Musical staff

Sacred Heart University Community Theater Welcomes Apollo Theater Icon to Staff

New York artist Joe Gray, a mainstay of the iconic Apollo Theater for nearly 30 years, has found a new home as Production Manager at Sacred Heart University Community Theatre.

Long known as the ‘Set It Off Man’ who has warmed up crowds and won followers at the Harlem landmark, Gray brings a wealth of technical knowledge, musical artistry and colorful stories to his new post. , said Matt Oestreicher, director of community theater at SHU. .

Oestreicher, who met Gray when they worked together at the Apollo Theater, said he was thrilled to welcome his friend to the stage in downtown Fairfield. From performing as a touring drummer for funk R&B group Cameo, singing with Patti LaBelle and Lenny Kravitz, and working with everyone from Metallica to James Brown, Gray has seen and done it all, Oestreicher said.

“Joe is a legend, and he knows everyone. I walked into his office at the Apollo to find everyone from James Taylor to Natalie Cole hanging out in there,” he added.

Born in the then-segregated tobacco town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Gray grew up living with his parents, three sisters, and grandparents. “The train tracks ran through town and told you where you were,” Gray said, explaining that the tracks basically separated black people from white people.

His mother and grandmother worked in a tobacco factory and his grandfather worked in a cotton gin. Gray’s father was a smuggler who “also ran numbers” on the side. “He made ends meet for us,” Gray said. “We weren’t rich, but we lacked nothing.”

When Gray was just 11, his grandmother got tickets to see James Brown nearby, and the family stopped at a place called Dig’s Grill for dinner before the show. Brown was having dinner at a nearby booth, and a nervous Gray managed to tell his hero, “Mr. Brown, I’m going to play the drums!” Brown invited the boy to listen to a sound check before the concert and gave him some pointers. Years later, Gray met Brown again when the “Godfather of Soul” was playing at the Apollo. “He didn’t remember me, but he remembered Dig’s Grill,” Gray said with a laugh.

In middle school, Gray could hear the high school band practicing from his backyard, so he gathered cardboard boxes and branches and taught himself the drum section parts. He later obtained a coveted place in the marching band because he already knew the cadences of the percussion.

Without a beloved high school English teacher who took Gray under his wing, his future would have been very different. When she learned that he planned to work as a janitor after graduation, she persuaded her husband to speak to the president of Fayetteville State College (which later became Fayetteville State University) to try his luck with Gray. He was admitted and earned a degree in music. “She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Gray said.

Before heading to New York, Gray took a quick detour back to the Vietnam era with the National Guard Band and later landed a drum gig for Cameo, the band that found great success with songs like than Word Up and Candy. Between construction work that helped Gray get by, he met and worked with Onnie McIntyre, guitarist of the Average White Band, and recorded songs that ended up on the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich. and Famous.

He started out at the Apollo unloading trucks for Stevie Wonder and then worked his way up to stage head. He was leading mics for “Amateur Night at the Apollo” one night when program creator Ralph Cooper and fellow Apollo legend Miss Eva Isaac invited him to sing on stage. “I sang, ‘Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby,'” a line from the Carpenters song, Superstar. “I just picked it up and ran with it,” he said.

A charismatic crowd favorite, Gray has probably spent more time on the Apollo Stage than any other performer. He and “Amateur Night” producer Debbie McDuffy sang the show’s theme song until McDuffie’s departure, after which Gray co-wrote a new theme song with Dancing with the Stars music director Ray Chew. He has sung for Lenny Kravitz, Angela Bofill, Lilo Thomas and Kashif, and was the featured vocalist on Ray Chew and The Crew’s CD, Feeling It. “Lady Marmalade” diva Patti LaBelle invited him to sing with her when she was at the Apollo, and he’s Grammy-certified for his stellar whistling in Now I Know from Stephen Marley’s Revelation Pt. 1: The Root of Life, which won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 2012.

Gray will bring her skills and industry contacts to Sacred Heart University Community Theater to elevate production possibilities and potential. Her positive, team-oriented style should help new artists and collaborators feel welcomed and at home.

On Gray’s cell phone, he keeps a picture of SHU’s Community Theater that he took a few years ago, when Oestreicher drove it before its restoration. “I liked that,” Gray said. “I thought I would like to reopen this one day. And now here I am.”

To upload an image, visit SHU’s Photoshelter Archive.