Hartford’s Grayson Hugh was briefly on top of the pop music world in 1989 with a string of blue-eyed soul hits (“Talk It Over,” “Bring It All Back”) from his major record label debut, Blind to Reason (RCA), and in 1991, music from a second major label release, Road to Freedom (released in 1992), was included in Ridley Scott’s film, Thelma & Louise (a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You” was included in Fried Green Tomatoes as well).
Recalling that period of time, Hugh is amazed that it happened at all. “The odds [of] getting signed to a major label record deal are pretty stacked against you. But it happened . . . hits on the radio and two gold records.”
The acclaimed keyboardist, however, wasn’t seduced by fame, “The idea of being famous wasn’t real and I knew that. When people asked me for an autograph I’d always politely oblige but all the attention, tour buses, limos and big budget videos never made me feel like I was a celebrity. I usually felt quite uncomfortable in those situations and [knew] at any moment it could all go away.”
And it did. A record label shakeup in 1993 led to Hugh being dropped from MCA Records and a retreat into obscurity, far away from the limelight. “I felt quite alone for a while. My soul couldn’t be crushed, my faith in God and in my art were too strong, but I was definitely wounded. So I ran off to a remote town far away from the music business and continued to write songs.”
That period in the wilderness for the soul singer included homelessness and living in a sober house while in recovery from alcoholism. The past decade of sobriety for Hugh has been the best time in the singer’s life. “It’s been the most honest [time], and produced some of the best things in my life — my marriage to my old friend and absolute soul mate Polly Messer (former Eight to the Bar vocalist and Hugh’s longtime backup singer). I am grateful for every little thing. Life itself, every day and moment.”
As the current year draws to a close, Hugh is looking forward to the coming one and the release of a new crowdfunded record, Back to the Soul, his second independent release since 2010’s An American Record. Having raised nearly half of his $40,000 goal since late October, Hugh’s first foray into crowdfunding has been fueled by social media and by the generous perks offered at various donation levels to his fans.
The genesis of the new recording came about when a single of Hugh’s, “Goodbye Train,” received tons of airplay on a niche radio market in North and South Carolina called Beach Music Station, catching the attention of Jim Quick, a long-time Hugh fan (and popular soul musician in the Carolinas in his own right). Quick invited Hugh to North Myrtle Beach for a series of shows and lent him use of his band, Coastline, as backing band.
The chemistry was just right and Hugh found his musicians for a new recording project that he was working on: a collection of soul tunes inspired by the artists that influenced him greatly while growing up in Hartford, playing in gospel choirs — Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Arthur Conley, Joe Tex, Sam & Dave, and Clarence Carter.
Hugh says with Back to the Soul, he’s happy to have the ability and opportunity to share these songs with others. “This is my giving back to the world what was so freely given to me.” Grateful always.