Parlor Showcase

THE BEAT GOES ON: Larry Grano—A Life in Music

Foolish Pleasures, mid-late 1980s (clockwise from top left): Kim Sturdivant, Robbie Scudero, Ed Cook, Grano, Gus Beaudoin.

Larry & Rick Nash. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Eve Selis Band in England: Grano, Selis, Marc Intravaia, Rick Nash.

The Steely Damned 2 at the Music Box.

Larry at Abbey Road Studios in London.

It’s true that Larry Grano is a master musician. Over the past four decades, Grano has built a rep as a sideman of choice and is one of the busiest players in San Diego’s burgeoning music community. A brilliant drummer with a keen sense of melody, a session powerhouse, a live vocal dynamo and mentor to many, he’s also that rare item, a San Diego native. Born at Mercy Hospital in October 1961. Grew up in the Allied Gardens area. Went to Patrick Henry High, class of ’79. He’s a serious player, but is also blessed with quick wit and a sense of humor that is second to none. A born raconteur, the comedy world’s loss is the music world’s gain.

The Quick Bio
While he was interested in music early on, even acquiring a snare drum during his early childhood years, sports came first for Grano and his friends. He soon returned to drums, however, taking lessons from Tom Boyd, best known for his work with the seventies-era band, Listen.

Grano cites his family for influencing his love of music. “There was my older sister, who was working at Shelley Manne’s night club, bringing home CTI records from artists who played there, as well as her ’60s influences. There was my older brother buying me albums and listening to his collection. And my Depression-era parents with their records from early swing to early country and West Coast jazz. The melting pot was hot!” he said good naturedly.

Since high school, Grano has been a mainstay of local stages. In the 1970s he performed with Wizard, while the following decade was spent with bands such as Artisan, 3-D, and Pranx.

The ’90s saw him join such acclaimed groups as Private Domain and the legendary, music-of-the-’60s tribute band, Rockola. The latter was known for its epic performances of rock classics at local theatres, complete with dozens of backing musicians. During this time frame he also began a long run with the Soul Persuaders.

The new century has found him performing with a long string of impressive names, including Mark DeCerbo & Four Eyes, the Steely Damned 2, and Eve Selis, as well as her backing band’s side combo, Back to the Garden.

Meanwhile, on the studio side, Grano can be heard in the Reelin’ in the Years Productions DVD of the film Soul to Soul on Atlantic Records. He also appears on numerous albums, from the likes of Jack Tempchin, Mike Keneally, Greg Douglass, Mark Jackson, Sister Speak, the Tighten Ups, Colin Clyne, and Brad Steinwehe’s Big Band Orchestra to name just a few.

More Than a Drummer
While best known as a drummer, Grano has many more facets than that. Although he has fronted bands and sung since the 1990s, his drum work over shadowed that part of his career. In recent years he has given his singing equal time, with the Steely Damned, the Soul Persuaders, and others. Anyone who has seen one of his bands live can attest that he’s as good a frontman as he is with the sticks. “It’s fun to watch someone lose their troubles because of what you’re playing,” he said. “When, for example, a Soul Persuader gig is on and the band is burning, I just turn to the audience and say, “Folks, I’m just the mole on Marylin’s face… just happy to be here”.

Which does he find more appealing: singing or drumming? “I don’t really have a preference about either,” Grano said. “For me, it’s been great to be able to fit into both roles. Beginning as a non-singing drummer, the task to learn was “support.” Support what was going on musically while minding your “music manners,” i.e., listening to everyone and interacting.” He cites time spent early in his career with long-running band Private Domain as important to his development as a singer. “On the frontman aspect, I learned an immense amount when I was asked to join the Soul Persuaders,” he recalled. “My tenure began at [now defunct downtown night spot] Dicks Last Resort. I was in Private Domain at the time and I got to see their guy, [frontman/guitarist] Paul Schaffer, wade into the rowdy folks at Dicks and work them. I tried to emulate some of what I saw working, but it didn’t always come across. It took years of flight time on stage to be able to know how to read a crowd and get the most out of the situation.”

In the Studio
While currently playing with numerous groups, he is also hard at work on music that’s closer to home. “And my latest project…. is me!” Grano joked. “I’ll be heading to the studio with my Back to the Garden team, which is Marc Intravaia, Rick Nash, and Sharon Whyte, with Jim Soldi at the wheel, to cut an untitled EP.” In fact, the new music is being recorded at Soldi’s home studio in Ramona. “We have one song already finished that my friend Rich Wiley wrote, called “Come On Over Baby,” which features the great John Rekevics. Another song that will be featured is called “In Control,” written by Marc Intravaia. He and his wife Paula have been writing for the last few years, but I’m not sure of her participation with this particular song. Next is an old blues tune I’ve arranged. The song, “Eyesight to the Blind,” is a great blues song with fun lyrics. It was used in the Who movie Tommy and that’s where I first heard it, played by the band with Eric Clapton. It’ll be a four-song EP, so it will probably have “Crazy Love” by Van Morrison on it, too. It goes over well live, so I thought I’d put it on.”

It is hoped the EP will be available in time for Grano’s tour of England with Eve Selis July 4–21. In fact, Grano credits Selis with getting him started on his solo efforts. “First off, I’m getting help from my friends in the backing band for Eve Selis. And I cannot thank her enough for the support and honesty in the effort she made to help me realize that there is interest for my project. Ever since I joined her band, she has been generous with sharing the stage. And over in Europe, mainly England, I’ve built a small fan base that has been great to connect with whenever we travel there.”

The Right Stuff
Grano considers finding the right tools for the right job to be a big part of planning any project, so it comes as no surprise that when it comes to drums he has a wide palette. “I own six drum kits,” he said. “One is a collector’s item called Trixons. They are featured on the back of Elvis Costello’s album Trust. I picked them up from a good friend, Dan Astor.” The two drum kits that get the most use are made by Yamaha. “One is oak, the other is maple. Either one of these kits sounds fantastic in the studio as well as live.” Versatility is important. “When I’m performing different genres, I need a versatile instrument. One that I can use on many different styles, and all I have to do is change the tuning. I can’t tell you how many compliments I’ve gotten from engineers live in front of house people and other musicians about these instruments. Then I have a collection of snares and cymbals to fit all styles that I play.”

Does he play any instruments besides drums? “I have a piano at home and I use it for vocal warm ups and the like, and I’ll play a little,” he said. “I don’t really work at it as much as I should. I used to play bass guitar much more often. In fact, I recorded some demos on a friend’s material and had a good time with that but that was long ago.”

“What do I like about the drums? I like the fact that I can hit stuff and not go to jail!” he joked. “Honestly, I don’t know why. I think the drums chose me.”

Who’s On First? A Band Roll Call
Since the new millennium Grano has become one of the most in-demand players in town, the only limit seemingly being how many days there are in a week. “What can I say, I like to keep busy,” Grano deadpans. It’s an understatement. A band list roll call includes some of the most popular combos in town, starting with Eve Selis. And when it’s not an Eve Selis show, the five of us call it Back to the Garden. The latter has been building a following for years in the Encinitas-Leucadia-Carlsbad area …and yes, Poway communities, with our tribute shows. The Beatles, Clapton, Woodstock, Laurel Canyon, to name just a few. And with a stellar lineup that includes guitarist Marc Intravaia, there’s nothing but great times with that crew.”

Concurrently, he is also the front man and singer for the ten-piece horn band, the Soul Persuaders. “They’ve been playing since 1989. I joined in the early ’90s and have been at it since then.” Grano’s soulful vocals can also be heard with acclaimed tribute band, the Steely Damned 2. “I was asked by Hank Easton if I’d be interested in the singing position with the most recent incarnation of the band,” he recalled. “I had been in it years ago as a second drummer/percussionist. Back then the lineup went to Manhattan where we performed at Le Bar Bat with some folks to celebrate Steely Dan’s induction to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. It was my opportunity to watch Bernard Purdie up close and take notes! Nowadays, I stand up front and wear a suit! It’s a great vocal challenge for me to move from blues-based pop material to the sophisticated nuances of the Steely stuff.”

Grano also performs in Coyote, “a country band with some folks who have been playing the genre forever. It’s a great group of people and it’s always fun. Plus, I get to listen to Cathie Hyatt, one of the best singers I’ve heard in this town.” You’ll also find him in a James Taylor tribute project, Mudslide Slim. “Mike Gonzales does a great job performing the material and the band is solid all around. The tracks he chose are mainly live stuff with [session drummers] Steve Gadd or Carlos Vega originally behind the kit. Some of that stuff sits back at around 50-60-70 bpm and is a challenge to keep from plodding. I love it! Not everything sits at 120-130!”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. You never know where you might come across Grano in the local clubs. “I do get calls to sub or specialty shows,” he said. “Folks like the Tighten Ups, the Siers Bros., or Joe Rathburn at Folkey Monkey will call and I look forward to those situations. In fact, I’m fielding calls from three different groups as we speak.” He also continues to work on recording sessions. “The studio work I’ve done over the last few years has mainly been with producers Alan Sanderson [Rolling Stones, Elton John, etc.] and Jeff Berkley [Jason Mraz, Steve Poltz, etc.]. Both are great at capturing a performance and have helped me become a better studio musician.”

Most would find his schedule hectic, but Grano is happy to keep busy. “In all that I’ve listed, I find these folks to be my “musical family,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to be excited to go to work!”

Those who work with Grano, have nothing but high praise for both his skills and his demeanor. “I use him on every project I can get him on,” said producer Alan Sanderson. “He is very well rounded in all genres of music, so he brings something to the recording process every time. We recorded songs for an Eve Selis’ album and he was a big part of that. I’ve probably done a couple of dozen projects where he is the drummer. Everyone that has hired Larry has been over the moon with his performances. I’m glad we crossed paths,” Sanderson pauses. “Not to mention the guy has a great attitude and is a good hang in the studio.”

Producer-musician Jeff Berkley concurs. “Larry is pure groove,” he said. “He has his own character and style. It’s infused in everything he does. Even when he’s mimicking another drummer’s part, you can still tell it’s Larry because his infectious groove finds the perfect pocket every time.” Berkley notes he has played with Grano both in the studio and on tour. “As far as recording goes he always comes up with the exact right part. He knows how to work with artists and producers to achieve whatever the song is asking for. Very often, he comes up with something really unique that no one else would’ve thought of.”

All That Jazz
More recently Grano has indulged a love for jazz, performing with Big Time Operator, a 16-piece big band “with two great singers,” Grano said. “It’s classic American Songbook stuff.” His intro to jazz came through a quest for new experiences.

“I’d been in groups throughout my career, playing both covers and originals. When I left Rockola, I made a decision not to join a band for a while and test the waters of independence. For me, it’s made a great difference. As a player, I’ve met and worked with a lot of folks I’d never met before, and some I had only in passing.”

He mentions that his stint in Rockola, roughly 1996–2005, followed him long after his departure from the band, due to the band’s high visibility during his tenure and later on, to continued press use of vintage band photos. “You get into a popular band and that happens,” Grano said. “Being in a band like that is a nice calling card. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, but after becoming known for a particular sound, I wanted to break away from that.” For lack of a better word, Grano feared being musically typecast.

A post-Rockola jazz gig at long-gone Little Italy music venue, Anthology stands out for him. Grano found himself performing before a crowd that included some notable musicians. “I ran into some folks,” Grano said good naturedly. No one was there to pass judgment, but a musician’s reputation is based on the opinions of other players. “And I realized that if I don’t get this right to the satisfaction of certain jazzers, I’m going to be typecast as ‘Ringo.’ I’m going to be stuck in the Ringo box forever.” He passed the audition. “Sometime later a musician who was in the audience that night told me, “If we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes, we wouldn’t have believed it.” And I was playing jazz, big band, and Afro-Cuban stuff.”

Grano is a firm believer in putting in hard work to expand one’s musical horizons. “I’d spent four years with the Coronado Big Band and wanted more knowledge. At the age of 50, I signed up for extended studies at SDSU and passed an audition with Bill Yeager. I cannot tell you enough about the growth and how much I lean on the tools I picked up from that genre. It’s my opinion that all musician’s should learn an unfamiliar genre so as to understand its rules and etiquette to bring home to their favorite styles. No knowledge is wasted!”

On the Road
While Grano is humble about his accomplishments, with four decades behind him, he has more than a few great memories, including backing up folks like Denny Laine (Wings, Moody Blues), Joey Molland (Badfinger), Gordon Waller (Peter & Gordon), and the like, at Beatles conventions. Then, there’s the time saxophonist Tom Scott sat in with the Soul Persuaders. When pressed, he cites three other favorite moments. “Playing with guitar legend Albert Lee at Anthology and watching him look back at the band with delight as we’re hanging onto “Country Boy” at 300bpm,” he recalled. “Also, opening up for the Everly Brothers at Humphreys and getting to chat with Phil and Don. And hiring 40 pieces of the San Diego Symphony and playing the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, cover to cover with Rockola at California Center for the Arts in Escondido. When they started playing “A Day in the Life,” it gave me chills.”

More recently, he considers playing to European audiences with Eve Selis to be a highlight. “It doesn’t get better than performing with Eve and Marc at Abbey Road studios for a U.K. Cancer Foundation charity and spotting Cynthia Lennon in the crowd…,” he said. He notes one other event he considers special. “Singing the national anthem and watching my son’s reaction when he found out it was me.”

Has Grano ever considered leaving San Diego for potential greener pastures? Yes, he has. “I left San Diego in the late 1980s after I had suffered a car accident that left my upper back twisted and in need of a chiropractor,” he said. “I lived up in North Hollywood for six to seven months and answered advertisements for drummers in the local papers. When I saw the drummer for [a hit rock band] Ambrosia looking for work, that’s when I knew I was up against it.” Things did not go uphill from there. “Then I went to the union, and they basically said that someone had to die before things started moving for new players. Not very encouraging.” The other factor in Grano’s life was that he had a son, Philip,who was very young. “I needed to be around for him and so I did my best to make that a priority. Working Tuesday through Saturday, 9 p.m.–1:30 a.m., and then sometimes working that same schedule on Sundays and Mondays made it difficult.” Fortunately, his parents were able to help and he was able to continue to play. He soon returned. “San Diego is my hometown,” he said. “I thought it was a great place to grow up, and to raise a family.”

With a now adult son, he reflects on the long journey. “I can’t tell you how much joy it brings me to see my son healthy and happy and on a good path, knowing the struggles that we had early on and seeing them through to the successes that we have now. He has become a well-respected fine-dining waiter and a level-one sommelier. When he was finding out what he wanted to do with his life, I told him I would do my best to help him the same way my folks helped me with my passion. I feel as parents, we all have that responsibility to the people we bring into this world to make sure they have at least the same chances at success and happiness that our parents gave us, and even more so.”

Beyond his work as a musician, he has also mentored generations of musicians. Grano is happy to share the info he’s picked up over the decades. “I’ve taught for some time. Right now, I do have a couple of students that I see. I also just left a two-and-a-half-year stint at Valley Center High School, being their assistant Drumline coach,” he said. “I love to teach people who love to learn. It’s such a great feeling to see a student gain ground on a lesson and finally watch them reach their goal.”

As a scene veteran does Grano have advice for future generations of musicians? “When I was kid in Allied Gardens, I was one of smallest on the block,” he said. “If I wanted to play sports with the bigger kids, I had to beat one of them. After I beat that guy, I found someone better to challenge myself. And so on. Get me? So, with music, I joined a band wherein everyone had better skills than I. I watched how they approached practicing, how they got ready to perform and how they handled themselves during both good and bad times on stage.” He stresses the importance of live performance. “I was lucky enough to watch folks like Warren Wiebe, Brian Price, Richard Augustine, Gus Beaudoin, Ed Cook, and Don Auten work it five nights a week 9 p.m.–1:30 a.m. I cannot tell you what flight time/experience brings. I feel bad for folks with all these one nighters. There are some great young musician/songwriters in our scene. I’d like to see them get more stage time. Because if they’re this good now, there’s no limit to what they can achieve. More live venues, please!”

Since he has a foot in both camps, does he prefer live or studio work? “Yes,” he joked. “Honestly, it’s all good. The work in the studio really gets your playing under a microscope, so it allows you to see where you’re weak, what your strengths are, and how well you can adapt. Meanwhile, live stuff is great because of the immediate response an audience gives.” What kinds of gigs make him nervous? “Weddings and funerals,” he said. “It’s a highly emotional state for both functions. People are looking for that perfect moment and you need to deliver. It’s an honor to be asked to perform at either.”

Coming Attractions
Future plans for Grano include more touring and recording with others, but he’s still working on what’s next for his own musical endeavors. “For now, this EP is just to introduce myself in the area of fronting my own project,” he said. “There might be a release party and performances. But right now, there’s a lot of irons in the fire. Along with all my playing, I’m delving into the realm of consulting with some companies that are connected to music in different ways. One is an electronic drum company in Carlsbad called Muzzio Drums. Another is looking into the possibility of virtual concerts and the holograph industry. Very exciting stuff.”

Even the briefest of conversations with Larry Grano will reveal that he’s had, and is having, the time of his life making music. “Honestly, I just want to convey how much fun it is to be in my home town, playing music for a living and working with great people” he said. It’s clear Grano is happy with his career choice. “I enjoy sharing what I do with the folks who supported me on my path. This is all I’ve done for a living since getting asked to leave Patrick Henry High,” he mused. “To have the ability to move someone emotionally through playing your instrument or singing is a feeling like no other. I’ve had great friends and mentors to help me. Too many to list here. All I can do now is to honor them by paying it forward.”

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