James Gray, long-time member of the country rock band Blue Rodeo and prominent fixture in the downtown Toronto music scene particularly known for his extraordinary talent as a keyboardist, died Monday evening from an apparent heart attack. He was 52.
He reportedly collapsed at Queen St. W. and Strachan Ave. and was later pronounced dead at Toronto General Hospital. By the time police were able to track down his family, Gray had already passed away.
“He had a brilliant mind and was dedicated to the craft. When he was focused on music, you could see it, you could not distract him,” said his younger brother Michael.
While he may be best remembered for the decade he played keyboard with Blue Rodeo, Gray’s memory will also be cherished by the patrons of the many downtown venues where he would appear on stage with various bands, always eager to participate in a gig and support a new generation of musicians.
He was often praised for his versatility, easily embracing genres as diverse as reggae, rock and blues, as well as for his capability to quickly learn a new instrument.
The oldest of four boys, Gray was born on Dec. 8, 1960. He had the advantage of hailing from a musical family; his father, Jerry, was a founding member of the legendary folk singing group The Travellers. On Tuesday, Jerry Gray said his son’s talent had become obvious at a very early age, describing it as “scary.”
“He could tell at the age of 2 or 3 if the radio stations were speeding up the tracks in order to get more records on. It was absolutely scary to have that in the house,” he said.
But it was a talent that Gray’s parents realized needed to be nurtured, ushering him toward music and composition theory at the University of Toronto. It was that combination of natural talent and formal training that contributed to Gray’s success.
He joined a number of bands that left their mark on Toronto in the 1980s, including Rheostatics and Vital Sines. The latter group’s guitarist, Kurt Swinghammer, said what especially impressed him about Gray was his “photographic memory for music,” saying he could play any piece he had ever learned.
“I have never seen that so pronounced in any musician,” he said.
It was through Vital Sines that Gray initially met Glenn Milchem, who would later become the drummer for Blue Rodeo. When that band was looking for a new keyboardist to replace Bob Wiseman in the early 1990s, Milchem said they didn’t have to look far.
“(James) was the only guy who had what it took to replace a guy like Bobby,” he said. Gray joined the band in 1992, thrilled that he could now make a decent living playing music full-time.
By Jacques Gallant for The Toronto Star