Eugene Grey Interview
By: Dennis M. Kelly
DK: To say, “Let’s start at the beginning”, how far would we be going back? To the early eighties?
EG: I started at the age of 12 in 1963 playing the harmonica in the school band called the Serenaders. In 1964 we won a National competition in which we won a trophy and 100 pounds (Jamaica was a colony of England until 1962 but still used their currency). I continued playing professionally after I graduated from High School in 1968 performing at nightclubs and hotels adding the trombone, bass and lastly guitar as my instruments.
DK: What were your first musical influences while growing up?
EG: Guitarist Grant Greene, Jimmy Hendrix, Jose Feliciano, and Howard Roberts influenced me while I was growing up. Also, I enjoyed the style and original sound of Fats Domino. His beats resonate and the timbre of his instruments was amazing. His original sound impressed me a lot.
DK: When did you first get your guitar and are you self taught or did you take lessons?
EG: My first guitar was hand made by me. I taught myself the guitar as with all the instruments that I played. I used the Encyclopedia Britannica in my home to teach myself about music and how to read. I swallowed everything I could about music; I eventually developed a reputation in Jamaica as an arranger.
My first experience with formal teaching was here in the United States when I was accepted and graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor in
Music Composition from the City University of New York (CUNY) in 1992. By then I had been performing internationally for over 20 years.
DK: How was your family life? Brothers/Sisters, etc?
EG: I am the eldest of 4 children from my mother and father but the 4th child of 10 half brothers and sisters. My father was the Comptroller of the Parrish of Hanover and my Grandfather was the Counselor of the City of Green Island. The Greys are known for high academic achievement and I was expected to work for the government as my father. A musical career was neither accepted nor encouraged. My father was not happy about my choice of career and only acknowledged my talent shortly before he died when I was 21. By then I had a reputation as a very serious and excellent musician.
DK: You were born in Jamaica, right? If so, what part?
EG: I was born on the west coast of Jamaica in a little seaport town called Green Island in the Parish of Hanover as an average Island kid with goats, chickens, rabbits, etc. who carried loads on my head. My family was considered middle class, but we were no different from the average Jamaican. Growing up was carefree and I often dreamt of traveling as I would see planes flying over and wave “wait for me”. I finally got on that plane in 1969 performing in Bimini Bahamas at the Bimini Club Hotel. It was the beginning of a lifelong love of traveling and music gave me that opportunity.
DK: You have had an illustrious career; most impressive indeed. What would you say have been some of the highlights of your
EG: Recording and touring with international artist Kid Creole and The Coconuts was a highlight of my career. I experienced the very top level of performing with Kid Creole. We traveled with no less than 2 tour buses and an entourage of roadies, light crew, road manager, hairdressers, etc. We stayed at 5 star hotels all over the world. I had a personal guitar tech who tuned my instrument and sound checked it before every show. We also made movie and T.V. appearances as well as performed for George Bush Sr.’s Presidential Inaugural Ball.
Another highlight was being accepted and graduating Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Music Composition from the City University of New York (CUNY) in 1992. By then I had been performing internationally for over 20 years. I had always wanted to formally study music but it was not available in Jamaica in the country where I lived.
DK: Where do you find greater satisfaction, composing, performing or recording?
EG: I have performed with other artists in every aspect of the business. From movies, to Off Broadway Plays, to Japan, Africa and all over Europe. My greatest satisfaction is composing my own songs and performing my compositions. It would be a dream come true to have an orchestra perform some of my compositions.
DK: How did you come to develop this mixture of Jazz, Reggae, and Classical music?
EG: I grew up in Jamaica at a time when we only had 2 radio stations and they played every style of music from America. I listened to all the early American Rock ‘n’ Roll, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Jazz Crusaders, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Chicago. Every Sunday there was Indian and Chinese music played (Jamaica’s population is made up of all ethnic groups that include Chinese, Indian, Arabs, Jews who all speak with a Jamaican accent). My father would also have us listen to Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. I was always fascinated with the subtle difference between genres and I experimented to understand them.
DK: Did you always play similar styles with each of the musicians you’ve performed with?
EG: No, I adjust to the genre that I am performing while still maintaining my own style. When you are a side man playing with an artist you have to be sensitive to what they want to hear in their music. This is the reason I am able to perform with so many different types of artists such as the West African artist “Vieux Diop”. He often remarked that I played like an authentic African. I always take with me an open mind when I perform with other artists.
While performing under my own name at a music festival here in Florida, the tech people backstage remarked that they could not categorize my style of playing. They heard many different styles in all my compositions. I believe that to be a true musician that you have to be well rounded and versed. This is my style that I bring to the world. I can go from playing a roots reggae song to playing Jazz to playing Classical and not have an accent with any style.
DK: Were there any lessons that you’ve learned from jamming with these other performers?
EG: Yes, I enjoy the interaction with other performers. I get my greatest chi energy from playing with people who bring something to the table. It is so fascinating to hear musicians expressing their thoughts all on the same theme. There is no better musical experience because it is spontaneous and honest. I believe that it is all about the music, what a magic.
I have been so fortunate to play with some great musicians such as Charlie Palmieri, Arthur Blythe and my good friend and mentor, guitarist Ernest Ranglin of Jamaica. There are a lot of good musicians who are incredible in their own right and nobody knows who they are. This is one of the reasons I left the island of Jamaica to expand my musical horizon and learn from some great talents. I have been very humbled by playing with other performers.
DK: How long did you serve as musical director in the “Rasta” musical?
EG: The show ran in Harlem, New York for approximately 2 months. It then came to Florida where I was chosen as the director once more. A musical director requires a lot of musical knowledge and patience, which I have both. Also, it takes sensitivity in bringing life into a script and understanding the subtle nuances required to play what amounts to incidental music.
DK: Why have you only released three albums of your own?
EG: I was never fortunate enough to have neither a manager nor a label be interested in recording me (I was once told that it would be hard to market me because I can not be categorized. how is that for being “over qualified”), though my recording contributions for other artists on major labels have helped their career.
Therefore, I had to do it myself and personal economics played a lot in this decision. Though I have an extensive resume, playing music didn’t always equate to money. I would often come home from touring in Europe waiting for my money. There was even a time that I stopped playing music and taught in the public school system for 4 years. It has not been easy and only with the Grace of God and an extremely supportive wife Felicia (currently my scribe for this interview and manager) that I do continue.
Over a period of 20 years I was able to amass studio equipment and taught myself engineering. Today we run a live recording studio, Tropic Isle Recording Studio, Inc. from where I recorded “Timeless”, “Shades of Grey” and the new album soon to be released under my own label Greyphone Records. To save money I have often played most if not all of the instruments on the recordings as well as being my own engineer. The studio that is in our house has some steady clients that bring in income as well. I recently upgraded my studio to learn more sophisticated software that I sit all night to learn as I did learning to play my instruments.
DK: With the expansive career that you’ve already lived, what do you have on the horizon for the years ahead?
EG: To achieve the goal of having my compositions distributed internationally so that it can provide an income that will enable me to purchase some bread rather than some crackers. Currently, I only have distribution through the internet and when I perform. I am on a constant search for
a distributor in the US or Europe. It does me no good to spend thousands of dollars as I do to record and manufacture an album to have it sit in my garage. This is my main frustration.
Second, I am pursuing performing internationally on my own as I have with other artists. Gigging locally is fine, but I believe my talent is world class and should be seen on that level. Local gigs are not economically rewarding and I only use them to maintain my skills. Also, they are usually genre specific and do not lend themselves to real creativity. I do agree that local venues must do what they believe is necessary to maintain their business, but in the same sense I need to maintain the right to stay on the cutting edge of my craft. Most local proprietors are not concerned with the personal ambition of a musician.
Hopefully with this and other radio and news interviews (Ghana, France, England) I have had I can relay my perspective and experience in the business. I am not getting any younger but thankfully I have not lost but rather improved my skills. Music is my life and it is a gift that I would like to be able to share with others.
Through music I am able to define my sense of self and my balance with the universe. It has never been my intention to prostitute music for economic gain but to attain the highest level of musicianship whereby money would follow. Though I am by no means destitute, I am neither able to fully reap all the fruits of my labor. As every true musician knows, survival is not easy, as it seems not to depend on talent but rather who you know. A millionaire friend that I often work with made the statement that “the music business has nothing to do with music”.
Finally, what I have on the horizon is to keep making records, performing and maintaining my level of musicianship. I have spent over 35 years on my craft and will continue to the grave.
DK: Thank you very much for your time today!
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Eugene Grey Biography
Guitarist, Arranger, Composer
According to Rootz Reggae & Kulcha magazine (2004), “Eugene Grey is yet another of the many genius guitarists of world class status that Jamaica has produced” playing professionally from the age of 14. Born in Green Island Jamaica in 1951, he went to Ruseas High School in 1963 where he started playing the harmonica in the School Band. After winning 1st place in the Pop and Mento competition in 1964, he taught himself to play the trombone, drums, piano and lastly the guitar, which he made.
Eugene has an eclectic style that combines Jazz, Reggae and Classical music. This style has led to him touring worldwide as lead guitarist with such artists as Grammy Award winners Burning Spear and Toots and The Maytals, Ras Tesfa, Culture, Fab 5, Irving Burgie and Kid Creole and The Coconuts.
Other artists Eugene has performed with include Big Youth, The Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, America’s Singing Poet Steve DePass, West Africa’s Abdou M’Boup and Vieux Diop, Tony Cafresi and His Latin Orchestra, The Wailers, Burning Spear and The Skatalites. While with The Skatalites Mr. Grey performed with Charlie Palmieri and Arthur Blythe at New York’s club ‘Village Gate’. In 1992 Eugene performed with his group, POWER REGGAE as the opening act and backing band for Jamaica’s Gregory Issacs in Switzerland.
He has recorded on all of the albums by Kid Creole and The Coconuts including arranging the song “Haiti” on their 1994 project. Also, the album “Voice of the Rastaman” by Shanachie artist Ras Tesfa and on the 1995 album “Via Jo” by Triloka artist Vieux Diop from Senegal, West Africa. Mr. Grey composed and arranged an original piece “Song For Jah” which was featured on the album “Another One Gone” by Shanachie Records artist Safi Abdullah.
He also arranged the 1993 Christmas album for one of Jamaica’s premier male singers, Vic Taylor. Another aspect of his career was performing as a member of the orchestra in several Off-Broadway plays and musicals such as “In A Pigs Valise” in 1989; “Pecong” in 1991 at Newark Symphony Hall and the Off Broadway Classical musical “Sally and Tom” at Castillo Theatre in 1995/96. He also was Musical Director for the Off-Broadway musical “Rasta” in 1995.
Eugene was commissioned to arrange 42 of the original songs of his longtime employer, Irving Burgie to market as a Broadway Musical review. These songs were made famous by Harry Belafonte 50 years ago. His arrangements garnered extensive praise from Cherry Lane Records.
His official debut release “Timeless” was nominated for a 2003 Reggaesoca Music Award. This instrumental album has enjoyed rave reviews as well as extensive airplay in the US, Canada and Jamaica. 2004 saw his performance at the Suntrust Jazz Brunch at Riverwalk in Fort Lauderdale which coincided with the release of his new project, “Shades of Grey” which was nominated for 2005 Reggaesoca Music Award. Later that same year Eugene was in England as Musical Director for Irving Burgie’s musical “Day-O”.
FOR MORE INFORMATION OR CONTACT:
Felicia K. Grey