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Sacred Heart University Community Theatre Welcomes Apollo Theater Icon To Staff

Joe Gray has worked with legendary artists during a star-studded, 30-year career at NYC landmark.

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

Long known as the "Set It Off Man," who warmed up crowds and gained a following at the Harlem landmark, Gray brings a wealth of technical knowledge, musical artistry and colorful stories to his new position, said Matt Oestreicher, SHU's Community Theatre director.

Oestreicher, who met Gray when they worked together at the Apollo Theater, said he's thrilled to welcome his friend to the downtown Fairfield stage. From performing as the touring drummer for the R&B funk band Cameo, to singing with Patti LaBelle and Lenny Kravitz and working shows 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've 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, NC, Gray grew up living with his parents, three sisters and his grandparents. "The train tracks ran through town and told you where you stood," Gray said, explaining that the tracks essentially separated Blacks from whites.

His mother and grandmother worked in a tobacco factory, and his grandfather worked on a cotton gin. Gray's father was a bootlegger who also "ran numbers" on the side. "He made ends meet for us," Gray said. "We weren't rich, but we didn't lack for anything we needed."

When Gray was just 11, his grandmother got tickets to see James Brown nearby, and the family stopped at place called Dig's Grill for dinner before the show. Brown happened to be dining 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 in on a sound check before the concert and gave him a few pointers. Years later, Gray met Brown again when the "Godfather of Soul" was playing at the Apollo. "He didn't remember me, but he did remember Dig's Grill," Gray said, laughing.

During junior high school, Gray could hear the high school band practicing from his backyard, so he gathered some cardboard boxes and branches and taught himself the drum section's parts. He later won a coveted place in the marching band because he already knew the percussion cadences.

If not for a beloved high school English teacher who took Gray under her wing, his future would have been very different. When she learned he planned to work as a janitor after graduation, she persuaded her husband to talk to the president of Fayetteville State College (which later became Fayetteville State University) about taking a chance on Gray. He was admitted and graduated with a music degree. "She saw something in me I didn't see in myself," Gray said.

Before making his way to New York City, Gray took a short, Vietnam-era detour with the National Guard band and later won a gig playing drums for Cameo, the band that hit big with songs such as Word Up and Candy. Between construction jobs that helped Gray get by, he met and worked with Onnie McIntyre, guitarist for 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 climbed the ranks to head of stage. He was running mics for "Amateur Night at the Apollo" one evening when program creator Ralph Cooper and another Apollo legend, Miss Eva Isaac, invited him to sing onstage. "I sang, 'Don't you remember you told me you loved me, baby,'" a line from the Carpenters' song, Superstar. "I just took to it and ran with it," he said.

A charismatic crowd favorite, Gray probably has 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 Ray Chew, music director of Dancing with the Stars. He has sung backup for Lenny Kravitz, Angela Bofill, Lilo Thomas and Kashif, and he was featured vocalist on the 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 has a Grammy certificate 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 his skills and industry contacts to the Sacred Heart University Community Theatre to elevate production possibilities and potential. His positive and team-focused style are expected to help incoming artists and collaborators feel welcomed and at home.

On Gray's cell phone, he keeps a photo of SHU's Community Theatre that he took a few years ago, when Oestreicher drove him by before its restoration. "I liked it," Gray said. "I thought I'd like to re-open that one day. And now, I'm here."

To download an image, visit SHU's Photoshelter archive.

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