LIVING IN HARMONY
A founder member of Sha Na Na, HENRY GROSS talks to Spencer Leigh
Joe Brown’s recent theatre tour started in the autumn and, with a break for Christmas, has taken in 71 dates. “I had to stop for Christmas,” said Joe, “I can’t compete with the pantos.”
The tour was promoted as a one-man show: Joe singing songs and playing his instruments without a band but with plenty of anecdotes. I’d heard many of them before but to have them gathered in one place was very entertaining.
Only it was not a one-man show. Joe was accompanied by another musician. Joe told the audience, “A friend of mine has come over from Nashville. He is a very good guitarist and a great singer and he is very famous in his own right in America. Luckily for me, he means bugger all over here, so here he is, Henry Gross,” Henry walked on with the daftest of waves and when Joe told us that Henry couldn’t make a good cup of tea, my heart sank. Was he just there as a stooge and a clown?
Fortunately not, as beyond question he enhanced what Joe was playing with his harmonies and his guitar. He wrote one of Joe’s songs, the whimsical ‘Lucky Me’. They recreated the Everly Brothers’ harmonies for ‘Claudette’ and Henry’s wordless vocals and rhythm playing were especially good on Joe’s closer, ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’. “I first played that at my grandfather’s funeral,” said Joe, “and now it is used at funeral services everywhere. I’m being played at more services that the Bishop” (which is Joe’s name for Cliff Richard).
In the briefest of solo spots, Henry performed his 1975 hit, ‘Shannon’, produced by Terry Cashman and Tommy West for Life Song records, the same team that established Jim Croce. To me, however, Henry Gross is better known as a founding member and lead guitarist of the rock’n’roll revival group, Sha Na Na. I first came across them in the film of Woodstock, although it didn’t do them any favours. They had the misfortune to be edited next to Joe Cocker. His ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ was a soul tour de force, an extraordinary performance in which a plumber from Sheffield matched Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. Sha Na Na’s frenzied rush through ‘At The Hop’ sounded feeble by comparison and wasn’t helped by frantic choreography and cabaret club outfits. Top marks for trying as it was an astonishing achievement for a new band to play such a monumental event but they’d over-egged the pudding.
In the 1970s Sha Na Na became a popular revival act and they appeared in the UK on a couple of tours. This was a few years before Showaddywaddy and Darts and at the time they were one of the few new bands keeping the rock’n’roll repertoire alive.
I spoke to Henry Gross when the Joe Brown tour was in Liverpool and I showed him round the British Music Experience in the old Cunard Building. It is a celebration of British music and there are numerous exhibits relating to Joe Brown, Marty Wilde, Lonnie Donegan and Billy Fury. Often they have gone for the quirky items: imagine the curator saying to Mrs Kidd, “We want to feature Johnny in the exhibition, Can we have his eye-patch please?”
I know the exhibition well but I enjoyed going round it again with Henry Gross because he is so into guitars and has a tale relating to nearly every instrument he sees. At the end of our chat, he gave me a guitar pick from Manny’s, the New York guitar shop, now closed but patronised by Buddy Holly.
Henry, you were born in Brooklyn on 1 April 1951, so you pretty much grew up in Doo-wop Central.
Yes, born on April Fool’s Day and having had my company for the last three hours, I’m sure you’re worked out I was born on the right day. I had a cousin Suzie who would buy records, get sick of them after two weeks and give them to my sister and me and we would wear them out. I can remember the Crickets with ‘Oh Boy!’ and Tom and Jerry with ‘Hey Schoolgirl’. What I especially remember was Ritchie Valens’ live album from Pacoima Junior High. It hadn’t cost Del-Fi much to make it but it’s a great album, plus I learnt some Spanish from hearing ‘La Bamba’.
Dion and the Belmonts grew up in the Bronx and thought they were tough, but in Brooklyn, they’d call them wimps. On the street I grew up on, if anyone paid their rent on time, the police arrested them on suspicion of burglary. I would hear the tough guys singing doo-wop in the stairwells and in high school. They’d be singing (sings) “I wonder why I love you like I do” and some guy would go “Na, na, na, na, na” and it was fantastic. Maybe, looking back, it was saving us from a rather gruesome reality.
Doo-wop was so important to us. ‘In The Still Of The Nite’ is the sound of Manhattan at four in the morning on Saturday night. (sings) Those voices were from another planet.