It’s been an interesting musical journey for Henry Gross. He played at Woodstock in 1969 — the legendary festival attended by more than 400,000 concertgoers — and now, 50 years later, he performs private concerts on riverboats and in hotels and conference rooms.
But it’s the days before Woodstock — sitting on a stoop in Brooklyn playing guitar as an amateur for a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball hero — that may mean the most to him.
“Gil Hodges would pass by my house on the way to his Catholic church,” recalls Gross, who lived in the borough’s Flatbush section and is best known for his hit single “Shannon” on his 1976 solo album Release. “He would stop on my stoop, sit down and say, ‘Henry, what you got today? Play for me.’ ”
Seven or eight times, Gross says, the legendary slugging first baseman, who later managed the New York Mets to their first World Series championship, stopped to listen to him play. Hodges was his sports idol, so, in anticipation of each visit by a church-bound Hodges, Gross diligently practiced to improve his guitar-playing prowess.
Gross was born in Brooklyn in 1951 and lived in New York City — except for living outside Boston in 1970 — until 1986. He grew up in a musical family, including his mother, Zelda, who briefly performed with New York’s Metropolitan Opera Chorus. He left the city in 1986 and moved to Nashville.
In New York, he began playing in clubs at age 13 with his first band, the Auroras.
“We played local dances, mob clubs and even did a week of shows at the New Jersey Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, in 1964,” he says. “We covered the hits of the day, including ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey,’ ’50s hits like ‘Walk Don’t Run’ and ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll,’ and a ton of Elvis, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Beatles, Kinks — you name it.”
In 1969, Gross became a founding member of the doo-wop revival group Sha Na Na and performed at the Fillmore East, the Fillmore West and the Woodstock festival.
“I was at Brooklyn College playing in a band with friends from Columbia University,” he recalls. “They performed ‘Little Darlin’ at a performance of the college glee club called the Kingsmen. The crowd loved it, I joined and we created a love letter to the 1950s we called Sha Na Na.”
Sha Na Na was a last-minute addition to the Woodstock festival, billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” and held Aug. 15-18, 1969, on a farm in Bethel, New York.
Without traffic, Bethel is about a two-hour drive from midtown Manhattan, but the festival was overrun by concertgoers, and there were massive traffic jams. Gross departed New York City late at night on Saturday, Aug. 16, and says it “took forever” to get to the festival. He says the drive was impeded by traffic and roadblocks, and police officers had to be convinced there were performers in the vehicle who needed to continue on to the festival.
At a hotel lobby where the performers convened on Sunday morning, Gross ran into Jimi Hendrix, whom he knew from New York City. Hendrix handed him a bottle of Jack Daniels, Gross says, and it took him down the path of inebriation.
A helicopter attempted to transport a drunken Gross and others to the festival site. The chopper flew to the site and tilted, giving a view of the huge amount of people at the festival. But its door was open, and a few occupants “almost fell out,” Gross says. The pilot then abandoned the landing at the festival and took them back to the hotel.
“I told Jimi about people almost falling out, and he laughed,” Gross says. “He was a former paratrooper.”
A Cadillac eventually picked up Gross to take him to the festival.
“The car stopped and in came Jerry Garcia,” Gross recalls. “He got me stoned, and we drove to the festival. He was a good guy — we spent the entire day together.”
Gross was on the side of the stage that afternoon when Joe Cocker took the stage for his memorable performance with his Grease Band. Cocker was relatively unknown before the set, but, with a band that included Henry McCullough on guitar and Chris Stainton on keyboards, he blew the lid off the place. His cover of the Beatles’ song “With A Little Help from My Friends” remains one of the great live performances in rock and roll history.
“I stood 20 feet or so away when Joe Cocker sang ‘With A Little Help from My Friends,’ ” Gross says. “Amazing!”
After Cocker left the stage, a massive thunderstorm struck, and the festival was halted for several hours before the music resumed. The next morning Sha Na Na and Hendrix played to a much smaller crowd. Some have estimated 30,000 people remained.
“It was a 30-minute set,” Gross says about his performance with Sha Na Na as the group’s lead guitarist. “What remained of the audience at 7 a.m. Monday morning, adored our show. Then Hendrix closed the show.”
Sha Na Na’s “At the Hop” was later included on the Woodstock soundtrack album, and Gross says he was the youngest performer at the legendary festival. The concertgoers who watched Sha Na Na’s set were still there primarily to see Hendrix but were floored by Sha Na Na’s high-energy performance.
Hendrix then closed the festival with a long set with numerous unforgettable highlights. His wild anti-war instrumental version of “The Star Spangled Banner” was followed by a roaring version of “Purple Haze,” and he ended history’s most famous music festival with “Hey Joe.”
“While watching Jimi play ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ I knew I needed to leave Sha Na Na and try to write and record my own songs,” Gross says. “His performance was so inspirational. It was the most important performance of any single rock song ever performed — particularly at that moment in time with the Vietnam War going on and at that place.”
The next year, Gross left Sha Na Na and, in 1971, signed a solo contract with ABC/Dunhill Records. His recording career with Sha Na Na was limited to the group’s first album Rock and Roll is Here to Stay. He sang lead vocals on the album’s opening track, “Remember Then,” which had been a hit with the doo-wop group the Earls, and on Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.”
As a solo artist, Gross says he has recorded about 25 records and CDs. His song “Shannon” — a song inspired by the death of Carl Wilson’s dog named Shannon — went gold, and the single brought international fame to Gross and his music.
“It was a spontaneous response to learning Carl Wilson and I had dogs named Shannon, and his was hit by a car and killed,” Gross says. “The song wrote itself really. I wore it down. I think it touched the hearts of those of us who treasure animals as we do our friends. I guess there are more of us than the cynical would’ve believed.”
Gross, who now lives in Nashville and Naples, Florida, says “the impact of the song on my life is difficult to quantify. I still get literally dozens of letters a month from folks who find comfort from the song when they lose pets or loved ones.”
He says it’s “truly amazing the variety of known and unknown people who express their love” for the song. “It certainly was a high point at least as far as records sold. I feel songs like ‘High Enough,’ ‘Lucky Me,’ ‘Foreverland’ and many others are at least as good but perhaps less heart-wrenching.”
Gross says he doesn’t consider any one song he has written his best work.
“My songs are all my children, and all are loved,” he responds. “Any can be the best at a given moment. A funny song can be every bit as soulful and touching as the most passionate ballad at the right place and time.”
Though Gross is no longer the recognizable name he was in the mid-1970s, he says his album output has been “constant” since 1976. And during one six-month period during the past two years, he performed about 75 shows.
Gross says the live show he attended that may have most influenced his career was Hendrix’s incredible performance at Woodstock, particularly Jimi’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” He also remembers a few other influential shows — Little Anthony & the Imperials at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre, Elvis Presley at New York’s Madison Square Garden and the Beatles at Shea Stadium in Queens.
“Each one and countless others made great impressions,” he adds.
Gross says he has seen hundreds of concerts, and most “were amazing in many ways.
“I love great artists and performers,” he says. “You ask a very complicated question (about one single best concert) if one is expected to answer it honestly and thoroughly. I’m sensing many people you interview had a more life-changing response to watching particular concerts than I did. For me, it was the cumulative effect of tasting a melange of great moments.
“Truth be known, the bad performances I witnessed by chemically mind-altered performers likely were an equally big influence as they informed me how not to behave onstage. There’s a novel yet truthful answer to your question!”