An Interview with H.W. Gray II

Jubilate Music Group

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An Interview with H.W. Gray II

Jan 24, 2023

H.W. (“Will”) Gray II

JMG:  With H.W. Gray officially opening its doors in 1906, you’re clearly too young to have been there at that time!  But what were the early days like at H.W. Gray when you were a child?

HWG: I was probably 8 years old when my mother took my twin sister and me to the Gray Company building in New York City (159 East 48th Street) for the first of a few memorable restaurant lunches with my father (Donald) prior to me becoming a busy teenager  . . . memorable because those visits introduced me to: (1) a neat one-hour train ride; (2) the impressive five-story building where my father worked; (3) the huge/busy/confusing NYC; and (4) the people who worked with my father (specifically the office ladies who were always very sweet to "the president's twins").  Amazingly, some 18 years later a lot of those ladies were still there when I arrived in 1963 at age 26 (after college and the Navy) to help my father.  I'm guessing that this first trip to the Gray company in 1945 was made by my mother shortly after WWII ended.

In 1945 my grandfather was in poor health, had been succeeded by my father, and wasn't at the office (we visited him at: (1) his NYC townhouse on NYC's Upper East Side once; (2) his country home on the Connecticut River in Old Lyme, CT during a number of summers and falls; and once he came to my house in Darien, CT for lunch.  The twinkle in his eye at the time is one of a few vivid memories I have of him.

I also remember the family's memorial service shortly after my grandfather died in 1948.  I remember seeing many of the Gray Company employees there, all clearly disturbed with many in tears.

JMG:  What are a few of your favorite memories of working in the family business?

HWG:  During my 8 years at the Gray Company (1963-1971) I learned what it was that the family business did . . . how unique it was in the world of music . . . how even further specialized it was within the world of church music . . . and how respected both the catalogue, and my father, were among church musicians, sacred music customers, and fellow publishers of music for the church.  The many days when famous composers/church musicians came to visit (often followed by lunch at Manny Wolf's, a steak house a block from the office) were (and still are) special moments/memories.  Among those famous visitors (i.e., good friends of the catalogue, and of my father) were Ronald Arnatt, Roberta Bitgood, Mary Elizabeth Caldwell, Paul Callaway, Wayne Dirksen, Cecil Effinger, Arthur Greenfield, Gere Hancock, John La Montaine, Austin Lovelace, Jack Ossewaarde, Myron Roberts, Leo Sowerby, Charles Dodsley Walker, Elinor Remmick Warren, David H. Williams, M. Searle Wright and Alec Wyton. 

One of the highlights of every Christmas season was the performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at Carnegie Hall by the Oratorio Society.  The Company always had a mezzanine box for family and guests, and the performance each year was stirring.  My father sat on the board of the Oratorio Society for years, and the Board’s periodic evening’s meetings were held in the Gray Company’s building.  

The Gray Company’s major printer was Zabel Bros. of Philadelphia, and Bill Zabel always hosted a fun outing every summer.  Most of those events were centered around an ocean fishing trip out of either Brielle, NJ or Montauk, NY.  Some outings found us (my father Donald, my Uncle Geoff and me) attending a Yankees baseball game . . . and in 1964 we attended the first Mets game played in the new Shea Stadium.

JMG:  Do you have any fun or vivid memories of some of the famous composers who are represented in the H.W. Gray catalog?

HWG:  Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) Leo once related an intriguing story he was told by a NYC organist from one of the big churches (the name of the organist, and church, escape me).  As the story goes, one evening when locking the church's front door at the conclusion of his practice session, the organist noticed someone lying down asleep in the last pew.  He woke the down-on-his-luck senior citizen, explaining that he was the church's organist and was locking up the church for the night.  "No problem . . . I understand", said the sleeping visitor; and when at the front door he turned around and said, "Tell me . . . you being this church's organist, do you know any good Sowerby numbers?"  

Mary E. Caldwell (1909-2003) Mary was unique with me because she, like my wife Barbara, was an "Echo Lake girl".  This beautiful small lake nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the south end of Lake Tahoe is where my wife's family (the "Greggs and Grays") have now had a cabin for 4 generations (since the 1920's).  The Caldwells have been there for almost as long, and neat was my surprise when I discovered, with my father's help, that I had "Echo Lake" in common with one of the company's composers.  When visiting Mary, and her husband Phillip, at their cabin a few times (both before and after the Gray Company was sold), it was always fun to realize that the Caldwells and the Greggs/Grays understood well the same special thing, i.e., Echo Lake is where God spends his summers.  

Roberta Bitgood (1908-2007) Roberta was raised in New London, CT and was a music student in both CT and NYC.  As a young woman, seeking to be published, she walked into my grandfather's office with her vocal solo, The Greatest of These Is Love.  It became her first of many published works, and over the years she was to make many other visits to the Gray Company.  She also became a periodic visitor to my grandfather's summer home in Old Lyme, CT (not far from New London).  The home was known as "Gray Gables", and sat high above the Connecticut River with 3 levels of terraced lawn between the house and the river).  Roberta got captured there during the famous hurricane of 1938; and, as she told me during one of our meetings, she remembers sitting in the Gray Gables' living room and reporting to her host and publisher, Willard Gray, that a large boat was about to enter the house.  The lightship on the Connecticut River had broken free of its anchor during the storm, and the super-high tide and prevailing winds were slowly bringing the ship closer and closer to Gray Gables as the water rose higher and higher.  In the end this large metal ship (a navigation aid on the river) stopped just short of the house, and gradually retreated toward where it had come as the high tide receded. . . but it got stranded on the lowest level of the terraced lawn.  So high out of the water was it that the Coast Guard was never able to figure out how to retrieve it, and eventually a team of welders cut it apart and removed it in pieces from my grandfather's property. 

JMG:  If you were to share the essence of your grandfather’s mission for H.W. Gray what might it be?

HWG:  As I came to understand it, the goal of the H.W. Gray Company was to publish music for the church that was of the highest standard, both musically and graphically.  Great pains (i.e., expenses) were taken to ensure that new publications (as in copyrighted works, and opposed to public domain editions) were presented correctly, and clearly, on the printed page.  That meant strong editing of both the music and text, and sharp engraving.  In other words, if the work was demanding musically, then it was equally important that it be properly presented graphically. 

JMG:  Thank you, Will, for your time today!  Jubilate Music Group is deeply honored to carry forth the publishing legacy of the H.W. Gray Family.  We celebrate and strive to maintain that “tradition of excellence” started by your grandfather in 1906 that was beautifully perpetuated by your father and you in subsequent decades.  We stand on your shoulders and the amazing writers then – and now – who are the pillars of that excellence.

HWG:  Thank you!  We are delighted and excited that the catalog and name have found its home at Jubilate Music Group where it is once again flourishing and vibrant.

Click here to read a brief history of the H.W. Gray Company.

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