THE YOUNG MUSICIAN
Grayson Hugh began playing the piano at the age of three. For him, it was not a matter of what he would do as the main activity in his life; it was simply a matter of when. He and his two brothers would often terrorize their suburban Connecticut neighborhood by holding extremely loud and long "practice sessions", utilizing many cheap improvised percussion instruments. Some of the Hugh 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 young Grayson, too. While still in grade school, he admired the stark, reverberating singing of early Elvis, and also the smooth lonely harmonies of The Everly Brothers. He bought his first record (as a birthday present) in 1960: "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. When The Beatles arrived in America, Grayson's young brain pretty much exploded and that was it; he knew what he wanted to do. The lure of rock n' roll trumped all his other interests. Classical music, drawing, baseball, poetry (and schoolwork) took a back seat, and his obsession with writing and performing songs began. His parents sent him to a program for gifted kids at The Hartford Conservatory when Grayson was in the sixth grade. There he studied piano, alto saxophone, conducting, theory and composition.
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.
Grayson 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 at The Hartt School, and piano and composition with Ran Blake (co-founder, along with Gunther Schuller, of The Third Stream Department at New England Conservatory) at New England Comservatory. He also studied and performed West African drumming with John Chernoff, author of "African Rhythm and African Sensibility" University Of Chicago Press). Grayson and John met when Chernoff 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.
Finding high school a meaningless distraction, Grayson left in his junior year and began performing in a long roster of bands. In 1965 Grayson played Wurlitzer electric piano and sang lead with The Braekirk Aggregation; also in 1967, he pounded the Vox Continental Organ and sang lead in The Last Five; in 1969 he founded Portrait Blues, an original music band, with bassist Dave Stoltz and drummer Ralph Rosen; in 1971, along with clarinet/alto saxophone player Stanley Geidel and guitarist Lucien Williams, Grayson sang and played piano and soprano saxophone with The Wild Goose Trio, a "chamber improvisational jazz" group; in 1973 he played tenor saxophone and sang in the horn band Thundermug; in 1978 he teamed up with guitarist Tom Majesky and singer Kris Adams to form a trio called Haiku that performed 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 two year stint as keyboardist/vocalist/arranger for the fusion band Street Temperature in 1984.
A DAY JOB 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. The dancers loved his use of piano, percussion and singing. The director Enid Lynn asked him to teach a course "Music and Rhythm For Dancers". 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.
The connection with dancers continued into the early eighties. He had heard 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 Trinity College, Boston University, The Boston Conservatory, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College and Julliard. He also accompanied (playing African and Afro/Cuban percussion as well as piano) for 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.
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. He also signed a publishing deal with SBK Entertainment World in '87. When SBK sold their company to EMI Music in 1989, Grayson began a decade of working closely with that company.
His debut major label album, "Blind To Reason", (RCA 1988) earned 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, touring the U.S. and overseas. 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.
HOLLYWOOD TÅKES NOTICE
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 country-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.
BACK TO NEW ENGLAND
Grayson eventually wound up back in the northeast with a wagonload of new songs, where, in 1999, he joined the faculty of Berklee College of Music in Boston. For the next several years he taught songwriting, ear training and arranging there. 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. He moved to Falmouth on Cape Cod in 2003.
In the summer of 2006, Grayson began work on a new record, one that had been forming in his mind for some time. It would be his first in over fifteen years. During the recording of it, he reconnected with his long-time friend and former backup singer, Polly Messer, who heard through the musician grapevine that a new album was in the works. She got in touch with him and offered to sing backup on the record. 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.
Three and a half years in the making, after several hundred bus rides between Cape Cod and Connecticut (and many miles logged in Polly's silver station wagon) "An American Record" is here. It is about places and people; it's about times and tides of the human heart; it's about leaving and returning and losing one's way and redemption. The songs are like chapters in a novel, each one richly describing with passion and longing, a fierce sense of humour and a cinematic eye all the various stops along the way in this very American journey. In the words of one writer: "Grayson Hugh has been there and is back again. His story - our story - has to be heard."
Grayson released his album "Back To The Soul", a return to his southern soul roots, on August 12, 2015. It received very favorable reviews. The following year he put together a band Grayson Hugh & The Moon Hawks. After some extensive rehearsing, the new band began performing in music halls and festivals. Since 2012, Grayson has brought his duo show with his wife and harmony singer Polly Messer to music halls in the U.S. (The Cutting Room, City Winery, Hill Country in New York City; Port Hardy Civic Center on Vancouver Island, B.C. Cananda; Infinity Music Hall, Bridge Street in Connecticut, World Bird Sanctuary Gala in St. Louis, Missouri; The Lyric Theatre in Stuart Florida) and overseas (The Blue Note Jazz Club in Poznań, Poland and Acoustic Tour 2012, Poland).
In 2017, Hungarian film director Balázs Hatvani contacted Grayson and expressed an interest in collaboration. Hatvani actually had several projects in mind, but the most immediate one was a film he had already shot to a large extent. It was a comedy about a man who has the "power" to project a flame from his pointing finger. This man however smokes and drinks too much. He is a reluctant superhero. The film is set in the 80's, in a fictional European city. After reading some of the script, Grayson wrote a title song and another song that used some of vintage 80's synth sounds. He recorded them both, singing and playing all the instruments. Polly sang on "Captain Flame" and came up with a duet part for "Out Of Limbo". Balázs decided to have his leading actress in the film, Dorina Csifó, sing the duet with Grayson for "Out Of Limbo ". In June 2018 Grayson and Polly traveled to Budapest to make the music videos for these two songs. Hungarian actress Dorina Csifó sang the part Polly wrote for "Out Of Limbo" and that video premiered at Halloween. In a two night shoot, Grayson and Polly filmed the video for the song "Captain Flame", which will be premiered closer to the release of the film. It is slated for a December 2020 release.
In September 2021, Grayson also began teaching keyboards and voice at The School Of Rock in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
THE NEW RECORD
In 2019, Grayson began to feel the pull of another record project. This time he decided to delve into the more Country side of his songwriting. So he assembled a band of some most acclaimed artists in Roots music today. Tony Garnier on upright and electric bass (Bob Dylan's bassist and music director since 1989). On guitar, mandolin and banjo: Pete Kennedy (with his wife Maura: The Kennedys, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Roger McGuinn, Kelly Willis, and many more), on dobro and lap steel: multi-Grammy winner Cindy Cashdollar (Asleep At The Wheel, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard. Dolly Parton to name a few), fiddler Gary Oleyar (Loggins & Messina, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Vassar Clements, Marty Stuart, Pam Tillis), vocalist Polly Messer (Eight To The Bar, Eugene Chrysler, Grayson Hugh) and drummer Tyger MacNeal (Average White Band, Johnny Winter, The Four Tops, Little Anthony, The Mills Brothers, The 5th Dimension, Jose Feliciano for 25 years).
Grayson decided to name this album after the song "Save Your Love For Me", which tells the story of two lovers. The man has moved to the big city somewhere (Manhattan will do). For reasons untold, the two have decided to be together, their eventual destination also not revealed in the song. But he doesn't want to stay in the city, and she wants to leave that mountain town. And though they may not be sure exactly where they will live, one thing is clear: they want to be together.
The imagery is haunting: he wants her to meet him at the station all alone, listening for "that midnight whistle moan." She will "pack up in the pale moonshine", leaving a note for those she leaves behind. For if they "wait another day, it's bound to be too late. That little town will drag them down, and close and lock the gate." He says "Darlin' I will be there, before the wind has changed to cold, before the blue hills turn gold - and the stars of Summer fall down".
The themes, the instruments, the song itself has haunted Hugh since he wrote it in the mid 90's. He liked it so much he started performing it with his wife Polly, and they have sung it in concert halls in the States and Europe. It makes perfect sense then that when he was thinking of a name for his new record, this song emerged from the mountain trees and mist to claim its place.
As of June 2022, "Save Your Love For Me" is still in the process of being recorded, having been repeatedly stalled by the global pandemic. It's release will be announced on this website.