Howard Grey: 1948 – 2016
The story behind the song
I heard of Howard Grey at a Ramblin’ Jack Elliot concert in the fatigued basement of one of the stately College of Wooster buildings in 1990. Neighbor Ed Schrock had tickets to hear this legendary folk singer and invited me to go along. We sat at tables with random folks and one of the ‘randoms’ at our table was Gary Hall, a singer. “You’re the man who sings ‘Howard Grey!” Ed exclaimed. “Yes, that would be me,” answered Gary.
And the story was told. Gary sang Howard’s song. And I bought Gary’s record (yes, that’s how long ago it was–a record!). And I began to sing the story of Howard Grey: a boy who got picked on in school and another boy who joined the mockers, and then got a glimpse of Howard’s tear stained eyes looking right back at him.
The writer was Lee Domann, singing about his shame at joining the ones making fun of Howard. And he regrets that he never had the chance to ask forgiveness because Howard’s family moved away soon after the incident.
I called Lee Domann soon after learning the song (about 1991?) to get permission to record it, and to find out where and to send the royalties. “Is that a true story?” I asked him on the phone. “Yes. I’m ashamed to say that it is.” “Anything come of it?” I asked. “Interesting that you would ask,” Lee said. “My father passed away last summer and I went home to the funeral. As they lowered my dad’s casket into the ground, I looked into the crowd through my tears… and right into the eyes of Howard Grey! He had come to my dad’s funeral! I went over and stood beside him. He was looking down at the ground. I put my arm on his shoulder and he said, “I heard the song.” After an awkward pause, I said, “Will you forgive me?” “Yeah,” was his one word answer.
“Twenty years of shame and guilt was lifted off of my shoulders that day. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to find Howard and make things right,” said Lee. “Many folks never get the chance.”
Several years later I called Howard and introduced myself. I told him that I sing the song about him. He sort of chuckled. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Several years later Lydia and I stopped in to visit him in Topeka, Kansas. We took his wife and him out for a meal. I saw that he would be easy to pick on. Unassuming, bashful, no self image…
Howard and Lee Domann and I kept in touch by phone and a visit or two over the years. Several times I called Howard right during a concert to have him say hello to the crowd. He never said much. “Hi,” was about all I could get him say. But it showed the people that he was a real person, just like the ones they were thinking of while I sang the song. Many of us can relate to Howard’s experience.
Howard was not a roaring success by worldly standards. He was retired and on disability by the time I met him. I began to send him “royalty checks.” I told him that every time I sang his song, I would pay him royalty of $25.00. About once a month I sent him $100. If I didn’t, he would call me. 🙂
On June 1st, we put a royalty check in the mail for him. That night I got a call from his son. “Dad passed away today. He laid down to take a nap and died in his sleep.”
Howard did not live an easy life. He didn’t have a lot of victories. Lee Domann’s song may have given him a little satisfaction that his life made a difference in other’s lives. (It sure did!)
Howard Grey, Oh Howard Grey… I’ve never quite forgiven us for treating you that way.
I only hope that maybe you will hear this song someday, And you’ll know that I am sorry, Howard Grey.
We’ll probably never meet again so I can only pray That you and God forgive us, Howard Grey.
RIP, Howard Grey. Your story will live on.
“You’ve got to try a little kindness, show a little kindness, shine your light for everyone to see.” –Glen Campbell–
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” -Plato
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” -Jesus