambora, but we have to give the younger kids a shot at playing this thing,” he says.
16th Annual Ernie White Band and Friends Christmas Benefit Concert, Grand Ballroom at Princeton Manor (Cedar Gardens), 661 Route 33, Hamilton. Sunday, December 20, 7 p.m. $25. Children must be accompanied by an adult. 609-587-1511 or www.erniewhite.com.