Gritty singer/keyboardist Grayson Hugh has had a sporadic career that has been smaller than his talent, particularly his soulful, Sam Cooke-influenced voice. But like the Phoenix, his has arisen again to show that the promise he showed early in his career can still be fully realized, more than two decades later.
Hugh was raised in Connecticut and moved to New York as a young man. He reportedly was in search of a record contract when he met popular producer Michael Baker on an elevator and played some of his demo tapes. Baker was blown away by the soulfulness in Hugh's voice and helped land him a contract with RCA Records, which became the label that released his 1988 debut album, Blind to Reason.
Hugh appeared to be the real deal on Blind to Reason. His blend of soft rock and Southern Soul along with his great voice made for an impressive introduction. He scored immediately with "Talk It Over," a lazy, soulful, midtempo cut that hit the Pop top 20 but also won him fans on R&B radio. The accompanying album was solid, and included a number of great cuts, including the title track, "Bring It All Back," and "Romantic Heart." After Blind was released, Hugh and soul songstress Betty Wright recorded a cover of Champaign's "How Bout Us" that received a fair amount of airplay, resulting in a re-release of the debut album with that song included.
For his sophomore disc, Hugh teamed with Chic co-founder Bernard Edwards, fresh off his work with Robert Palmer. Unfortunately, the timing couldn't have been worse, as Hugh's label, MCA, was in turmoil. To complicate matters, Paul Atkinson, the Artist & Repertoire officer at MCA who had signed Hugh, was fired, resulting in the label dropping all of Atkinson's acts, including Hugh. Consequently, Road to Freedom, which explored more diverse sounds than its predecessor, stiffed from lack of support despite nearly uniform critical acclaim.
After his dismissal from MCA, Hugh was unable to get another major label deal, and he moved to North Carolina to start over, but was hounded by bad business dealings of his prior representatives. Broke, he ultimately landed a position at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music to teach songwriting, where he stayed for a few years. During this period, Hugh composed music for many notable dance choreographers, including Christine Bennet and Prometheus Dance. Sadly, while dealing with serious health problems in his family, Hugh succumbed to prescription drug and alcohol dependency, and those remained a problem for several years.
Hugh's road to redemption began in 2004, when he quit his addictions cold turkey, and continued a couple years later when fan Dean Gilmore provided seed money for Hugh to do a "comeback" record. When Grayson's old friend and former backup singer Polly Messer found out he was recording a new album, she offered to sing on it for free. The two ultimately married in 2008, and ended up co-producing the musically diverse An American Record, which was released in the Summer of 2010. It was a virtual musical travelogue of America, and was a welcome return of an American musical warrior.
Grayson Hugh is now working in support of An American Record, doing acoustic shows with Messer and drummer Tyger MacNeal and putting together a new band. He's happy with the positive reviews his newest work is receiving and is looking forward to his second shot at reaching the world with his music: "Needless to say I am grateful to be alive, sober and doing what I was put here on this earth to do!" And we're grateful too.
By Chris Rizik