Q&A: Andy Kim Talks About The Charities He Picks for His Christmas Shows

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Andy Kim gets emotional when talking about the ill children he met at the ICAR Complex racetrack in Montreal who were able to whiz around in fancy cars as part of the Starlight Children’s Foundation’s Drive 4 Smiles. He actually started to cry during his interview with Samaritanmag

The writer of such hits as “Sugar Sugar” and “Rock Me Gently,” and a recent Canada’s Walk of Fame inductee with sales estimated at 30 million records, is a softie, prominently raising money for charity since establishing the Andy Kim Christmas Show 14 years ago — and as he recalls using his gift of singing to entertain kids at orphanages when he began his career some 50 years ago.

Born in Montreal to Lebanese immigrants, Kim left home in his teens and worked in the now legendary Brill Building in New York. John Lennon gave him his first gold record for the No. 1 “Rock Me Gently,” which had risen to the top of trade mags Billboard, Cashbox and Record World in 1974. 

The past 14 years, Kim has been hip again, coaxed out of retirement, if you will, by Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson and Ron Sexsmith who both recorded songs with him, 2004’s “I Forgot To Mention” and 2005’s ”Whatever Happened To Christmas,” respectively. More recently, Kim formed a bond with Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene who signed him to Arts & Crafts and made an album with him called It’s Decided, released in 2015 (he released Happen Again, on KOCH, in 2011).

The Andy Kim Christmas Show has now grown from one event to three, this year in Toronto, Dec. 5, at Queen Elizabeth Theatre (hosted by Russell Peters); Montreal, Dec. 15, at Corona Theatre; and Burlington Performing Arts Centre on Dec. 20.

The concerts attract a huge cast of guest musicians who hop onstage for a couple of songs and typically a rousing finale of “Sugar Sugar.”  Among the helpers this season are Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bif Naked, Hayden, Ron Sexsmith, Billy Talent, Broken Social Scene, Jake Clemons, Sarah Slean, Coeur de pirate, Theo Tams, and The TransCanada Highwaymen (Steven Page; Chris Murphy, Craig Northey and Moe Berg). Check individual show dates for the specific lineup.

“I think about my journey and the fact that it’s 50 years ago this year that I had my first international hits,” Kim says of "How'd We Ever Get This Way?", “Shoot 'Em Up Baby", "Rainbow Ride” and "Rock Me Gently.”  “I thought about the fact that in 50 years a lot has changed. My life has changed. The people around me have changed, but the one thing that hasn't changed is that people are in trouble and sometimes they can't help themselves. So you find a way to help people that are in trouble. That's the one thing that has not changed.”

Samaritanmag spoke to Kim about the charities he picks for each of his Christmas shows.

For the Toronto Christmas show, the proceeds again are going to Gifts of Light, a presents for patients program at CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) who don’t have much at the holidays. The hospital doesn’t have a gift shop because sadly many of the patients don’t get visitors. What have you learned since selecting them?

I had heard the word CAMH before, but it was on the periphery of my world — those letters C-A-M-H.  I'm not a stranger to the mental health disease, whatever you want to call it. As a teenager in New York, some great musicians suffered from that, great producers suffered from that, without really knowing what it was.  In concept, I understood what CAMH was about, but I didn't understand what Gifts of Light was about. When I was made aware of the fact that some patients arrive with very little, I realized it really came down to self-esteem.  I first got a note from Donna Slaight [Gifts of Light committee chair who expanded the program] to come out and see what Gifts of Light was about [at a CAMH event on-site] and it felt like it was the embryonic stage of something that was going to turn into something important.  

For the other two Christmas shows, you selected different charities. In Montreal, it’s Starlight, which grants wishes to seriously ill children.

I'm not interested in raising money and giving it to charity; I'm interested in raising money and understanding the charity that I'm associating our time and our spirits with. That's so important. So you have to visit the people that run the charity; you visit the people that are in need of help. I had heard of Starlight, so I flew to Montreal and they took over [ICAR Complex racetrack] at Mirabel Airport and they changed it into some form of amusement center where the kids and their families show up and the kids get to ride in expensive automobiles that Montrealers own [Drive 4 Smiles]. That particular kid gets to sit in the passenger seat and have a quick run around the track that they've designed.

The thing that I saw, that went through me, was the fact that all these kids — some of them were in wheelchairs, some of them had oxygen tanks — had so much joy at that moment. The joy and glee that I saw in their faces as they got into convertible Rolls Royce's and Bentley's and other expensive cars, and cars that are from the 40s, 50s and 60s, that the owners were going to drive and donate their day to, it was so emotional, I couldn't speak. It got really emotional when I got in the car to leave because I knew that those kids would go back to their rooms [Kim’s voice starts cracking and he briefly cries]

It's tough.

It’s tough because how blessed we are and how blessed you are to be able to get up and walk and not have a room that fills you with the dark side of your life.  I remember those kids smiling and laughing and that laughter was something beyond this moment, just to know that that exists on the periphery of your life, not that it's on television and you have the buffer of, “Okay, I'll change the channel now.” It's so moving.

So I get on a business class train that ViaRail is kind enough to give me [to go from Toronto to The Andy Kim Christmas Show in Montreal].  I take artists — Broken Social Scene is coming with me this year; past years Kevin Drew would come and Brendan Canning, and Ron Sexsmith is my forever partner on everything that I do at this time of the year. And I love him for that and for much more. Montreal [show] is inspired by Sam Roberts who intimated that “Hey man, I know you do Toronto, I came and did Toronto for you, but you're a Montreal boy. Why don't you do something in Montreal?” So we do something in Montreal and this year we're also in Burlington.

The charity for Burlington is probably one you understand well. It provides professional entertainment workshops for underserved schools and students [BPAC’s Golden Ticket Program].

Yeah. I grew up in the tenements of Montreal. They didn't call them tenements; they just called it the poor side of town, the wrong side of the tracks. I didn't know any of that. I just knew that growing up as the third of four brothers, and the son of immigrants, that I was loved. Somehow I had the courage to do what I dreamed about doing. I didn't come from a musical family. My DNA is not that. But I am so thankful that there was a part of me that was strong enough to say, “This is what I'm doing” without knowing how to play more than two chords on a guitar and without having performed live anywhere. It was all a dream and dreams do come true sometimes, don’t they?

Speaking of dreams, you performed for the first time at Dream Serenade last month [at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall]. It's such a fantastic event [put on by singer Hayden and his wife Christie] to benefit children with developmental and physical disabilities and their families. But you also went to the school for Music Friday which must have been very special.

There are some people that come into your life to expand your life; other people come into your life to teach you stuff. Kevin Drew came into my life for everything. Not only did we record an album together and the Letterman show in its final weeks — it's just been kind of a trip — but I got a call from Kevin that said, “Hey, I'm picking you up.” I didn't know anything. I know Dream Serenade, but I had not been to it. And I really didn't know too much about the dynamics of it all. So we go to Beverley School and ended up singing to the kids and parents — as did Dallas Green, Afie [Jurvanen] from Bahamas and Hayden — and it's just overwhelming. Maybe, I'm at a time in my life where everything is so emotional that I can't walk or think, but I think I've always been that way. And what’s interesting for me is what the parents go through.

Part of the proceeds from Dream Serenade goes to a program to provide respite for the parents and/or caregivers [Family Relief Fund].

I think how does it work? You can't wait to be a parent and then you may be a nurse as well, and then you may decide to have more children, knowing that the risk is there, but your other children are healthy. It's really strange. I grew up in an area where my best friend's brother had Down syndrome, but it didn't stop us from playing and having a good time and laughing and all of that, without really understanding the depth of what it was until you get older. But it's been around me for a long time. When I first started out, and I had time on an afternoon before a show, I would go to orphanages and sing. I don't know why.  I just felt I'd rather do that than sit in my room or schmooze with people because that's what music is all about.

One is gifted. I've said many times, and I'll say it many times over.  I never take a bow for inspiration. I'm always really surprised and blindsided by the fact that someone likes something I've written and recorded and/or produced. So when I'm surrounded by this gift that has given me so much, I'd rather be with those kids and with those adults that feel that way, that need this music, more than anyone else. Basically, that's how I've chosen to live whatever moments that I've been given.

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