THE EVOLUTION OF A YOUNG MUSICIAN
Ever since he was able to walk, Grayson Hugh knew he was going to play music. Growing up in the suburbs of West Hartford, Connecticut, he and his two brothers would often terrorize the neighborhood by holding extremely loud and long "practice sessions", playing the family piano and various improvised percussion instruments. Some of the family furniture still bear the marks of this enthusiastic drumming. His fascination with rhythm led him to explore his father's extensive record collection, where he listened to African drummer Babatunde Olatunji, the calypso of Harry Belafonte and the earthy music of Ray Charles and Odetta. Grayson loved the rhythmic guitar-picking of folk and bluegrass music as well, and at an early age he began to incorporate these elements into his piano playing style.
Vocal styles intrigued Grayson, too. While still in grade school, he admired the stark, reverberating singing of his parents' early Elvis records, and also the smooth lonely harmonies of The Everly Brothers. The distinctive voices of Patsy Cline, George Jones, Brenda Lee, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye also made indelible impressions on his young ears. One of the first records Grayson bought was "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles. He memorized the electric piano part to the title song; this marked the beginning of his life-long long fascination with rhythm and blues. He also became an avid player of all available Hammond B3 organs after hearing the Booker T. & The M.G.'s hit "Green Onions". After listening to The Beatles, Grayson's young brain pretty much exploded and that was it; he knew what he wanted to do. His classical piano lessons (and schoolwork) took a back seat, and his obsession with writing and performing rock 'n roll began.
Grayson's obsession continues to this day. His music reflects his love of many different genres - soul, folk, rock, gospel, bluegrass, old country music ballads; and his poetic lyrics narrate songs that are like miniature films or storybooks. They describe the things he loves: trees, angles of light, the way the different seasons make you feel, how snow looks half-melted on a sagging barn, the way the tendrils of twigs curl, the red glow of certain bushes in early March, the salty smell of skin on the beach in the summer. To create his songs, Grayson plumbs the many memories of his life experience, still rich with childhood wonder.
He loved the great soul records of the sixties and seventies, and he discovered the roots of soul music while working a year-long stint as the pianist in a black gospel church in Hartford. Grayson expanded his musical vocabulary in the early seventies, by studying piano with jazz pianist Jaki Byard, and piano and composition with Ran Blake (co-founder, along with Gunther Schuller, of The Third Stream Department at New England Conservatory). He also studied and performed African drumming with John Miller Chernoff, who was completing his doctoral dissertation at The Hartford Seminary.
Grayson's strong attraction to the visual arts (including photography and film) led him to study filmmaking briefly at The University Of Bridgeport in 1979.
THE BANDS BEGIN
Grayson quit high school in his junior year, worked one hundred and seven meaningless jobs, and began performing in a long and diverse roster of bands. In 1965, still in junior high school, Grayson played Wurlitzer electric piano and sang lead with a band he founded called The Braekirk Aggregation, performing at local YMCA and school dances. At age sixteen, Grayson also dabbled in the folk circuit, playing his unique blend of blues and "finger-picking" piano at such places as the now-defunct Flingo East (of East Hartford, Ct.) and The Bitter End (in New York), sharing the stage with people like Phil Ochs and Loudon Wainwright III. In those years he also pounded the Vox Continental Organ and sang lead in the rock band The Last Five. Then in 1969 he founded Portrait Blues, a band playing mostly Grayson's original music, with West Hartford, Ct. bassist Dave Stoltz and drummer Ralph Rosen. In 1971, along with clarinet/alto saxophone player Stanley Geidel and guitarist Lucien Williams, Grayson formed The Wild Goose Trio, an improvisational "chamber jazz/soul" group in which he sang, played piano and soprano saxophone. During 1973 - '74, while writing the arrangements for a Hartford soul band called The Downbeats, Grayson earned extra money playing tenor saxophone and singing in the horn band Thundermug. In 1978 he teamed up with guitarist Tom Majesky and singer Kristine Adams to form a trio called Haiku that performed Hugh's highly-stylized vocal arrangements of Motown and soul classics. He also played piano and sang lead with a Texas swing band called High Times from 1975 through 1978.
In 1980 he formed The Grayson Hugh Quartet, in which he played piano, Hammond B3 organ and sang lead. Along with David Stoltz on bass, Tom Majesky on guitar and vocals, and Rob Gottfried on drums, this was the band that recorded Grayson's first record "Grayson Hugh", on the label One of Nineteen Records in 1980. In 1982 Grayson founded The Wildtones, with his future wife Polly Messer on vocals, Tom Majesky on guitar and vocals, Rob Gottfried on drums, Dave Stoltz on bass and Johnny Ventura on timbales and himself on piano,synthesizer and lead vocals. In 1983, Grayson's band Haiku expanded to include ex-Parliament/Funkadelic drummer Tyrone Lampkin and bassists Ed Alton and Mark Powell. Grayson also did a year-long stint as keyboardist/vocalist/arranger for the fusion band Street Temperature in 1984.
WORKING WITH DANCERS
In the early seventies, after leaving high school early and in need of a job, Grayson discovered he could make money improvising for modern dance classes. His father had been working with a well-known local modern dancer, Truda Kaschmann, doing the narration for her production of Peter And The Wolf with The Hartford Symphony. Ivor Hugh suggested to his son that he apply for a job with Truda. Truda loved his wild music, which included singing, playing home-made wind instruments, putting paper, coat hangers and other objects on the grand piano strings, and pounding out rhythms on African and Chinese drums. The German-born dancer, a former student of Mary Wigman and teacher to Alwin Nikolais and Merce Cunningham, would pick Grayson up (he didn't drive) and bring him with her to the nearby Miss Porter's School For Girls in Farmington. He also played for her classes at The Hartford Conservatory where, during breaks between night classes, she'd take pity on the young starving musician and give him some of her dark German bread and strong coffee.
In 1974, Grayson landed a full-time job as the modern dance accompanist for The School Of The Hartford Ballet. He would start at eight in the morning and play for classes all day long, often into the evening. Occasionally the ballet masters from the Company would request Grayson's services for Company classes, and Grayson would provide his unorthodox ballet accompaniment, sometimes breaking into loud singing of soul songs such as Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On", as the startled dancers did their plies and tendus. Grayson also worked with choreographer Judy Dworin, head of the Dance Department at Trinity College in Hartford. He accompanied for her modern classes and filmed an improvisation with her for dance and music on Connecticut Public Television in 1978.
The connection with dancers continued into the early eighties. In 1981, he met choreographer Catherine Fellows (head of the Dance Department at Central Connecticut State College). Together they performed a concert series of live improvisations for dance and music. In 1982, Hugh heard through some of his dancer friends that choreographer Viola Farber (a founding member of The Merce Cunningham Dance Company) had her own company in New York. He decided to simply go to her studio one day in 1983 and introduce himself. Viola asked him if he would like to play for a Company class. She liked what she heard and asked him if he would consider performing his music with her Company on two consecutive evenings in March of 1983. She also requested that he record this music. When he asked for more specific guidelines, she responded, "Just do what you do for 21 minutes".
Grayson went on to accompany for the dance departments of Boston University, The Boston Conservatory, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College, Julliard and The School of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He played master classes for choreographers Gus Solomons Jr., Bill T. Jones, The Paul Taylor Dance Company and Pilobolus. His commissioned works include scores for Prometheus Dance, The Bennett Dance Company and Rebecca Rice.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
By 1986 Grayson decided he had had enough of the local music scene and eking out a living accompanying for dance classes. He moved to New York, determined to stay there until he got a record deal. This proved to be a fortuitous decision. He was camping out on an army cot in a basement barber shop (owned by the friend of a friend), when one day as he was riding an elevator he happened to strike up a conversation with his fellow passenger, who turned out to be music producer Michael Baker. At that time, Baker was finishing up producing English pop-soul band The Blow Monkeys for RCA records. In the elevator, Grayson asked Baker if he'd like to hear some of his music; Baker said "Sure", so he brought Baker up to his friend's apartment and played one of his cassette recordings. At first, Baker didn't believe it was Grayson on the recording, so Grayson played one of his songs on the piano. After this impromptu performance, Baker said, "I can get you a record deal". Grayson ended up signing a production agreement with Baker and, six months later, he signed on with RCA Records in a three-record deal.
The first of these projected records, "Blind To Reason", went on to have two gold records and three radio hits. Grayson then began two years of touring in the U.S and overseas. With his old friend and guitarist Tom Majesky, he put together a band and began touring, at first as as opening act for several people,including Dickie Betts, Sheena Easton, and Mick Ronson/Ian Hunter/Jack Bruce. Then, in 1989, after his single "Talk It Over" became a Top Twenty hit on the radio, he began headlining his own shows. During this time he also appeared on several network television talk shows, including The Today Show, The Byron Allen Show and, in London, England, The Wogan Show.
In 1990, Grayson began work on his second record "Road To Freedom", which through a long, complicated series of events landed at MCA Records. As a result of this association two notable film directors heard his work. The first of these was Ridley Scott; after hearing an advance pressing of Grayon's album, Scott considered several of Grayson's songs for "Thelma and Louise". They eventually settled on two: Grayson's soulful "I Can't Untie You From Me", featured in the diner scene in which Thelma (Susan Sarandon) gives her ring back to Jimmy (Michael Madsen); and the countryish rock song "Don't Look Back", which plays on a jukebox in a roadside honky-tonk as Louise calls detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel). The other director was Jon Avnet; he asked MCA music supervisor Kathy Nelson if Grayson would be interested in recording Bob Dylan's song "I'll Remember You" for his upcoming film "Fried Green Tomatoes". Grayson drew on his experience as a pianist in an A.M.E church back in Hartford to arrange the song in a slow, heartfelt southern gospel style. For the recording, producer Arthur Baker recruited members of Eric Clapton's touring band to back up Grayson. Grayson sang lead vocals and played his Hammond B3 organ, and the resulting version of "I'll Remember You" became the end-title song for the movie and went on to find a home on "Road To Freedom".
"Road To Freedom" was named one of 1992's top-ten albums by Billboard Magazine, among much other critical praise. The record's ascent was cut short, however, after the A&R man who had signed Grayson to MCA was fired, and all of his acts subsequently dropped. Disillusioned with the entire situation, Grayson moved to coastal North Carolina in 1994 and began writing in earnest.
GRAYSON LEAVES AND BRANCHES OUT
He eventually wound up back in the northeast with a wagonload of new songs, where he landed a job in 1999 teaching songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston. His mom lived in Newton, Massachusets, his Dad and brothers were nearby in Connecticut, and he was glad to be near family again. While living in the Boston area, he was commissioned to compose scores for several modern dance companies, notably Prometheus Dance and Bennett Dance Company.
But in 2000, the old demon of alcohol reared its head. Not having had a drink since 1980, but already abusing the prescription drug Xanax, Grayson embarked on a four year relapse that nearly killed him. At the same time his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and his drinking and pill-taking led to a downward spiral that landed him in a room over a Cape Cod restaurant where he played piano for room and board. He had gone from the top of the musical world to the bottom of a fringe existence. As his brother put it later, his life was "getting smaller and smaller".
The light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of a near fatal seizure in an alcoholic blackout that landed him in the hospital. In October of 2004 he went to a detox facility and, nine days later, having discovered he was homeless, he found a bed in a sober house in Wareham, Massachusetts. There, in that unglamorous but real world, in a run down Cape Cod cottage on Cranberry Highway, his journey back to sobriety and self began.
In the Summer of 2005 a meeting with a rehabilitation counselor (who happened to know his music) led to a suggestion that Grayson get back to doing what he did best: music. This counselor, Dean Gilmore, became a good friend and champion. Through his agency, The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, Dean was able to secure some seed money for Grayson to begin a new record project.
By the Spring of 2006 Grayson had become determined to make a work of art, a collection of his songs that adhered to no set "genre" or "audience" or any other category as prescribed by the mercenary music industry. The songs would come from deep within his heart and soul and include his love of many different musical styles - soul, bluegrass, old time country, rock, jazz and even gospel. Thus he began to assemble all the pieces for a new studio album (eventually to be called "An American Record"), his first in over fifteen years. He recruited his old friends and band-mates from Connecticut and began rehearsing the songs that summer. In the process, he reconnected with his long-time friend and former backup singer, Polly Messer, when she sent a letter to him, care of his brother, and offered to sing backup on the new album. The rhythm tracks were recorded in October of 2006 and, for various reasons, the first overdubs were not begun until January 21, 2007. At that session Grayson saw Polly for the first time in thirteen years and his soul recognized hers. One harmony led to another, and Polly ended up co-producing the new record with Grayson. They were married on August 17, 2008, surrounded by friends, family and fellow musicians.
"An American Record" was released on May 1rst, 2010 on Grayson's own label Swamp Yankee Records. The CD is available at CDBaby. Digital downloads are available there as well and on iTunes, Amazon.com and most of the other digital retail websites.