The First Time –
“It just completely floored me!”

Michael Gray

I still remember the first time I heard Stephane Grappelli on record. I was living in Alaska and having a beer at the University Pub in Fairbanks. The tune was on a Paul Simon record of all places, a simple duo with Paul Simon on acoustic guitar and Stephane on violin. It was called “Hobo’s Blues” and it just completely floored me. The smooth effortless technique, the beautiful tone, that elegant swing…..I could go on and on with ever increasing accolades. Suffice it to say, it was one of those revelatory moments that happen only all too infrequently. My thoughts then are the same as now…WOW!

After leaving home in Philadelphia in 1971 and hitchhiking to Alaska, I had fallen in love with the musical culture of rural Alaska, in particular the string music of the Appalachians that was one of the hallmarks of the social network of a bunch of young kids loosely involved in the Alaskan Back- to- the- Land movement of the early 1970’s. I had just started playing the fiddle and had taught myself some traditional dance tunes and learned as much as I could through osmosis; listening on my battery operated cassette deck to as much “old timey” music as I could get my hands on, going to square dances and watching other fiddlers and just groping and stumbling my way into playing the violin. I learned everything by ear initially as reading music wasn’t really an option…I had no printed music available.

Hearing “Hobo’s Blues” certainly changed that approach. Not immediately though….. that duo recording was so beyond my capabilities that I didn’t know where to start. To begin, Stephane was playing in F, definitely not one of the usual old time fiddle keys of G, D or A. Yikes! That became Question #1, how did he do that? Question #2, that vibrato thing he was doing, it wasn’t classical sounding, it wasn’t non-existent as in an old timey fiddle tune…..how did he do that? It sounded to me then, and still does, like a jazz singer at the end of a vocal phrase, imbuing those phrases with his own personality.

And, as luck would have it, those questions are still there. Forty years later, I still am a perennial student of great soloist’s like Stephane, Joe Venuti and Didier Lockwood and still manage to transcribe a solo of Stephane’s every now and then. So, whenever you get a chance, go have a beer and listen to some music. You never know what might happen.

All the best and see you all in Sun Valley,

Michael Gray