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Gary McGrath: It's only rock 'n' roll, but he likes it

Saugus resident was child prodigy, won a Grammy, played with The Monkees

Posted: January 31, 2009 9:55 p.m.
Updated: February 1, 2009 4:55 a.m.

After a career opening for and playing in well-known bands, Gary McGrath now teaches music at Lowe's Music in Newhall.

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Whether it's for a crowd of 80,000 rabid Bon Jovi fans or five locals singing along to their favorite cover tunes, Grammy-winning Saugus singer-songwriter-guitarist Gary McGrath just loves to play.

"Playing makes the voices in my head shut up," McGrath said. "Whatever's going on, whatever bills are due, when you're playing, nothing matters. It's nirvana. Nothing else exists."

At 30, McGrath already has an impressive rock star resume to his credit. He's opened or played in bands for such artists as Jon Bon Jovi, Penny Gilley, Blues Traveler, and a band he idolized in his youth, The Monkees.

"I had the wool cap and red turtleneck as a kid," McGrath admitted. "When I toured with them, some of my grade-school teachers came to our shows and told the band that while most kids had imaginary friends, I had the Monkees."

An increasingly popular fixture at various Santa Clarita Valley and Southern California live music venues for his modern blues-meets-pop/rock vibe, McGrath and a hand-picked crew of collaborators released their first album, "The McGrath Project," in November 2008, and launched it with a party at the Cat Club in Hollywood.

Supporting members of the project include Vanilla Fudge bass player and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer Tim Bogert, Foreigner/Dick Dale drummer Bryan Head and Guns N' Roses keyboardist Teddy Zig Zag.

The McGrath Project's single, "Where You Belong," is currently a No. 1 Internet download on independent and college radio stations such as www.indie104.com and www.underworldmusic.com. 

An early start
In addition to performing, McGrath has had a successful career behind the scenes as a producer, winning his first Grammy at age 12 for The Texas Boys Choir and scoring several more nominations over the years. Surprisingly, he wasn't the youngest producer to win the coveted award.

"Stevie Wonder beat me by one year, darn it," McGrath said with a smile.

Music always came naturally to McGrath, who lived in Fort Worth and followed his two older brothers into the Texas Boys Choir, a prestigious, world-class performance organization founded in 1946. After fibbing that he could read music, an 8-year-old McGrath realized he actually could, at least to a degree.

"I followed the dots. If they went up, I figured the notes were higher and when they dipped, it meant lower," he said.

His first season with the Texas Boys Choir included an eight-week tour of Australia, where they performed for the prime minister.

From 1987-1992, until his voice changed in the seventh grade, McGrath traveled the world with the choir, playing for a crowd of 150,000 at the Vatican in Rome, as well as stateside for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton.

The enterprising youngster also realized that the choir was not maximizing its relationship with Columbia Records, which would press 100 or so albums for the organization each year, but wouldn't release them to the public.

"I called Columbia. They thought I was a secretary, since my voice was so high," McGrath said. "I persuaded them to release an album of three years'-worth of our concerts."

The resulting effort, "The Glory of Gabriellie featuring E. Power Biggs and The Texas Boys' Choir," won a Grammy in 1990.

Meanwhile, after an early foray into drumming proved too loud for his parents, McGrath discovered guitar.

He got so good that when his college-age brothers were asked if they knew anyone who could play for various garage bands, McGrath would get the call. At 14, he was playing to crowds of 5,000, opening for such bands as Jefferson Starship, The Lovin' Spoonful and The Turtles.

The Monkees' Peter Tork caught McGrath live and asked him to join his solo effort, Shoe Suede Blues.

McGrath eventually produced Shoe Suede Blues' first album, which led to the Monkees gig.

"Meeting your childhood idols is a 50-50 thing. You wonder if they're going to live up to your ideals," McGrath said. "Mike Nesmith and the rest of the band were very cool guys,".

The big time
In 1998, McGrath was offered the opportunity to play live with Jon Bon Jovi, who was performing as a solo artist at the time. It was a Toys for Tots charity event with a lineup that included Bruce Springsteen, The Foo Fighters, Tom Petty and Van Halen in front of a crowd of 80,000.

McGrath smiled, playing the familiar notes from "Wanted Dead or Alive" on his ever-present guitar as he recalled the story.

"People just went nuts. It was surreal. Jon would stop playing and you'd hear the crowd singing the chorus back, word for word. I had a 100-watt guitar amp jacked up to nine and you could still hear them," he said.

Other dreamlike McGrath memories include an oil-drenched slip-and-slide run with '80s hair-band icons Kip Winger of Winger and Vince Neil of Motley Crue. After a concert in Dallas a few years ago, attended by Kid Rock, Neil set up the game in a Galleria Weston hotel lobby to see who could slide the farthest in their denim.

Winger won. McGrath was last.

"Vince said to me, ‘This is true rock 'n' roll, only there's nothing to break.' I guess he had learned some expensive lessons by then," McGrath said.

Going west
McGrath went country from 2000 to 2002, playing guitar for Nashville sweetheart Penny Gilley. They traveled to far-flung military bases in South Korea, Germany and Iraq, where McGrath won a gold "Commander's Award for Excellence" coin. He keeps it safe in a vintage Monkees lunchbox.

In 2003, McGrath got a call to gig with former Stray Cat and modern rockabilly hero Brian Setzer - he turned it down after realizing the pay wouldn't cover his hotel and travel expenses.

The missed opportunity motivated McGrath to move from Texas to California to be closer to the music scene. He initially settled in Westlake Village before coming to the SCV in 2005.

"I like it here. It's close enough (to Los Angeles) to play rock star when I want to, but then I can turn around, come home and hide," McGrath said.

A chance meeting with 1960s music producer Brian Friedman, known for his work with The Beach Boys and Ike and Tina Turner, led McGrath down another road - recording studio owner/partner. The duo specializes in post-production for movies, news and TV shows, while continuing to encourage new talent.

"Mostly garage bands you've never heard of," McGrath said about the groups he works with.

Next for The McGrath Project is "Love is a Four Letter Word," a CD slated for international release on GB Records in May, with special guests Spencer Davis and Slash of Guns 'N Roses.

"It goes off on all the impressions of what people think love is versus the reality," McGrath said. "We don't always understand the difference between love and compassion and infatuation."

The role of rock 'n' roll
When he's not touring, producing or recording, McGrath, who holds a Bachelor's degree in music from North Texas University, teaches guitar at Lowe's Music in Newhall's.

He also volunteers as a guest artist at the Santa Clarita Symphony's Instrument Petting Zoo, held the first Friday of the month at the Valencia Borders Books & Music on Town Center Drive. 

Surprisingly, for this seasoned performer, there's still a thrill in watching a young artist-in-the-making grasp his or her first chord.

"When a kid plays something the same way they hear it in their head or on the radio, it's the same as watching a baby take its first steps. They just light up with an ear-to-ear grin," McGrath said.

Calling himself a "musical Cuisinart," McGrath always has his main influences on tap - REM's "Automatic for the People" and The Beatles' "Abbey Road" are two favorites. Modern artists he admires include John Mayer, Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs and All-American Rejects.

While McGrath's music is rooted in blues, the self-described "chubby white kid" can also bust a mean rap when necessary. Surveying a heavily male Hispanic demographic at a recent gig, McGrath stopped with the classic rock and delved into Sir Mix-A-Lot's 1992 hip-hop hit "Baby Got Back."

"You could have heard a pin drop," McGrath said. "People started whispering, then they started to groove. At the end, we had some guys break-dancing. I can't do sex symbol, so I like to make people laugh."

He also likes to remind people what's real and what's not in the world of music.

"John Lennon said rock 'n' roll can change the world, but I think music just creates a collective consciousness that possibly betters the world," McGrath said.

"Britney Spears is an entertainer, not a role model. Role models are the people who put food in your stomach, keep a roof over your head and make you a better person."

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