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.