Local musician, cancer survivor sees bright lights, performs before them
By: Glenda H. Caudle Special Features Editor
By GLENDA H. CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
“My mom gets us up early every Thanksgiving to watch the parade on TV,” John Alston says with a smile.
This year, the Alston family didn’t have to contend with commercials or station breaks or chattering media hosts to enjoy the grandeur associated with the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from New York City.
They had front row seats for the actual event.
John Alston, well-known to local music lovers, library patrons and noon time diners, was invited to “the Big Apple” with his mom, Beverly Alston and his sister, Danielle Alston, to appear on The Today Show Nov. 20. The gifted young pianist, who will be leaving Union City after Christmas to begin his studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston, underwent treatment for medistinal large B-cell lymphoma at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis two years ago. He has since made several appearances on behalf of the hospital, including time in New York in December 2006 and in Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
A few weeks ago, he was the subject of an interview filmed in Union City at his home; at Beverly’s Bistro, where he helps his mother in her Jackson Street and South First Street business; and in Memphis at St. Jude. The interview was shown on The Today Show and Alston was later featured in a segment with his mother and Marlo Thomas, daughter of St. Jude founder and popular entertainer Danny Thomas. Ms. Thomas spoke about her father’s vision for the hospital, which offers free treatment to children suffering from catastrophic diseases, and which is dedicated to research for the illnesses which threaten to rob children of their lives. She told the audience the hospital’s annual Thanks and Giving program allows individuals who support the work of St. Jude to become involved by helping to provide funding for its life-saving work.
Alston surprised Ms. Thomas by performing “Danny Boy” on the piano during the Today Show segment devoted to the annual fund-raising project.
Local viewers were delighted to see their favorite hometown pianist had quite a bit of air time on the show. Other St. Jude patients and former patients were also invited to New York with their families and were featured on the popular morning program, as well.
The Alstons’ all-expense-paid visit to New York began Nov. 19 with a flight from Memphis to that city. They were met by a limousine at the airport and transported to the Roosevelt Hotel, where they checked in and rested that evening.
The following morning, Alston and his mother and sister went to the NBC studios and were given information on what to expect during the show. Then the cameras began to roll, Alston began to play and Ms. Thomas began to cry. The cameras caught a shot of Ms. Thomas and Mrs. Alston hugging as John Alston coaxed the plaintive strains of “Danny Boy” from the piano.
With the interview and mini-concert completed, the Alstons “hit the streets,” taking in sites such as shopping Mecca Saks Fifth Avenue and other tourist hot spots in Harlem and Brooklyn. They sampled street-corner gyro fare for a hurried evening meal and continued exploring the city.
On Wednesday, they were free to explore again, but on Thursday morning, they made sure they were in their places to watch the parade “up close and personal.”
“My mom really enjoyed it,” Alston says of the spectacle, which lasted more than two hours. “It was a perfect day, in the 70s, and she was so thrilled. The huge balloons and the military bands — that was cool,” Alston says.
After the parade, the family enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal at the Hilton Hotel with the seven other St. Jude patients who had been featured on the show. Then there was more sightseeing. Unfortunately, the writers’ strike prevented the family from enjoying a Broadway show, but that was a small disappointment compared to the thrill of spending the holiday in such unique surroundings.
Come Friday morning, Alston and the rest of the St. Jude contingent, including Marlo Thomas, returned to the NBC studios and then took to the streets, handed out small bears and hats and T-shirts to tourists and hometowners in the vicinity to remind them of the life-saving work being done at St. Jude.
“I was really surprised at the amount of time they had me on,” Alston says of his Tuesday appearance. “Besides that, we got to tour behind the scenes at the studio and we met Al Roker. Meredith Vieira was actually out of town, but she “introduced” me.”
To warm up for “Danny Boy,” Alston played “Maple Leaf Rag” and, to the delight of his Today Show cast audience, “All I Ask of You,” from “Phantom of the Opera.”
He also met rock star James Taylor, who was featured on that day’s show, but he said their time together was very brief and Taylor was only in the studio long enough to perform. He also was introduced to some of the Disney Channel stars, including Corbin Bleu of “High School Musical” fame, with whom he posed for a picture.
Alston, who is a familiar face behind the desk at the Obion County Public Library, will be performing at Union City First United Methodist Church Jan. 6 at 3 p.m. A love offering will be received at that concert.
He will leave Union City for Boston Jan. 10.
Published in The Messenger 12.19.07