Hendrix album inspires boy to pick a guitar

Michael Gregory plays at Grand Ole Opry in 2002
Michael Gregory plays at Grand Ole Opry in 2002. (Photo by Rick Rigali)

By Lee Roberts

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Oct. 17, 2012) – Michael Gregory was only 9 when he received a Jimi Hendrix album his mother’s hairdresser no longer wanted. Her junk became his treasure and the vinyl record would soon spin his life in a whole new direction.

During Gregory’s childhood today’s luxuries such as cable television, iPods and video games did not yet exist.  So when he first saw the artwork on the cover of Axis: Bold as Love,” it really caught his attention and captivated him. When he turned on the phonograph, the legendary guitarist’s iconic sounds filled the room and inspired him to want to play.

“I was completely transfixed.  I’d never heard anything like it,” Gregory said.  “I used to tell people it tickled me in a spot where I didn’t even know I had a spot.  Shortly after I began playing.”

From that defining experience, he picked up the guitar, quickly developed his natural abilities and began chasing a dream of being a professional musician. In fact, it didn’t take long for him to perform and go on tour.

The Early Years

At age 12, Gregory first performed at a local Friday night dance in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif.  At age 14, he joined a country and western gospel group fronted by Buck Owens’ cousin Dale Owens.  The group traveled every weekend to play at churches throughout northern California. During the summer, they piled into an RV and played across the west coast.

“That was my first taste at touring and I really liked it,” Gregory said.  “It was through that experience in that band that I became a Christian.”

During the British invasion in the 1960s, great guitar play from artists such as Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page with Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds influenced his style.

“Later, my tastes began to broaden and I began listening to more progressive music of the 70s like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Focus,” Gregory said.

In high school, he strummed on stage with jazz bands, all the while listening, learning and developing a future professional music career through the work of guitar greats Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Andrés Segovia, Wes Montgomery and Infinitum.

Playing Professionally

Over the 80s, 90s and into the 2000s, Gregory played on the music circuit and landed gigs with bands such as the Osmond Brothers, Christina Aguilera, Eric Benet, and most recently with Country Music Artist Steve Holy. He even played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2002, a defining moment for him.

In the studio, he worked on themes for Star Search, Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, CNN and the Syfy Channel, among others.  He also has played jingles for Coke, Amtrak, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Subway, 7up and Got Milk. He’s appeared on The Tonight Show, CNN Showtime and The Today Show with Billy Gilman.

He formed the Michael Gregory Band in 1991 when he turned 30.

“I had the realization that I’d spent my musical abilities on other people’s music and hadn’t produced anything of my own,” Gregory said. “I knew the players that I wanted and they were all available and positive about the project.”

At the group’s first performance he met Ian Samwell, a British record producer who wrote the first few hits for Cliff Richard and the Shadows back in England.  The Shadows were one of the Beatles’ main inspirations. Samwell also produced the group America and their record “A Horse With No Name.”

Samwell offered to manage the band, which paved the way for the Michael Gregory Band to perform with many of the top names in instrumental music such as Steve Morse, Dixie Dregs, Eric Johnson, Robben Ford, Ronnie Montrose and Norton Buffalo.

The band broke up when Gregory moved to Nashville in 1998. He said the group did a reunion gig in 1999 when he returned to Sacramento while on tour with Shane MacAnally.

“When I was younger I loved the travel, meeting people, and working with other groups and building a fraternal relationship with musicians from all over the world,” Gregory said.

He noted that performing on stage is an incredible experience and said he always tried to play with the same passion he felt when he first listened to Hendrix as a boy.  But despite the thrill of playing in concert for adoring fans, he explained the music business became stale after years of touring and dealing with the business end of things.  He also found himself being lured away to focus on family and to enjoy the God he loves.

“I had a growing sense within that that chapter of my life was closing,” Gregory said.  “It felt so natural, normal and spontaneous.”

Gregory played his last professional show in Vancouver, Wash., in the summer of 2005.

A New Direction

Gregory then spent several years earning a degree from Vanderbilt University in Health Information Management.  He is now an HIM applications analyst at Nashville General Hospital and is responsible for the daily management, oversight and legal compliance of the electronic medical record system and computer application that processes coding and billing.

No longer on tour, he now has most weekends and evenings off to enjoy time with his wife and blending with his church family.  He said he simply had an internal realization that playing music professionally was no longer a good fit.

“My pursuits were ever leaning more toward the spiritual, so there was no external religious requirement or regulation driving my decision, but rather an organic dawning within that God was turning and steering the wheel and beginning to write another chapter.  All my years in music were designed by God to provide me with certain necessary experiences on my ever dawning path towards him,” he said.

He still plays guitar at home and at church events and says the passion to play is still there.

“I simply left it as my vocation,” Gregory said about leaving the music business. “Actually, once I quit playing for a living, I was pleasantly surprised to revisit the sense of wonder and discovery I had about it as a child and had largely forgotten.”

Remembering Hendrix

Gregory said he occasionally reminisces about performing and somehow it always begins at the very beginning when he first played the Hendrix vinyl record as a boy.

He said it is ironic that Hendrix died in 1970, the same year he picked up the guitar for the first time.  But the ties to Hendrix don’t stop there.

In 1996, Gregory toured with Wayman Tisdale, a talented bass player and well-known NBA power forward.  They were playing at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix, Ariz., with Soul Singer Al Green.

The dressing rooms were small and few that night. Tisdale and Green each had a dressing room but the 12 remaining musicians had to share the only remaining room, Gregory recalled.

After he played a set, he returned to the shared dressing room. Green’s guitarist walked up to him several minutes later and complimented his performance. Gregory noticed him staring at his Hendrix T-shirt.

“So I said, ‘Jimi was the reason I started playing.’ He nodded his head and said, ‘I understand – I used to play with him myself.’ I had read just about every Jimi Hendrix biography as a young man, so I immediately knew who he was.  He was Larry Lee, the guitarist whom Jimi lived with and played with locally in and around Nashville when he was in the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky.”

Gregory said Hendrix and Lee played together at the Woodstock festival in upstate New York in 1969, so he was somewhat of a legend.

“That was one of my favorite moments of my entire career,” Gregory said.

Gregory still has the Hendrix album.  It reminds him of his childhood and serves as a symbol of his life-long passion for playing the guitar.  It must have been a divine moment when his mother’s hairdresser gave it to him, he said.

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