Tom Gray led a musical life in two chapters, first new wave, then blues

Tom Gray, who wrote "Money Changes Everything" had a large impact on the Atlanta music scene as frontman of the Brains and Delta Moon. Photo: David Chamberlain
Caption
Tom Gray, who wrote "Money Changes Everything" had a large impact on the Atlanta music scene as frontman of the Brains and Delta Moon. Photo: David Chamberlain

Credit: David Chamberlain

Credit: David Chamberlain

Writer of ‘Money Changes Everything’ made a big mark on Atlanta music.

Update: A celebration of Tom Gray’s life will be held 2-5 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 3 at Park Tavern, near Piedmont Park, 500 10th St., in the meadow and tent area; 404-249-0001.

Tom Gray was on his way to a recording session to put some background vocals on a new song when he collapsed Friday.

Posting online while waiting in a hospital bed, he wrote a typically candid and slightly sardonic note about the unpleasant nature of emergency rooms and his eagerness to be back home.

Though he had dealt with cancer twice, he had seemingly beat it twice. Friends and fans were stunned when Gray’s musical partner Mark Johnson, who plays slide guitar in their blues band Delta Moon, announced Sunday that Gray had died.

“In the old days they would have said he died with his boots on,” said Johnson.

In other words, Gray never quit.

Tom Gray, 70, Atlanta musician and songwriter, died Saturday, his wife Janet Gray confirmed. A public celebration of his life will be held sometime in the future, she said. He leaves behind Janet, their son James, an archive of recorded music and a legacy of continuous creativity.

Gray was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Arlington, Virginia, moving with his family to Atlanta when he was 13. He attended Towers High School and met guitarist Rick Price when both were at Georgia State University. “He played great piano,” said Price, “like a Professor Longhair-type guy.”

Both had experienced the lounge musician’s dilemma: How to entertain without having audience members complain about the volume. “We decided we’d start a band and play so quiet you could barely hear it.”

Their band, Easy Street, played Holiday Inns and Howard Johnsons, with cover songs from Tony Orlando and Dawn to Bachman-Turner Overdrive and anything Top 40 or disco. “We would play whatever people wanted us to play,” said Price.

While working as a court reporter, Gray also began collaborating with Alfredo Villar, the bassist and songwriter with seminal Atlanta group the Fans, recording songs on a four-track tape deck, to which Price would add guitar.

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Atlanta band The Brains, shown in the '80s, are (from left) Tom Gray, Rick Price, Bryan Smithwick and Charles Wolff.

Atlanta band The Brains, shown in the '80s, are (from left) Tom Gray, Rick Price, Bryan Smithwick and Charles Wolff.
Caption
Atlanta band The Brains, shown in the '80s, are (from left) Tom Gray, Rick Price, Bryan Smithwick and Charles Wolff.

Those songs provided the fuel for the Brains, which eventually included bassist Bryan Smithwick and drummer Charles Wolff.

Blues guitarist Tinsley Ellis saw the Brains at Rose’s Cantina, the predecessor of the 688 Club. There were perhaps 40 people in the house. “I became a Brains fan,” said Ellis. “People don’t realize this but the Brains were the first of the (Georgia) bands to get signed, before the B-52s and R.E.M. They were the trailblazers.”

Also at that Rose’s show was young schoolteacher named Janet Gordon, who was immediately taken with the charismatic musician. “My mother remembered me saying to her the next day ‘I think I met the man I could spend the rest of my life with.’” Gordon and Gray were married in 1984.

With Tom Gray on synthesizers and hard-bitten vocals, the Brains had an aggressive sound reminiscent of the Cars. They produced two albums and an EP, but flared out in 1982. On the other hand, the Brains’ first single, “Money Changes Everything,” became a hit single for Cyndi Lauper when she covered it in 1983.

The success of that song allowed Gray to buy a house and continue to focus on music, though as the sole writer, he was the only band member to see such rewards.

“Then Tom disappeared, came back, and completely reinvented himself as an Americana artist before they even called it Americana,” said Ellis.

That new incarnation was Delta Moon.

The band had its beginnings in the parking lot of Midtown Music. Gray and Mark Johnson had both been in the store, looking at Dobros and lap steel guitars, and compared notes. They both liked early gospel, blues and slack-key music and started playing together.

Remembers Johnson, “Tom heard a little guitar piece I wrote, and asked ‘do you care if I put lyrics to that?’ I thought, ‘wow Tom Gray wants to put lyrics to one of my tunes! Absolutely!’ I was honored.”

They added vocalist Gina Leigh, and played coffee house gigs and the Inman Park Festival. To their surprise, they won the 2003 International Blues Challenge in Memphis.

The next year Leigh left the band and was replaced by Kristin Markiton. Playing blues festivals, Delta Moon focused on Gray’s original songs, but also performed and recorded blues classics from Son House and Frank Edwards and such non-blues material as “Nightclubbing” by David Bowie and Iggy Pop.

Nancy Lewis-Pegel arranged Delta Moon gigs early in her career as a booking agent, and early in theirs. “Talk about genre-jumping,” she said, “Tom went from new wave punk to roots blues. But he was not playing around. He was serious, he was a blues scholar, he was deep into it.”

Gray’s affinity for a variety of styles meant the band did not “fit snugly in the blues world,” said Lewis-Pegel, “which I think was their strength to me,” but caused some venues to have second thoughts.

“He was our Ry Cooder,” said Ellis, “because Ry Cooder takes all the great American music — blues, hillbilly, bluegrass, jazz — he takes all that music and assimilates it into something that is more personal.”

In the early 2000s, When Gray saw steel guitar player Dante Harmon perform at the Variety Playhouse, he invited the younger musician to come to his studio next door to record a few tracks.

Playing the hymn “Amazing Grace,” they came up with a duet that went on Harmon’s first album. “We were trading licks off the top of our heads, just coming up with melodies, playing some churchy, bluesy chords,” said Harmon. “It was like we knew each other, he was almost like a big brother who embraced me. He was just as eager to learn from me as I was from him.”

Eventually Delta Moon consisted of Gray, Johnson and a series of bassists and drummers. The pairing of Johnson’s bottle-neck guitar and Gray’s slippery steel guitar made for a unique, untempered sound.

Without Markiton or Leigh, Delta Moon depended on Gray’s rough-hewn voice to carry the vocals, a voice that became more sandpapery with age. Ellis said the voice had character.

“I like people like a Bob Dylan or a Tom Gray,” said Ellis. “They are stylists, they are doing their own thing, you believe every word they sing.”

Johnson, a physician, made time in his schedule for tours, including many international tours in England, Germany, Italy and Spain. “Radiology alone wasn’t going to make me happy,” he said. “I needed to get out and play music.”

Delta Moon believed that the show must go on. Once Gray took a tumble while riding bicycles with his son Jim and broke the radius bone in his right forearm. He missed one gig while he was in the hospital. Then he soldiered on.

“He came out, loosened up his sling just enough to get his forearm out, and played the show,” said Johnson. “On the break he would put his arm back in the sling. He was obviously in pain.”

Gray did the same thing after being treated for colon cancer in 2009. “His philosophy was get out there and get moving again,” said Johnson. “Some people go to rehab; Tom goes to the stage.”

In 2019 Gray announced that he had been diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, this time in his lungs, but declared the treatment successful a year later.

Caption
After undergoing treatment for lung cancer, Tom Gray returned to the stage to play his last show, in February, 2020, a solo set at Smith's Olde Bar opening for Webb Wilder. Photo: John Boydston

Credit: John Boydston 2019

After undergoing treatment for lung cancer, Tom Gray returned to the stage to play his last show, in February, 2020, a solo set at Smith's Olde Bar opening for Webb Wilder. Photo: John Boydston
Caption
After undergoing treatment for lung cancer, Tom Gray returned to the stage to play his last show, in February, 2020, a solo set at Smith's Olde Bar opening for Webb Wilder. Photo: John Boydston

Credit: John Boydston 2019

Credit: John Boydston 2019

Though the cancer had, in fact, continued to spread, Gray never stopped planning new projects. “Tom was not a quitter,” said Harmon. “Tom was always energetic, his smile was very contagious, he was always just bubbly.”

Said Johnson, “He was going to the studio to record a song the night before he passed. That’s Tom Gray in a nutshell. Facing that kind of an illness, just continuing on and doing what he was supposed to be doing.”

The future of the band is uncertain, although Johnson says definitively that it is over. “Delta Moon without Tom Gray is not Delta Moon.”

There are uncompleted recordings on his hard drive, said Janet Gray, and many ideas in his notebooks, which he would fill with scribbling even before he got out of bed in the morning.

“He told me of this philosophy which is you live your life until the end, and then you go,” said Janet Gray, “and that’s what he did. He lived a full life until the very end.”

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