A stirring tribute to Sir Timmy Gray

The cast of Turning Gray Skies Blue: The Music of Timmy Gray during the grand finale at last week's premiere. KLH | Union

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

BLUE LAKE – “I spent a lot of time at Dell’Arte. It was wonderful! All good things!”

Tim Gray was reflecting on his 20-plus years, working for Dell’Arte, as a composer, a performer, and a sound man. Now the theatre company is celebrating those years with a really big show.

Turning Gray Skies Blue: The Music of Timmy Gray, directed by Michael Fields opened June 21 and continues Friday and Saturday, June 28 and 29 in the Rooney Amphitheatre as the anchor piece of the Mad River Festival.

Gray was born in Indianapolis and came to Humboldt County “over 30 years ago, drawn to it by the CCC and because I’m a big fan of nature.”

He studied music at Humboldt State University. Joan Schirle, founding artistic director at Dell’Arte, remembered their first meeting.

Dell’Arte’s musical veterans Fred Neighbor and Joyce Hough escort Tim into last week's opening night show. KLH | Union

“We were doing one of the early Scar Tissue shows at the CCC camp where he was working at Requa. We performed the show and he kind of fell in love with us. We’ve often talked about that early serendipitous meeting.”

“We’ve asked him to do many things and he’s never backed away from a challenge,” she said.

Schirle described an early experience at a recording studio somewhere in Loleta. “We were doing a recording for Mad Love (1998) and it involved taking a hacksaw to some steak bones and recording the sound.

Gray has worn many creative hats at Dell’Arte since those early years. He’s played in the pit band, composed songs for show after show, and worked the sound booth with skill and patience.

“He’s been involved in more than 50 productions here as sound designer or composer,” Michael Fields, producing artistic director at Dell’Arte, said. “This is a way to celebrate that.”

The theatre company has never done a concert show like this. “It will be really about the music,” he said. “I was surprised when I went back to listen to the music at how eclectic it is, how many styles. Timmy wrote opera, country, blues, rap...”

Many of the original performers will be doing Gray’s songs. “It’s an all-star lineup,” Fields said.

Last May, a group of local musicians gathered at the Arcata Playhouse for a benefit show for Gray who is dealing with the realities of a terminal brain disease and all its effects. Dell’Arte will have donation stations at each performance.

Most importantly, Gray will be present at all the performances in Blue Lake.

Jeff Landon, a musician who has known and played with Gray for “35 years” was struck by the “paradox.”  

“It’s a paradox of existence that’s he’s terminally ill but he is so well loved that he’s being showered with love. It’s a gift to be able to know how well people regard you while you are still alive,” he said. Landon played with Gray in a band called The Boggies at the McKinleyville Moose Lodge, back in the day of “bad rock’n’roll.” He wrote a song for the Playhouse benefit riffing on Gray’s voicemail message, “Be Happy, Spread Love.” At the end of performing that song, a phone was held up to the microphone so that the actual message ended the song.

“Tim’s a wonderful spirit,” Landon said.

Schirle echoed that sentiment. “I think it’s wonderful that Tim is being thanked while he’s alive. I believe he’s made a tremendous contribution to the culture of Humboldt.”

Fred Neighbor has played with Gray in both the Joyce Hough Band and Home Cookin’.  “It was in the early 1990’s,” he explained. “We said, let’s try this thing with Timmy. It was a great choice for everyone. Not only is he a very subtle drummer, but he is also a great singer. It was a wonderful blend of voices between him and Joyce.”

Gray is well known as a sound engineer as well.

“We recorded our last CD, Turn It Around, at his studio down in Loleta, with twelve songs. He did a tremendous job on the recording. He got the diagnosis around three and a half years ago. We knew we had these songs so let’s do it now while Timmy was still able to lay down the drum track. By the time we completed the project he couldn’t play anymore but we got it. It’s a good snapshot of him playing and his recording skills.”

Neighbor was in awe of those skills.

“He’s so supportive as a recording engineer. He’ll let you think you figured it out when he sort of led you there.”

Neighbor and Joyce Hough will be special guests in the June 29 performance.

Paul DeMark, who has played drums with Neighbor and Hough in several bands, agreed about Gray’s recording skills.

“He was the engineer and mixed the Delta National’s studio record, “All Over the Map” in 2008. “He’s always very encouraging. That’s an important trait for a recording engineer.” 

DeMark has respect for Gray’s other skills. “He’s an excellent drummer and an excellent vocalist. He would say, ‘Oh, I’m not the drummer you are,’ but he is the person who lifts up others. I think he is one of the most genuinely positive people in Humboldt County.”

Multi-instrumentalist Marla Joy led the band. KLH | Union

Mike LaBolle, a member of Dell Arte’s house band for many productions, will perform in Turning Gray Skies Blue. It’s been a big job to pull the show together as a concert. 

“A lot of the music I’ve never performed before,” he said. “Just listening to the music I think, ‘Oh, my gosh, what an amazing composer Tim is.”

Schirle agreed. “This show is a huge workout for the band. The songs are being sung by a dozen people but the band has to do it all.”  

In a typical Dell’Arte big show, the musical numbers are interspersed with actors’ dialogue and action. This show, encompassing many Dell’Arte shows, is all about the music. Tim Gray’s music.

LaBolle remembered that “during the Mary Jane show bourbon, scotch and cigars became popular. We’d get together after a show and have a toast and Tim would smoke a cigar.” 

Turning Gray Skies Blue will be that toast. A toast to a musician, composer, sound man, and recording engineer. A toast to Timmy. “All good things!’ as the man himself said.





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