The first John Lennon Tribute in New York City took place just down the street from the Dakota, in jazz great Billie Holiday's former music studio, then home to an experimental theatre workshop called Theatre Within. A small group of performing artists and friends were drawn together by Lennon’s senseless murder.
"It was very emotional and sad," remembers Tribute co-creator Joe Raiola, "but it felt good to come together to remember John -- so we kept doing it."
Created in 1981 by Theatre Within Workshop founder, Alec Rubin, and his then student Joe Raiola, Theatre Within's Annual John Lennon Tribute is now a well-established and beloved New York City tradition. Each year's Tribute brings together an acclaimed group of artists to celebrate John Lennon's music, life and timeless message of peace and love.
Under Alec Rubin’s direction for 20 years, the Tribute was an evening of experimental theatre, dance and song in Lennon's memory. Raiola, a comedian and Senior Editor at Mad Magazine, assumed the role of producer and performed a Lennon-themed comedy set each year. "It wasn't what you'd except from a Lennon Tribute,” Raiola recalls, “but it reflected Alec's creative vision and was very powerful."
In 2001 Rubin retired, handing full creative control of the Tribute to Raiola. "I loved what we'd done, but I had a different vision for what it could be," he says. So that year he re-envisioned the Tribute, breaking away from its established format and turning it into a charity concert benefiting homeless children.
Yoko Ono first learned of the Tribute in 2004 and invited Raiola to contribute to her book, Memories of John Lennon. The following year, the Tribute's Silver Anniversary was held at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Over the next five years the Tribute grew in size and prominence, attracting such notable performers as Joan Osborne, David Bromberg and Bettye LaVette, while raising money to feed the hungry and build music schools in the Third World.
Theatre Within’s 30th Annual John Lennon Tribute, held at the Beacon Theatre in 2010, attracted worldwide attention and featured a star-studded line-up, including Jackson Browne, Patti Smith, Taj Mahal, Aimee Mann, Cyndi Lauper, Shelby Lynne, Martin Sexton, Keb' Mo' and Alejandro Escovedo. Proceeds were shared with the Playing For Change Foundation to help build music schools in the Third World. An album featuring highlights from the Tribute was released the following year.
Since then, the Tribute has raised money for Hurricane Sandy relief and Spirit Foundations, established by John and Yoko in 1978 as a vehicle to support charities that address the problems of the aging, abused women and children, and victims of terrorism and natural disasters. Recent performers have included Steve Earle, Judy Collins, Raul Malo, Dar Williams, David Johansen, Dana Fuchs and Teddy Thompson.