Wandering Minstrel 

Henry Gross parlays his past into a one-man play

“If I’d written my autobiography in 1976, I’d have called it Mein Comps,” Henry Gross wisecracks in one of the punch lines of One Hit Wanderer, his one-man theatrical play about his brush with musical fame featuring songs he developed for the stage.
“If I’d written my autobiography in 1976, I’d have called it Mein Comps,” Henry Gross wisecracks in one of the punch lines of One Hit Wanderer, his one-man theatrical play about his brush with musical fame featuring songs he developed for the stage. “What I didn’t know was that the book I should have written was From Here to Obscurity.”

Just over 30 years ago, Gross shot to rock ’n’ roll stardom. He’d just scored a Top 10 hit with the Beach Boys-influenced “Shannon,” and he followed up his first gold album, 1974’s Plug Me Into Something, with an even bigger seller, 1976’s Release.

He toured colleges and midsize theaters as a headliner, while opening arena gigs for Aerosmith, The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, The Kinks and others. When he appeared on ABC-TV’s Friday night concert series, Midnight Special, host Wolfman Jack presented him with his second gold album.

But fame didn’t come overnight. He played Woodstock as the guitarist of Sha Na Na, and shared Fillmore East gigs with Santana and Fillmore West gigs with Janis Joplin. As a teen, his band The Auroras was popular in Brooklyn clubs and along the Jersey shore, and he had done his time as a songwriter in Greenwich Village clubs like Gerde’s Folk City and The Bitter End. His first solo album came out on ABC Dunhill Records in 1971.

But 1976 proved to be the peak. “Life changes when you have a hit record,” Gross says. “Suddenly everything you’ve been chasing is chasing you. The whole world turns around. Things I could never afford were now free: guitars, amps, women—you name it.”

But his high-flying status didn’t last. He’d had FM-radio successes before and after “Shannon,” from 1974’s “One More Tomorrow” to 1977’s “Springtime Mama.” His 1977 album, the fine Show Me to the Stage, still sold well, but it seemed like a stiff after its predecessor’s big numbers. The next one, 1978’s Love Is the Stuff, bottomed out, and Gross didn’t release another album for nine years.

A Brooklyn native who has resided in Nashville since 1986, Gross completed a 30-day run of his play in a Naples Beach, Fla., dinner theater. The show has also been presented in one-night-only performances in Memphis, Jackson and the Town Hall Theatre in Irvington, N.Y. Since January 2006, the play’s ongoing development has been filmed by documentary filmmakers Ed Greenberg and Mick Perry of New York’s M360 Studio in New York City. Backed by Manhattan impresario Alan Pepper, Gross is currently talking to several New York area theaters about his next move.

The show’s ad boils the theme down to this: “It’s his life, but it’s your story.” The play, drawing on original songs both old and new, follows the sharp-tongued New York rocker through his ’50s coming-of-age, with help from Elvis Presley and baseball, into the revolution of the 1960s and the harsh realizations of the 1970s. Through it all, Gross provides a baby-boomer history as told through the celebrity-bumped life of a guy born on April Fool’s Day, 1951.

The subtext deals with dreams and ideals, chasing them, reaching some of them and seeing some fall apart, then finding a way to accept that you can’t always get what you want, but if you work hard and keep trying, you can get what you need.

The title, of course, deals directly with one of the realities of Gross’ professional life. “I was a one-hit wonder,” he says with a smile and a shrug, sitting at the kitchen island in the Green Hills home he shares with his wife, real estate agent Marilyn Gross, and their two dogs and six cats. “I never understood the negative connotations of that. People talk about it like it’s a tragedy. You know what I think would be a tragedy? Being a no-hit wonder. I mean, come on, go and try and have a hit, you know?”

Gross came to Nashville to join the songwriting community. He’s since written a hit for the country group BlackHawk (“Big Guitar”) and had cuts by Judy Collins, Cyndi Lauper, Ronnie Milsap, Scotty Moore and others. He’s never stopped performing, putting on shows in Europe and through the Midwest and East Coast and accepting opening gigs on tours.

His humor and cadence remain steeped in his Brooklyn upbringing, and his onstage banter comes across as part Alan Alda, part Jackie Mason. There’s a warmth and humanity to stories about his parents—his mother was once a Metropolitan Opera singer who always encouraged his dreams, while his father was a pharmacist with a wise-guy streak who gave Gross his machine-gun wit.

“My mom’s a musician, my pop a pharmacist,” Gross quips in his show. “A match made in heaven to create a rock ’n’ roller.”

He also has a theatrical background. He appeared in a New York production of the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes, and one of the backers of that play, major Broadway players Dodger Theatricals, provided early financial support for Gross’ one-man performance. They also bankrolled a series of workshop performances that helped the singer-songwriter tighten up his story and get a feel for the demands of following a 90-minute script in front of a live audience. But then the Dodger folks had a massive hit with another musical, Jersey Boys, and decided to enjoy their success by relaxing for a spell.

Gross also worked for a while with veteran director Jonathan Bernstein, who teaches playwriting at the prestigious Juilliard School. In 2006, Ed Greenberg, a veteran stage actor and screenwriter, took over direction and further edited and rearranged Gross’ play.

Other Nashville songwriters have aimed at working on Broadway, too. Most successfully, the later Roger Miller, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, wrote the songs for the 1985 Tony-winning musical Big River. More recently, successful Music Row songwriters like Marcus Hummon and Mike Reid have written musicals with some success and a shot at the New York stage.

Gross figures that he’s never let long-shot odds keep him from pursuing an idea or a challenge. He even addresses the idea in his play. “You know, everybody tells you you’re crazy when you say you want to go into show business, and they have a point,” he says with a laugh. “But you have to listen to your heart when it tells you there’s a difference between having an open mind and a hole in the head. It’s about perseverance, reinvention and a belief that tomorrow will be better than today. If that’s having a hole in the head, I say the breeze is delightful.”

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