Haden Gregg, Starwood to play Basalt River Days
August 12, 2010
ASPEN – The night Haden Gregg first arrived in Aspen, in the fall of 1975, was not the greatest of moments in the history of the local music scene.
Gregg, a 25-year-old troubadour at the time, who had been traveling across Colorado as part of the two-man band the Hole in the Wall Gang, happened to land in town the very night that the Gallery was closing down. Located at the base of Aspen Mountain, where The Little Nell hotel now sits, the Gallery was instrumental in making Aspen a music hot-spot of the ’70s; the Eagles played some of their very first concerts there, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also rose to prominence on their gigs in the club. Gregg got to town just in time to see the place shut down.
To Gregg, it was more or less perfect timing. Despite the closing of the Gallery, there were still endless clubs to play: Paddy Bugati’s and Jake’s Abbey, the Red Onion and Andre’s. It was enough to keep a young musician working seven nights a week, which Gregg swears he did: “Honest. I was 25. I could do it,” he said. “I’d never try that now.”
Most momentous in Gregg’s timing was what was going on with a particular group of Aspen musicians. Home Brew, a talented band that included Bobby Mason, Bob Carpenter, Bernie Mysior and David Holster, was in a transition phase, changing their name and looking to beef up their sound. Playing the rounds of the local bars, Gregg had caught the attention of Home Brew, especially of Holster, one of the lead vocalists and songwriters. Within the year, Gregg, along with saxophonist Bryan Savage, had been invited to join the new band, Starwood. In what seemed like a flash, a musician with little history found himself singing middle harmonies, playing rhythm guitar, and contributing songs to a band that was a local legend, and about to go national.
“I was in heaven,” Gregg said. “Home Brew, that was the top band. I couldn’t believe what had happened to me – within a year we were signed to Columbia Records and touring with the Dirt Band.”
Just as his entrance into the band seemed to happen in a blink, so did the existence of Starwood. The band made a self-titled album for Columbia; it was recorded at the Caribou Ranch in Nederland, where Elton John, Stephen Stills, Rod Stewart and numerous others would make albums. The single “Burning Over You” was released to radio in 1977. The band toured with the Dirt Band for most of a year, appearing at Red Rocks; they finished 1978 with a show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, on a bill with Santana and Eddie Money. At the Roxy, in Hollywood, Ringo Starr came backstage and gave Holster his jacket.
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Still, Starwood didn’t quite hit rock-star status. They played a final gig, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, and never made another record, never toured again. By 1979, Gregg, who had basically never held a real job in his life, was working three days a week as a maintenance man at the pre-refurbished Hotel Jerome – “doing all the jobs no one else wanted to do,” he said – in exchange for a tiny room to live in.
“It just didn’t quite make it,” Gregg recalled of Starwood. “People got frustrated. It was turmoil between players. It was really silly, a combination of egos and stress. People are asking, ‘What are you going to do with your money?’ That was in our heads a lot.”
Had it been up to him, Starwood would have had a longer road. But the soft-spoken Gregg explains he was not one of the group’s leaders, and was a bit of a spectator to the band’s collapse.
“I was happy just to be there. I was a team player. I just wanted to keep on going,” he said. “We probably could have weathered that storm if we’d stuck together, but we didn’t.”
But like most memorable rock bands, including the Eagles (who have famously feuded and broken up) and the Dirt Band (who, instead of splitting up, have had a near-constant change in membership), Starwood has never quite been allowed to go under completely. The members who remain in Colorado – Gregg, Mason and Savage, who all live in the Roaring Fork Valley, and bassist Bernie Mysior, who lives in Boulder – are asked regularly to put together reunion gigs. The latest Starwood resurrection takes place Saturday, Aug. 14, at Basalt River Days.
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Gregg was raised around the historic town of Williamsburg, Va.; one of the few non-musical jobs he has ever held in his 60 years was as a tour guide, in knickers and a Thomas Jefferson suit, in Colonial Williamsburg, the section of the city that is preserved in its 18th century guise. At Williamsburg’s Christopher Newport College, he studied business.
“But all I wanted to do was play guitar and come out to Colorado,” Gregg said. “I heard John Denver on the radio, ‘Country Roads’ and ‘Rocky Mountain High.’ Virginia was beautiful, but Colorado – that was different.”
In 1972, Gregg’s girlfriend decided to transfer to the University of Northern Colorado, and Gregg jumped at the opportunity to drive her to Greeley. He eventually stayed, playing music around northern Colorado, making little money but enjoying the experience. Somehow, he managed to bypass Aspen until keyboardist Mark “Hot Rod” Schroeder, his partner in the Hole in the Wall Gang, kept talking up the town. On the way to Aspen, Gregg played a gig at Carbondale’s Mountain Fair before finally working his way to Aspen to play Hoot Night at Jake’s Abbey.
Settling into the music scene, Gregg got to know the guys in Home Brew, and sat in with them frequently. When Home Brew became Starwood, they sought a third harmony vocalist to join Holster and Carpenter, and asked Gregg to join them. He quickly bonded with Holster, and the two became a writing team, contributing four of the songs on “Starwood.” Gregg drank in the glory that was Aspen in the ’70s: their manager, Bill McEuen, brother of the Dirt Band banjoist John McEuen, also managed Steve Martin, who was a big part of the scene.
“It was long hair, just free. We’d sit around Bill’s house and Steve would just crack us up all day,” Gregg said. “I don’t think there will ever be a time like that in Aspen again. That was a special time in the ’70s, and I feel I was lucky to be there.”
As the ’70s came to a close, and Starwood went with them, Gregg moved to Los Angeles to play on Holster’s solo album. “Boy, that was hard, living in Hollywood, after Aspen,” he said. “I wasn’t used to the big businessmen. I was inexperienced. I didn’t like the wheeling and dealing of big record companies. I wasn’t ready. I was just a writer.”
Gregg stayed in L.A. long enough to sing harmony on “You’re Only Lonely,” a hit album by singer-songwriter J.D. Souther that also featured contributions from the Eagles, Jackson Browne and David Sanborn. But he was back in Aspen in 1980, and finding new niches in the music scene.
Almost immediately, he found a significant musical other in fellow singer-songwriter Jimmy Dykann. The two formed Blue Surge, then changed the name to Night Plane. A visitor from Santa Barbara became a loyal fan, then offered to manage and record them. A self-titled album, recorded in California with drummer Russ Kunkel, Toto’s Steve Lukather and members of Jackson Browne’s band, was made, but didn’t go far.
“It was great music, got some airplay,” Gregg said. “But we never got to tour. Lack of marketing from the record company, not good management. And the timing was bad. It was disco time, and everyone was doing disco.”
Around Aspen, though, Night Plane was “the band,” as Gregg puts it, winning a Battle of the Bands, and staying busy with club gigs, weddings and private parties. In the early ’90s, Gregg made a solo album, “Colorado Moon,” that featured many of the Starwood players. A prolific writer, Gregg wrote most of the songs from the two albums by the late local singer Tracy McLain.
A decade ago, Gregg struck up a musical and offstage relationship with singer Kelly Michel; for seven years they have played a weekly gig at L’Hostaria restaurant. (Michel will join Starwood on Saturday, singing the high harmonies.) He also leads the Double Diamond Band, a country outfit that has been the house band for two years at T-Lazy 7 Ranch. Both those gigs have been useful in making contacts for corporate parties, weddings and the like.
“He’s kept busy,” fellow musician Bobby Mason said. “He works a lot. He makes a living by playing music, and that’s the story. That’s an amazing thing.”
But Starwood, even 30-plus years after its near-miss with stardom, remains something special. “Starwood was a high point for all of us,” Mason said. The members have experienced bad health – heart stuff, replacement of parts; Gregg has had double hip surgery – but Gregg says the players are in fine musical shape: “Our voices are more mature. Tastier.”
“We’re like brothers,” he continued. “It’s like the back of our hands, playing those songs. Because we played them night after night after night in Aspen. I could do them in my sleep. I love it when we get together. I wish it could be more often.”
Gregg, though, doesn’t seem burdened with unfulfilled wishes. Living in El Jebel, he plays enough that he hasn’t had to consider other career paths. “If I had to get a day job, I could cut grass, work maintenance,” he said.
“It’s changed a lot,” Gregg said of the Aspen music scene. “But for some reason we’re still hanging in there. People our age are still having parties, dancing up a storm. I’m not sure how long that will last. But I have a little time left.”