Henry Gross is a guy nobody has heard from in a long, long time. But his latest album, I’m Hearing Things, is an amazing mix of pop, rock, country, and ballads. The album’s sound is incredible, with guitars supplying the meat to most of the 14 cuts. And Gross plays guitar and sings as well as ever. Those of you who remember him for nothing more than his monster in ’70s hit “Shannon” are in for a treat.
We recently spoke with Gross, who has never been short of work. These days, he’s a singer/songwriter based in Nashville. But unlike the write-songs-for-others-for-a-living crowd, Gross plays the game his own way.
Vintage Guitar: Let’s start with I’m Hearing Things.
Henry Gross: Well, the music is influenced by all the stuff I loved when I was a kid – music that really moved me. I loved singers. To me, the Penguins “Earth Angel” was the height of [vocal music].
There’s a good story behind how you made the record…
I started a little label called Zelda Records, named after my mom. Then I met Gary Tallent when he moved to town. He was putting up a studio with Bucky Baxter, and they needed a guinea pig to see if it all worked. It would have cost a lot to rent studio time, but Gary let me go in, and I did a song a day with a drum machine. I put down 22 songs, and the record got great reviews, but I couldn’t promote it.
Then my mom got sick; she was on dialysis. I brought her to Nashville. My ex-wife, Kathy, had died right before that and I spent alot of time with her and her husband before she died. So it was a very tough period.
I wanted to make a record for those guys, and I tried to make the best record I’d ever made. I took about two years, working around my mother’s illness. And in the end, I was very happy with it.
Then I had it mastered by John Dent, who really understood it. He made it the best audio recording I’d ever made. Most of it is live performance, too. There might be one or two punch-ins, but that’s it.
The sound is incredible, and the performances sound like you were having fun.
Yeah, I’m making music I love. I just wish there was a place where there was a desire to not eat alive the people who make music…
Let’s talk about guitars…
I’ve been collecting since ’66, and I always had great guitars onstage. Sound was always an issue. I do love vintage guitars and I try to get to every guitar show I can because I like the people who buy and sell them. They’re all just real nut jobs like me! It’s a fabulous diversion. Some guitars are like a moment in time, you know, when everything went right. And they can’t be duplicated, despite the efforts.
How did the picture on the back of I’m Hearing Things come about?
I just had this idea to take a selection of guitars that I really cared about and put it in the picture. And that’s what I’m hearing, my whole life. I mean, if someone described me, that would be the picture. So we tore apart the living room and set up these guitars.
Are the instruments yours?
Yes. Steve Satterwhite is an amazing photographer. He just hung with it until we got one that told the story.
You look extremely happy in the photo.
(laughs) I’m real happy to be in that pile. And there’s a little picture of my dog, Shannon, on the amp, a banjo, and a picture of me when my hair was as long as the neck on the Rick 12. It’s just great.
The music on the album certainly shows your influences. The Beatles are pretty obvious…
I wanted the first few songs to be that way. Then I checked out some other places. My Johnny Cash thing on “Lucky Me” that was just loving “I Walk the Line.”
There’s a pretty strong country feel on a few cuts.
Yeah, a couple of ’em. Especially “Tomorrow’s Gonna Come,” which I thought sounded Byrds-ish until someone told me they thought it was pretty country.
That song has the best lyric; I write with a guy named Tommy Rocco, who has written a lot of big country records. I was writing with him and John Brannen, who’s also a great singer and has made a few records, when Tommy threw out the line, “I’ll paint all the windows black and try to hold the daylight back.” I think that is one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard in a pop song. When he said it, we all kind of faced east, bowed, and said, “Okay, Tommy, so you’re better than us. **** off! (laughs)”
Another great lyric is the intro to the song about being in the restaurant.
Oh yeah; “The waitress asks me if I’m famous. I say ‘No. But I’m hungry.’” You know, I’ve tried to get that song to Garth Brooks. The humility would be perfect for a guy like him. But whatever… I don’t know what it is anymore.
You have written some stuff in Nashville that hit the charts.
Yeah. I had a big hit for Blackhawk. I wrote it with Henry Paul from that band, who was with the Outlaws back in the ’70s. He and Jonathon Edwards and myself wrote the song before Henry was in Blackhawk.
Wow, there’s some names. When was that?
It would have been the early ’90s. We had a trio, and a guy was gonna get us a deal, but never did. We did 10 or 12 songs… maybe I’ll release the record.
Jonathon is one of the really great singers in the world, and Henry is one of the most unique voices I’ve ever heard. And I was up on the top. I was happy to do the high harmonies.
When did you move to Nashville?
I guess it was about ’86.
So you beat the rush.
Yeah, but I don’t really have anything to do with Music Row or anything like that. I don’t write between 10 a.m. and noon, then after lunch. I don’t mean to be insulting, but they’re really writing Hallmark Cards. It’s just different ways of saying the same thing over and over. And that’s okay. A lot of them are great writers and some people have to do it to make a living.
But I’d rather do what I love. It’s been my experience that if you put out stuff you don’t feel passionate about, it’s a guaranteed loser. If you don’t care, why should anyone else care?
Very true. Let’s talk Henry Gross history.
Well, I grew up in Brooklyn. In fact, I’ll tell you a funny story. I used to play in this club in Bensonhurst, four nights a week. It was in high school, and our band would get $50 to play four hours. Some nights they’d come and say, “We want youse to keep playin’.” I’d say “I gotta go, I gotta be in school at eight in the morning.” They’d say “Don’t worry, it’ll be good for youse.”
So we’d play until 4 a.m. and they’d give us each $100. But while we were playing, there’d be table full of guys in the back, talking. They’d come over and say, “Youse guys is great. You’re gonna be famous.”
And we’d think, “God, we must be great. They really loved us!”
Then, about four years ago, I’m reading this book about Joe Bonnano, who was the head of the Columbo family. In the book, they said they used to have their meetings in this club where we used to play. They would hire – and this is quoted in the book – the ****tiest, loudest band they could find, so the FBI couldn’t bug em! And I thought they liked us! Had I known this, I would have gone to medical school!
So that’s how music careers are started!
Some folks may not know this or associate you with them, but you were in Sha Na Na.
I was one of the founding members. I was with them for about a year. We did Woodstock, of course, and then I did some of the gigs in Canada because the guy who replaced me had that problem at the border, if you know what I mean. That was enough for me. I loved it when it was really reverent to the music. When the whole theatre thing came in with John “Bowzer” Bowman – who I like very much – it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.
After Sha Na Na, your solo career started?
Yeah, I did an album for ABC/Dunhill in 1971. That was the actually the first album that got played on WNEW in New York. It was 2 a.m., and I was at someone’s house when we heard “Morning Star.”
Is it as good a feeling as they say to hear your song on the radio for the first time?
Oh, it’s unbelievable. It was amazing that someone objective, who I didn’t know, was playing a record of mine in New York City! Back then there weren’t a lot of options, and to hear your record on the hippest station in New York City was great.
Most of us know you from your A&M albums.
Yeah, the “Yellow Album” (Gross’ self-titled ’74 recording). I actually had some hits on that. “Meet Me on the Corner” did pretty well. So did a song called “Simone” that actually went to number one in a number of markets. In fact, I remember a gig at a stadium in Boulder, Colorado, and no one had told me “Simone” had gone to number one in Denver. I usually did the song in the middle of the set. So I do it, and the place goes absolutely nuts! I swear to God, I thought Paul McCartney had walked onstage!
Speaking of gigs in the ’70s, I saw you four times in one year in that era. So you must have spent a lot of time on the road back then.
I was very fortunate to have some wonderful people looking out for me. I had Elliot Abbot, who at the time managed Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, and Kansas. Also, Bud Carr… I mean I always had these great guys looking after me. I did all these great tours with the Doobie Brothers, the Beach Boys, Aerosmith… it was just from one to the next.
I did see you with the Doobies…
Kind of odd to get sick of the opening act, eh? You were probably thinking, “There’s a million acts out there, can’t they get someone besides this schmuck?”
No, you always did a fine job…
Well, I worked hard. It was a different business then. Certain things change in the music business, but one thing does stay the same – the opening act always gets 50 bucks (laughs)!
I also remember you with Fleetwood Mac and Jeff Beck.
Yeah, I did that whole tour. The greatest thing about being on that show was I could watch the gig. In those days, I had to be better than the headliner, because no one’s drugs had kicked in when I was on (laughs)! I was straight because I was the singer – I couldn’t afford to do [drugs].
Alright, let’s talk about “Shannon.”
I had an Irish Setter named Shannon. It was actually Kathy’s dog when I met her, and I remember writing “Shannon” when we had just finished mixing Plug Me Into Something. So it was 1975. I lived in an apartment in Queens and there was a guy upstairs who was Spanish, and he was always playing this loud Spanish music…
Anyway, when I was mixing “Shannon,” I was bringing home different mixes and tempos and stuff, and one day this guy knocked on my door and said, “What’s that music you’re playing?” I thought, “Oh, he’s pissed off now?” And he says, “That’s the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.” I immediately called Terry Cashman and said, “We’ve got a hit record.” Because here was a guy who can barely speak English, but can’t get over this song.
So where does the Beach Boy connection come in?
Well, I was in California with Carl Wilson, who I’d met on tour. I was at Carl’s house and he had these two big Husky dogs, so I told him about my Irish Setter. Carl said he had an Irish Setter that was hit by a car a short time before. I said, “Mine’s named Shannon” and he said “So was mine!”
So, I wrote the song for him, recorded it on one of the first Sony cassette machines, and sent it to him. At the end, Shannon howled. It was really charming and corny. But the Beach Boys didn’t cut it.
Later, I was rehearsing in L.A. and ran into Carl. He said, “Henry, I heard your song on the radio. It sounded so much better than that tape you sent me.” I thought, “What a weird thing to say.” My tape was a voice, a guitar, and a cassette machine! Then I figured out what he meant when he was in Nashville doing demos with a friend of mine. He was using 24 tracks and every musician you’d use on a record, and it sounded incredible! I thought “No wonder he didn’t get it.”
Carl was just an amazing character. One of the best singers in the history of pop music.
How did “Shannon” change things?
In an interesting way. The album before Release was more popular. Certainly, it’s the one my fan’s were most passionate about. It was called Plug Me Into Something. It was a mad energy album. Bunch of good songs and a good-sounding record. I guess my love of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds overwhelmed me when I made Release and was sort of hinting at where I’d go. Then I made Show Me To the Stage, where I went all the way over to trying to be Phil Spector.
And the people who bought Plug Me Into Something loathed those albums. They wanted the frat-party guy from the first two albums to come out and blow everybody away. I wanted to get a little more musical, but I got way ahead of my crowd. I didn’t realize that I’d cultivated the beer-drinkin’/hell-raisin’ crowd. And when I woke up, it was too late.
I’m guessing it’s the direction you wanted to go, so no regrets?
No. The second side of Show Me to The Stage, up to that point, was my favorite musical thing that I’d ever done. The whole thing just came out great. It was just very musical. But people just wanted me to crank up the old Marshall.
I remember thinking that when I first heard your stuff I thought you might be a member of the southern rock fraternity.
Well, I had a huge album track called “Southern Band.” That’s what kind of brought me that attention. Then I had the hit record, and that kind of changed things for me.
You went from the FM to the AM….
That’s exactly right. Millions of people bought the AM record, and I think a lot of them were housewives and people who were missing someone. It was a different crowd than people who wanted to drink a six pack and go nuts. And I’ll tell ya, that’s where the crowd was. Those people came out to concerts.
Isn’t the music business odd?
It has become so categorized. And throw in the age thing. What am I supposed to do? Make records that aren’t me? Am I supposed to try and be a country singer or a folk singer? I mean, I’m a friend of John Prine, and he’s a genius. But guys like him make art out of three chords. That’s not what I do. My fun was to study the records, learn the changes, and make records like the ones I love, with the funny little diminished chord in them.
What about touring and performing nowdays?
I do some things. I was in France for three weeks [in 2001], where I did a couple of nights in Paris.
Okay, we’d better talk equipment. Let’s start with some favorites.
Well, I’m a Rickenbacker hound. I don’t have a really expensive collection; my favorite acoustic is a Gibson B-25 from 1962. You used to be able to find those for $250. And now they cost $1,500, and you never see any for sale. I like J-45s. I have a ’36 Nick Lucas that’s fabulous.
What about stage-wise. What do you use playing live?
When I go out now, I play solo. I have an Ovation Glen Campbell that I’ve been using since my early touring days. The neck is so unstable that I have to keep a wrench on the floor next to me. Sometimes, in the middle of the gig, I have to turn the truss rod. If the lights get hot, the neck bends!
But the neck is so comfortable. I also like it because it has a pickup under each string, so I can hear pitch really well. In the middle of a bomb going off, I can hear where the pitch is.
I’ve tried so many brands of guitars live, and the Ovations just works. They don’t even make the pickup anymore.
On the first Ovations, the headstock was angled back like a Gibson. But they broke easily in the case, so instead of fixing the case, they fixed the guitar. They threw the baby out with the bathwater…
How about for recording? What electrics do you use?
I have a ’53 Tele with a ’60 pickup. It’s a refin, but the guitar is amazing, though I’ve never been a Fender guy.
One day when my father and I went to Richie Friedman’s store on West 48th Street [in New York City]. At the time, I had four sunburst Les Pauls and about 100 guitars. My father and I were at the store, and Ace Frehley had just brought in a bunch of Epiphones. So I picked up one with two mini-humbuckers, and plugged it in. It sounded like a mix of the bigness of the Les Paul with the brightness of the Tele. So my dad says, “That thing sounds better than all that **** you got for all that money.”
My father never cursed, but he did there. He asked if I wanted the guitar, then handed Rich $200.
When I came to Nashville, I grabbed that guitar and the Ovation. I went into a studio, plugged it into a Fender amp, and everybody just went mad. They said “What the hell are you playing, man?” I said, “I’m not sure what it is.” It’s like a half-assed Trini Lopez. I have since bought three or four others.
How about amps? What did you use on the record.
Basically, a tweed Champ and a 4×10 Bassman given to me by Micky Raphael, Willie Nelson’s harmonica player. He was using it for harp, but it was too big. So he gave it to me, and I gave him a tweed Princeton. And I finally found what I like to call “The Good Twin” – it’s a mid-’60s, with the original JBL graybacks.
Henry Gross, like so many others from rock’s bygone days, deserves better. I’m Hearing Things puts him in the upper echelon of rock songwriters and singers, regardless of age. To find out more, check out henrygross.com.
This article originally appeared in VG May 2003 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.