Recently, Tom Gray arrived at the Brick Store Pub in Decatur looking for all the world like a rock star.
Gray, a longtime Decatur resident and the leader of the Atlanta blues band Delta Moon, had taken the suddenly sunny March afternoon as an occasion to stroll over a few blocks from his home.
With his longish gray hair, stylish glasses and dapper sports coat, Gray could easily stand in for Eric Clapton on one of those T-Mobile “Fender Edition” cell phone commercials.
But unlike Clapton, Gray came late to the guitar. He started out playing keyboards and singing on the club circuit. And in the early ’80s his new wave group, the Brains, secured a major label deal with Mercury Records, making two albums with producer Steve Lillywhite of U2 fame.
In 1984, “Money Changes Everything,” a song Gray wrote and recorded with the Brains was covered by Cindy Lauper on her mega-selling debut album, “She’s So Unusual.”
“That worked out great for me,” Gray said. “Because of a clause in my contract, I managed to get 100 percent of the publishing of a hit song.”
Several more of Gray songs were recorded by artists such as Manfred Mann, Carlene Carter, and Bonnie Bramlet. And he spent time working in Nashville and Los Angeles as a songwriter and sometimes session musician. But he never quite equaled the success of “Money Changes Everything.”
In the late ’80s Gray turned his attention to blues music, eventually founding Delta Moon with his neighbor, guitarist and six-string banjo player Mark Johnson. Together, the duo created a distinctive dual slide guitar attack rooted in a blues-rock style that recalls Ry Cooder and David Lindley.
“I picked up the lap steel,” Gray said. “And I just got hooked, because it had all those notes between the notes. I could do all these things I couldn’t approach on keyboards. Mark was even deeper into the blues than I was, but I was quite willing to go there with him.”
Delta Moon, which now features drummer Darren Stanley and bassist Franher Joseph, in addition to Gray and Johnson, will be at the Five Spot in Little Five Points on March 13 to preview the band’s new album, “Hellbound Train” (Red Parlor).
The album includes 10 original tunes, mostly written by Gray and Johnson, and a soulful cover of “You Got To Move” by North Mississippi bluesman Fred McDowell. Gray’s lowdown, raspy vocals mix with the band’s rollicking, sometimes spooky take on the blues, flavored by a touch of old time country.
Asked how he might connect the dots from new wave keyboard to blues guitar, Gray smiled then laughed out loud.
“New wave was sort of a denial of the blues,” Gray said. “Lou Reed supposedly told his band that he would fire anyone who played a blues lick. That was sort of the ’70s and ’80s way of thinking.”
“But when I first started playing keyboards, I remember listening to Goldy [McJohn] of Steppenwolf and realizing he was playing Chuck Berry riffs on the piano. Those are the same licks that are in boogie woogie songs from the ’40s. Most of Chuck Berry’s guitar sound came from boogie woogie piano. That was the rock and roll approach, and it was all rooted in the blues.”
IF YOU GO
Delta Moon, 8 p.m. March 13, $10. The Five Spot, 1123 Euclid Ave. NE, 404-223-1100, www.fivespot-atl.com
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC