Oncologist Bill Nelson stands in the lobby of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center holding a guitar

Credit: Christopher Myers

Chords against cancer

As director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, oncology Professor Bill Nelson, Med '87 (MD), knows his way around the world of medicine. But his entry into the world of professional musicianship playing guitar with Paul Reed Smith's all-star band was a baptism of fire—terrifying, exciting, is-this-really-happening? fire.

His entry into the world of professional musicianship was a baptism of fire—terrifying, exciting, "is-this-really-happening?" fire.

Smith plays a mean ax but is perhaps best known as a guitar manufacturer whose namesake line of high-end instruments enjoys global acclaim. (As in, Carlos Santana and John Mayer are among its clientele.) What you may not know is that Smith—a native of Annapolis, Maryland—has made the Kimmel Cancer Center his flagship charity, hosting benefit shows and guitar auctions to support cancer patients and their families.

Nelson, who played guitar and sang in high school, had only recently picked his guitar back up when a member of his development staff introduced him to Smith as a fellow guitarist. The guitar maker had an idea: Why not have the cancer doc sit in with the band?

Before the fateful first gig back in 2010, Smith suggested Nelson ease his nerves before the performance by chatting up his bandmates backstage. "I learned that the drummer had played with Whitney Houston," Nelson recalls. "And the bass player had toured with jazz great John Scofield." Well, that didn't help, an even more nervous Nelson thought to himself at the time, knowing his own background included a teenage band called Harlequin doing Eagles and Bad Company covers.

But Nelson held his own that night—"It was exhilarating!" he says—and the doc went on to join Smith's rotating cast of band members that has since solidified into an octet called Paul Reed Smith Eightlock. Nelson can be heard playing and singing on Eightlock's debut album, Lions Roaring in Quicksand, released in December with a mix of originals and classics, including Al Green's "Love and Happiness."

Nelson acknowledges that having a Hopkins doctor in the band was initially a novelty move. But he says he's blessed with the gift of excellent musical timing and that "everything else just comes down to practice." His chops well-honed, Nelson says he no longer suffers from stage fright. "Any anxiety I have is related to singing in tune," Nelson says. He's even trying his hand at songwriting.

Still, his bandmates' musical résumés impress: Drummer Dennis Chambers played with Parliament-Funkadelic, drummer Ju Ju House (one of three percussionists in Eightlock) beat the skins for Roberta Flack, and bassist Gary Grainger played with George Duke and Bill Evans. Because the eight members have so many other commitments, regular gigs are few. Highlights include opening for sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson from the band Heart and sharing a bill with Grammy-winning Mexican band Maná at Los Angeles' Kia Forum. Last December, Eightlock celebrated the Kimmel Cancer Center's 50th anniversary with a show at Baltimore's Lyric performing arts center, a rollicking performance that saw blues guitar great Keb' Mo' sitting in.

"I find professional musicians to be incredibly nice," Nelson says. "And they are human jukeboxes and insanely talented. If you ask me right now to give a talk on anti-cancer drug discovery or something, I could give you a pretty good talk. That's the way they are with music. Ask 'em to play something, and they'll just play it."

First song you learned on guitar: "Temptation Eyes" by the Grass Roots. I could finally play something from the radio!

Favorite guitarist: Eric Johnson is a beautiful player. John Mayer is insanely good, and I've liked Don Felder since I was a kid.

Favorite concert: Todd Rundgren in the '70s.

Vinyl, CD, or streaming? Streaming. I really enjoy chasing down good live performances on YouTube.

Favorite Beatle: Paul, then George.

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