Chris Gray – “The Soul of Jack Ruby”

In 2011, something strange happened. An eight-song CD by a group named Jack Ruby was released. In and unto itself, that wasn’t an earth-shattering incident – but when you factor in that it took more than thirty years after the material was recorded for it to finally see the light of day, the significance of the event starts to materialize.

When I first put up this site in early 2008, it was with the intention of chronicling and preserving the history of the Raybeats. Jack Ruby was a part of that history. It was the first band that George Scott (the Raybeats’ bassist and founder) played in, and it was Chris Gray who got George to start playing bass. I didn’t know about that, though, at the time. In fact, some of the misinformation I had posted prompted Robin Hall, Jack Ruby’s lead singer, to contact me in order to set the record straight. I was more than happy to correct my mistakes, and in so doing, I ended up creating a Jack Ruby page. The Tone Zone’s home page aside, the Jack Ruby page — as of this writing — has proven to be the fourth-most accessed page on the site (behind the Danny Amis, Jody Harris and George Scott pages, respectively).

One thing I have learned over the past few years is that some stories you tell (or, at least, help tell) keep on going; they manage to take on lives of their own. The story of Jack Ruby is such a case. The little write-up I did and posted on this tribute site was but part of the beginning of the chronicling of the Jack Ruby saga. Granted, the actual events that inspired the story had transpired decades earlier, but interest in the band was brewing. The eight-song CD that Weasel Walter put out (in a limited edition of just 300 copies) helped spark further interest. The Village Voice did an exceptional article on the band, contacting its surviving members (and other notables from that time period), and Chris Campion, owner of Saint Cecilia Knows, released a two CD-set (Hit and Run) of every known recording Jack Ruby made, accompanied by a forty-eight-page booklet that detailed the story/stories of the band. (In conjunction with the CD release, Feeding Tube Records issued the recordings in two separate volumes on limited-edition vinyl.)

But, alas, what does all of this rambling have to do with Chris Gray? Well, in my case, I didn’t learn of his passing until I purchased a copy of the Hit and Run CD set approximately six months after his death. Campion had dedicated it to Chris Gray’s memory. All I could find online was a death notice too brief to pass for an actual obituary. It was all of fifty words (give or take) and ran in the Albany Times Union on March 21, 2014. As far as a profession, it referred to him as “a retired musician.” If you’re interested in learning the story of Jack Ruby, then buy Hit and Run, read the booklet, and listen to the music. The information there conveys a respectable account of Chris Gray’s time on earth prior to the formation of Jack Ruby and throughout the band’s existence. This “tribute,” so to speak, will focus on Chris Gray’s life after his New York City period and his desire to preserve the legacy of Jack Ruby.

* * *

At six feet, four inches and 150 pounds, Chris Gray was the type who usually stood out no matter how large or small the crowd. Chris had music in his blood. One of three children, he was born in 1949 when his mother was 48. His brothers, Peter and Steve, were twenty and eighteen years older, respectively. Their mother had worked as a pianist at a silent movie theater in Boston during the 1920s. Chris played clarinet in high school, but the guitar was the instrument that would eventually consume him.

Lindy Jones met Chris Gray in 1982. They were introduced by an old girlfriend of Gray’s, someone Lindy worked with who thought they would hit it off. They did. She found him to be “a soft-spoken gentleman who never swore or yelled.” He was also a die-hard Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and he had the memorabilia to prove it.

According to Jones, Gray was incredibly smart, and upon graduation from high school had received a full-ride scholarship to Union College in Schenectady, New York. Instead, he opted to attend SUNY (State University of New York) in Albany, where he majored in partying. It wasn’t long before he moved to New York City to pursue his dream of rock ‘n’ roll.

Although Jack Ruby didn’t attain rock ‘n’ roll stardom during their low-key existence, various members of the band certainly pursued the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, of which drugs were a major part. Eventually, lead singer Robin Hall decided to leave both the band and the city behind so he could get clean. Gray followed suit a few years later; by the early 1980s, he was back in Albany.

Gray spent most of his adult life working in record stores. For a while in the 1980s, he decided to get a grown-up job and work for the state. He hated it. He quit and went back to record stores. Jones said Gray would map out their vacations by getting ahold of phone books from various towns, compiling a list of book and record stores, and then buying as many items as they could afford. He had thousands of albums and thousands of books, which he viewed as an investment for their golden years, since he claimed they wouldn’t be able to afford such items when they retired.

Gray and Jones parted ways when she became determined to have a child, an undertaking he wasn’t keen on. It became one of his biggest regrets. The two remained friends, however, and he would eventually take an interest in Jones’ daughter, Zoë, as if she were his own.

Sadly, Chris Gray’s final months were spent with his brother, Steve, who was in his eighties. They were two elderly gentlemen with serious health issues, stuck in an apartment, both virtually bedridden. Although he had been sober for many years, Gray’s substance abuse during his youth had taken its toll, and he was suffering from hepatitis C, among other maladies. He died on March 19, 2014, at the age of 65.

* * *

On Valentine’s Day 2016, the first episode of a TV series called Vinyl aired on HBO. The series was the brainchild of Rich Cohen, Terence Winter, Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese. This debut episode featured Jack Ruby’s “Bored Stiff,” and by the time the ten-episode run was over, three more Jack Ruby songs would be featured in the series: “Hit and Run,” “Bad Teeth,” and their version of the Four Seasons’ “Beggar’s Parade.” More than forty years after their formation, and almost forty years since their dissolution, Jack Ruby had definitely arrived.

“I think he would have been immensely pleased to have heard Jack Ruby on Vinyl,” Chris Campion said. Campion credits Gray with providing the “attitude” of Jack Ruby, its sarcasm, nihilism and humor. According to Campion, Chris Gray was the one member of Jack Ruby who had the most interest in preserving the band’s legacy. If he was ever frustrated over the fact that Jack Ruby hadn’t achieved success when they were an active entity, it was something he had come to peace with. He was rather philosophical about his situation. “Chris was convinced that Jack Ruby was way ahead of anything else in New York City at that time,” Campion stated. “The only group he felt was doing anything as advanced as Jack Ruby, at that time, was Pere Ubu.”

Although Gray continued to play guitar and perform in various bands, such as The Hunting Party and Cattle, Jack Ruby held a special place in his heart. Why was it so important for Chris Gray to see to it that the story of Jack Ruby was preserved? And, perhaps more importantly, to get it as correct as possible? His former bandmate, Robin Hall, who referred to Gray as “the soul of Jack Ruby,” shed some light on the situation: “From a creative standpoint, the New York music scene of the 1970s was an amazing thing to be a part of. There was a lot of positive energy artistically speaking. Although we didn’t fully realize it at the time, we were all part of a musical movement, and it was a very exciting time. That’s something you don’t easily forget. When I contacted him in 2011, his memory of the Jack Ruby days was crystal clear. Personally, I believe that Jack Ruby was hugely important to Chris. Although I can’t say it for a fact, I believe it was the thing he fought for more than anything else in his life during the years I knew him in NYC.”

 * * *

Randy Cohen, Chris Gray’s former Jack Ruby bandmate, wrote the following article about his friend that appeared in the October 24th, 1977, issue of The Village Voice. (Used with permission from the author.)

1977-10-24-–-Village-Voice-pg56 copy

3 Responses to “Chris Gray – “The Soul of Jack Ruby””

  1. Spot on. Excellent Chris Gray – “The Soul of Jack Ruby” entry . The site is a stellar chronicle of an important “forgotten” band.

  2. When I think of Chris, and I do so quite often because he haunts me with music…I hear him impersonating Bullwinkle…Nothing up my sleeve… and Gotta get a new hat! Chris was half rock and roll raunch and half New England proper. It doesn’t get any better than that!

  3. Brad Whiting Says:

    I first met Chris when i stopped by a used record shop in Albany searching for a copy of the 45 High School Confidential by Jerry Lee Lewis in the original picture sleeve. He of course knew exactly what I was looking for and had it on hand. What I thought would be a quick ten minute stop on payday turned into a three hour conversation that sparked a friendship of many years,that lasted through two record store jobs and one band together – The Hunting Party. He was smart talented, generous and a good friend – one I still feel the loss of.

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