Former Blue Rodeo Keyboardist James Gray Dies at 52

> Aug 06 2013

Former Blue Rodeo Keyboardist James Gray Dies at 52
Photo Courtesy of Gary 17's Toronto Moon Magazine
By Jason SchneiderThe Toronto music scene has lost one of its most talented and prolific figures, as James Gray has died of a heart attack at age 52. His family has confirmed with Exclaim! that he passed away as a result of the incident, which occurred when walking home Monday (August 5) night after playing a show in Toronto

Born December 8, 1960, Gray is best known as Blue Rodeo's keyboardist from 1993 to 2006, contributing to six of the band's studio albums beginning with the landmark Five Days in July. However, Gray — the son of Jerry Gray, the leader of '50s/'60s folk group the Travellers — had a wide-ranging career both before and after Blue Rodeo. While studying classical music composition at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, he played with several fledgling outfits within the eclectic Queen Street scene, including the punk band Vital Sines, the ska band Hopping Penguins, and an early incarnation of the Rheostatics.

From there he became interested in improvisation, doing stints with the jazz groups Whitenoise and N.O.M.A., and forming his own experimental band Gray Matter. When Blue Rodeo were faced with replacing original keyboardist Bob Wiseman, drummer Glenn Milchem recommended Gray, whom he had known since 1983 as a member of Vital Sines.

Milchem tells Exclaim!, "James was a consummate musician, one of the most naturally gifted I've ever known. He had perfect pitch and knew thousands of songs. He could sit down and play side two of Abbey Road, and he also did the transcriptions for our music books. We had auditioned a dozen other keyboardists before him, but I knew he was the only guy who could fill Bobby's shoes. James had an all-encompassing passion for music."

Jerry Gray says, "We knew James had a natural obsession for music from the time he was two years old. We just tried to nurture that, and he began filling in with the Travellers when he was about 19. He'd been with us the past five years when we've performed at the Canadian Auto Workers [CAW] convention, and this year we were really looking forward to it, because I was planning on it being the final Travellers performance. It's very sad that he won't be there with us."

Following his departure from Blue Rodeo, Gray once again became a ubiquitous presence within the Toronto club circuit, relying on his exceptional musical memory to fit into almost any situation immediately. From busking in subway stations to performing in theatres with Classic Albums Live, almost no night went by without Gray playing music somewhere. Most recently, Gray hosted a weekly open stage at Toronto bar the Press Club and was maintaining a steady gig with funk/fusion bassist Chris Bottomley.

"James was always a fan and had a generous and kind heart," Milchem says. "When he was in Rodeo, he would always buy each of us CDs for Christmas, even though he was Jewish. We loved him. It's a great loss."

UPDATE: There will be a public service for James Gray this Friday (August 9) at the R. S. Kane Funeral Home in North York (6150 Yonge St.). Further details can be found here. Also, following a doctor's examination, it was determined that the heart attack Gray suffered was the result of him being severely diabetic, a condition he and his family were unaware of.

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Thank you for your words Alex. James was my cousin and he will be missed terribly!
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Yeah will be missed for sure. I never did understand why he left Blue Rodeo. To young too die.
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Very sad to hear the news...I can't even begin to count the number of times I randomly ran into James all over the place while busking...he'll be missed for sure :( R.I.P James
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I have been a Blue Rodeo nut for going on twenty years, and James was part of the group that made me love the band. Five Days in July is still my favorite album of all time, both because of the music and my memories associated with it. I remember being at the Stardust Picnic in Ottawa and seeing him walk by with a fiddle case in his hand. I walked up and said "hello," and he was so cool and down to earth. I was a d.j for my university radio station and wanted to schmooze my way backstage; I figured it would give me something to talk about on my show. He told me who to talk to, and it worked! When he saw me backstage, he said "Hey, you got in!" I'll always remember that. I just wanted to express my condolences to James' friends and family on the loss of a great guy. I am truly saddened to hear about his passing. All the best in the tough times ahead.

Riley McMullen
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My condolences go out to James's family and friends. As a fan of his music, he will be greatly missed. May God give you all strength to deal with his unexpected passing. May he rest in peace.
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James Grey was the unspoken hero in Blue Rodeo. His musical contributions were so significant the band would not be the Blue Rodeo we know today if it not for James. Heartfelt condolences to the Grey family.

(Jules) Terri Urovitz
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It is terribly painful to suddenly lose someone so young and unexpectedly. Our musical community is diminished.
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We gigged and toured and hung out with James in the 80s. He was a remarkable talent and a generous decent soul wrapped in a quirky personality. Anyone who loves music will miss him.
Terry M
Vital Sines
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From GB Jones and Caroline Azar: We knew James as tender taunting downtown experimental maestro who never missed a moment, a show, a note nor a beat... Sorely missed..
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What a massive loss to the Toronto music microcosm. i not only enjoyed Jame's varied and educated playing of much more than just keyboards with Blue Rodeo (of which my gf and i have seen for 20yrs and 38 shows). He was an awesome Jazz player as well, playing with NOMA, a Montreal free jazz ensemble in the 90's. What i remember most of all is just feeling "the earth was stable" when i constantly saw him at the Horseshoe, Rivoli and larger venues sometimes for other large and small local and international acts. He was a great and supportive music fan/ obsesso. He will even be missed at Spadina subway. Play on Man!
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I remember James Gray for his friendly and kindness to me. I met him the second time I saw Blue Rodeo in Hollywood. He introduced me to the guys. I will miss him very much.....Stu
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RIP. heaven has one more great musician
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