Forza Five welcomes RCA soul man Grayson Hugh
It took 30 years of vastly different life experiences before musicians Grayson Hugh and Polly Messer came together as both a musical duo and a married couple — something Messer always suspected would happen.
“Once I started working with Grayson [in 1978], I lost interest in everything else. It was so right. I had met my musical soulmate,” Messer said Monday. “It took us many years of other things to come back together, but when it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
The pair will perform a range of songs, including some of Hugh’s hits from his days as a major-label artist, at Forza Five Holistic Fitness Center in Historic Cannondale Village on Saturday, June 6. Doors open at 7, when refreshments from Forza Five and Uncle Leo’s Deli will be served.
After meeting Grayson in 1978 through her then-husband — Hugh’s recording engineer — Messer said there were moments of sincere intimacy during their friendship in the 1970s and 80s, but it wasn’t until she was living on her own in Danbury in the 90s that she first grew “compelled” to figure out where Grayson was, and how he was doing.
But, she didn’t have much luck.
“I spent the next six years,” until 2000, “sort of keeping my ear open. I mean, we had mutual friends, but he had disappeared off the face of the earth,” Messer said.
What she didn’t know was that Hugh had left his home in New York City after being dropped from RCA, the record company that had released his gold-rated album, Blind to Reason, in 1988.
“My business managers were robbing me blind. They were taking my money, paying themselves and squirreling away no money for the IRS. A few years later, I was in huge debt. I’d had bad experiences and I was fed up with record labels,” Hugh said.
“I said, bad stuff is happening, so I moved to rural North Carolina.”
Of course, he hadn’t told many of his musical friends much about his move, and it wasn’t until 2000 that Messer heard anything about the elusive West Hartford native. She had been living in Danbury since 1994, raising a young son, getting an art degree from a local university, and teaching at Rogers Park Middle School.
Hugh had found himself passing the new century teaching songwriting at the Berklee College of Music in Boston as an adjunct, but had also found himself descending into a deep addiction to both alcohol and Xanax.
“I was addicted to Xanax for 14 years without interruption. I abused that, and while at Berklee, I was unhappy. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I was very unhappy, I was lonely.
“I just wanted the paycheck and I didn’t really like what I was doing. And teaching while drinking is not a good thing. Eventually I was fired. They were playing a concert of my music — last thing I remember is falling down backwards back stage.”
The next 18 months of his life, he said, represented the lowest he had ever sunk. He was living in a “damp” apartment above a bar filled with alcoholics. He was collecting unemployment, and drinking heavily when his doctors refused to refill his Xanax prescription, launching him into a grand mal seizure.
“At first I thought, this sounds great. It’ll be like a Humphrey Bogart movie. I’ll be a hard-drinking musician. But, the reality was I was playing cover songs,” Hugh said. “After having been at the top of the musical world, my life had shrunk down to a depressing pathetic existence, playing for my room and board.”
But out of such a negative period of life, Hugh saw some light. The life-threatening seizure had landed Hugh in a hospital where he detoxed from both alcohol and Xanax, and a Massachussetts-run sober house had a last-minute opening for him.
For the two-and-a-half years he lived at the sober house “on the highway towards Cape Cod” he worked a 7 to 3 shift at McDonald’s five days a week.
One day at the restaurant, one of Hugh’s songs came on the radio.
“This one kid, he was 18 and he was my supervisor, and one time Talk It Over came on the radio and I just couldn’t resist saying ‘you know, that’s me,’” Hugh said. “That was a weird moment when Sarah, the manager said, Grayson I had no idea, wow.”
Around the same time, Hugh began to take steps to leave the sober house with the help of a substance abuse counselor who helped him get seed funding for a piano and other musician equipment.
Compounding his good luck, Messer somehow figured out where he was — a true feat, he said, as the sober house had an unlisted address.
Messer joined on to help with his comeback album, An American Record, in 2006. Within three months the couple “were in love,” Messer says, and by 2008, they were married.
“I found love after the age of 50,” Hugh said about Messer, smiling.
Hugh and his wife will tell stories of their lives in and out of the music world at their Forza Five concert on Saturday. The last show at the fitness center sold out, and a very limited number of tickets are available.
To reserve a spot, visit http://bit.ly/1RHCFwP.