The hit songwriter, lap-steel wizard and unsung hero of the New Wave era was 70
Tom Gray, best-known as the songwriter of the Cyndi Lauper hit “Money Changes Everything,” passed away over the weekend after a lengthy battle with cancer; he was 70 years old.
Gray originally wrote the song for his band the Brains, which released “Money Changes Everything” as a 7-inch single on their own independent Gray Matter label in 1978. It quickly became an underground hit, leading to a deal with Mercury Records and resulting in their Steve Lillywhite-produced 1980 self-titled debut. Then Lauper picked up the song, where it served as the fifth single released from her best-selling 1983 debut album She’s So Unusual, which sold better than 16 million copies worldwide and drove the single to #27 on the Billboard charts.
AUDIO: The Brains s/t 1980 (full album)
Although The Brains received widespread critical acclaim – Billboard magazine included it in their “Top Album Picks” for the May 3rd, 1980 issue, writing “this is a truly offbeat album which mixes ’60s organ dominated psychedelia, new wave, heavy metal and world savvy lyrics into an intoxicating brew” – the album’s sales didn’t light the charts on fire, but were enough to ensure a second recording for the label.
VIDEO: Cyndi Lauper “Money Changes Everything”
The Brains worked with Lillywhite again for their 1981 album Electronic Eden, but when it didn’t sell sufficiently, they were dropped by Mercury. The band would release a four-song EP, Dancing Under Streetlights, in 1982 on the indie Landslide Records label before breaking up, with several band members going on to join Dan Baird in the Georgia Satellites. During their major label tenure, the Brains toured with Iggy Pop, Devo, and the B-52’s, and one of R.E.M.’s earliest shows was opening for the Brains in Athens. Gray moved to Nashville for a while in the ‘80s to try his hand at songwriting, finding some success with songs recorded by artists like Lauper (who would record two more of his songs on subsequent albums), Manfred Mann, Carlene Carter, Bonnie Bramlett, and others.
It was while he lived in Nashville that Gray fell in love with lap steel guitar. Although he had played keyboards and synthesizer on the Brains’ records, he quickly mastered the instrument, which in turn led his creative muse towards an earthier, more organic Americana-styled sound. Gray would subsequently lend his steel guitar talents to albums by artists as diverse as John Brannen, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, Clay Harper and the Swimming Pool Q’s. It was a chance meeting with slide-guitarist Mark Johnson in an Atlanta record store that led to the two artists forming the roots ‘n’ blues outfit Delta Moon, which released its self-titled 2002 debut album independently on their own Delta Moon label.
In 2003, Delta Moon won The Blues Foundation’s “International Blues Challenge” competition, the band releasing their sophomore album Live later that year. Delta Moon would release a total of twelve studio and live for various labels; the band’s most recent effort, 2018’s Babylon Is Falling, saw Gray returning to Landslide Records. Delta Moon toured strenuously through the years until 2019, when Gray first began cancer treatments. All Music Guide scribe Thom Jurek wrote about the band, “Delta Moon possess an instantly recognizable sound that evokes classic swamp pop, bar band blues, and roadhouse roots rock wrapped in tight, artfully arranged and hook-laden original tunes and covers.”
Delta Moon’s 2015 album Low Down is widely-considered to be the band’s “breakthrough” record, one that led to them performing in larger clubs and receiving better festival offers. Reviewing the album for Blues Music magazine, I wrote “the band’s basic sound doesn’t vary much from album to album – it’s all a heady musical gumbo of rock, blues, and soul with heavy Delta influences. Gray simply adds a few new ingredients to the stew each time around…it’s Delta Moon’s ability to connect with a song’s heart – whether an original composition or a cover song – that puts them in a league with better-known fellow travelers like Watermelon Slim and the Workers and the Nighthawks.” Gray would earn his share of accolades through the years, including Georgia Songwriters Association “Songwriter of the Year” and the American Roots Music Association “Blues Songwriter of the Year” awards.
Writing on Facebook, Gray’s musical partner Mark Johnson wrote “Tom and I have been the copilots of Delta Moon for the last 20 years. With countless shows played, miles travelled, and so many friends made along the way, it has been an amazing and rewarding journey. I can tell you, Tom never took any of it for granted. He always gave 110%, even under the most difficult circumstances. He was a great writer, player and frontman. Tom’s lyrics touched people, spoke to them, made them happy or maybe think a little. Tom knew that and it meant the world to him. That’s why he was here, it was his calling. He was old school and I learned a lot from him.”
A little more than a week before his death, Gray posted a photo of himself as a child on his blog, writing beneath it “who could have foretold that this first grader in the homemade shirt (you can tell by the McCall’s-style collar) would have such a fantastic life in music? I’m a lucky guy. I have a wife of 37 years who loves me and friends all over North America and Europe. As my sister Helen Roman says, ‘We get to eat the good food, so we’re rich.’ Am I still that same kid? Absolutely, 100%.”
Humble, thankful, and gracious until the end, Gray’s last public “performance” was his lengthy interview with Craig Garber for his “Everybody Loves Guitar” podcast the Friday before his death.
A talented musician and enormously-gifted songwriter, Tom Gray lived for the music he loved…
VIDEO: Tom Gray on Craig Garber’s “Everybody Loves Guitar” podcast