LEE — He inspired a generation of children and crackerjack musicians alike. He performed at the White House several times, at the United Nations and Madison Square Garden, too. The “Muppet Show” created a Muppet in his image.
Beloved Berkshires troubadour David Grover died Wednesday evening from complications after a car accident in upstate New York. He was 69.
The news has shocked family, friends and fans, including those who knew Grover, the rock musician; Grover, the performer for children; and Grover, the local man with the laid-back spirit geared toward kindness.
“It’s hard to imagine the Berkshires without David Grover being a part of it,” singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie wrote in an email to The Eagle. Grover performed for years with Guthrie in the band Shenandoah.
“He was a beautiful, beautiful man,” said Kathy Jo Grover, David’s wife of 17 years. “I just want to make sure that the people who read this know that I know how much they loved him, and he knew how much they loved him.”
Our Opinion: Mourning the loss of a community troubadour
Kathy Jo told The Eagle that, on Saturday, a car Grover was driving was rear-ended in Utica, N.Y. He died just after 9 p.m. Wednesday at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica.
“He had a head injury,” she said, “but he also had a number of underlying health conditions. Just, things went bad. They weren’t able to save him.”
A ‘singular’ pleasure
Grover, a Pittsfield native, told The Eagle in a 2009 interview that he began playing music at age 12. He never stopped.
A percussionist he later would collaborate with, Terry Hall (later known as Terry A La Berry), of Lenox, recalled first meeting Grover at the Berkshire Playhouse.
“We were both 13, and we both got hired to play for ‘Threepenny Opera,’” he said. They would go on to play in high school bands at gigs that included the Pittsfield Boys and Girls Club, and ethnic clubs and armories throughout the county.
In 1974, Grover and A La Berry formed Shenandoah, a local group of musicians who, for six years, would serve as Guthrie’s shaggy-haired backup band. Guthrie said he and Grover first began playing music together in October 1975, at a benefit concert to build a medical facility in Worthington.
When Guthrie made an appearance on “The Muppet Show” in 1979 and sang “Grocery Blues,” that’s clearly a Muppet David Grover stepping up to play the jaunty lead guitar.
“It was in the days when he had kind of a long mustache, and the glasses are kind of the giveaway,” Kathy Jo said, referring to Grover.
“We continued to work together through the 70s, 80s and 90s,” Guthrie said. “In other words, it was a lifetime of travel, concerts, recordings and appearances. David was an excellent guitarist and a fabulous arranger.”
Celebrated songwriter Aaron Schroeder, who had worked with Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and Randy Newman, said in an interview years ago that working with Grover was one of the “singular” pleasures of his career.
In the meantime, after getting married to his first wife and becoming a father, David left Shenandoah because he didn’t wish to be on the road, A La Berry said.
A new path
Inspired by his daughter, Jessica, Grover started playing music for children beginning in 1983.
According to the 2009 Eagle story, by 1990, Grover had overcome a drug problem, had quit drinking and was delving more into children’s music. He also scored movies, toured China and formed a collaboration with Schroeder, the songwriter.
Grover, who in recent years had lived in Lee, had been compared to Mister Rogers, James Taylor, Paul Simon and Raffi, but Guthrie prefers another description.
“He was a musician’s musician in that he could play with anyone, whatever their particular style. He could do it all, and he did,” said Guthrie, who lives in the Berkshire County town of Washington and last played with Grover in August 2018, at The Guthrie Center in Housatonic.
In 1989, Grover created a PBS television show, “Grover’s Corner,” that taught children about music. This show led to the 1991 PBS special “Chanukah at Grover’s Corner,” which aimed to teach children of all faiths about the traditional Jewish festival of lights.
Both shows received many honors and awards, including a Gabriel Award from the National Association of Catholic Broadcasters, an Iris Award, and an Emmy nomination for Best Children and Youth Special.
‘We fell in love’
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Kathy Jo first met Grover at the former Berkshire Public Theater in Pittsfield about 30 years ago, she said. He was playing guitar in the orchestra pit for a performance in which she was acting.
“He was getting a band together, and he liked the way I sang,” she recalled. “So, he showed up on my doorstep with an electric bass guitar, and he gave me a lesson, and he said, ‘I’d like you to be in this band.’ And I said, ‘OK.’
“He slowly taught me to play, and we sang, and we formed the band, and we traveled, and, yes, we fell in love, because he was the most amazing person I ever met.”
Along with percussionist A La Berry, they formed the folk band David Grover and the Big Bear Band, which lasted for about 18 years. In recordings and live performances, they geared the music to children and included themes about family, traditions, holidays, environmental responsibility, personal responsibility and general silliness.
Kathy Jo recalled a performance in Albany, N.Y., when one little girl, whom Grover never had met, approached the stage during the middle of a show.
“She just walked up onstage, and he was sitting in a chair, and she couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old. She just scooched him over in the chair and sat down next to him. She didn’t want to sing. She didn’t have any requests. She just wanted to sit with him, and it was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.
“He was real, and he was honest, and he was amazing,” Kathy Jo said.
During the Bill Clinton years, Grover played several years in a row at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
With his good friend, the fellow legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, Grover, along with Kathy Jo and A La Berry, performed at the United Nations, for the kickoff of the International Year of Freshwater in 2003.
‘Kind and gentle soul’
As a performer for children, Grover was a ray of Saturday morning sunshine for a couple of generations that attended his live performances at the Town Hall Gazebo in Great Barrington, and he was a longtime staple at community events around the Berkshires.
“I’m 24 now and remembering when I was young. David would come to my preschool,” said Amber Renee, of Pittsfield. “I remember a fond memory of him calling me up to sing ‘The Shirt Song’ with him.”
Justine Curry, of Bennington, Vt., who had “the privilege of being on one of his albums and taped concerts,” said Grover was a big part of her childhood and a “kind and gentle soul.”
“I can’t even imagine how many young lives he has touched over the years,” she said. “He will be greatly missed, and I hold these memories very near to my heart.”
“He was probably one of the greatest guitar players of anyone I’ve seen around here,” said Jay Fruet, of Pittsfield, a music teacher. “I looked at him as a superstar. He would sit me down and teach me things, finger pickings, and oh, my God, he was incredible, and he didn’t hoard his talent. He was willing to share it all.”
Said Fruet: “Every time I was fortunate enough to meet with him, I always thought, ‘This cat is so big, he has own Muppet!’ “
Kathy Jo said that when Grover would perform, he had no set list. He had “thousands of songs in his head, maybe tens of thousands.” He knew all the chords. He knew all the lyrics. The motto of their band, she said, was: “Be ready for anything.”
Those who made it a point to catch Grover’s weekly Thursday evening gigs at The Lion’s Den in Stockbridge grew accustomed to the massive musical terrain Grover would traverse. Harry Nilsson, Tim Hardin, the Ink Spots, Grover’s own originals, you name it.
John Miller, a New York City studio bassist who has played with Michael Jackson, Madonna, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Frank Sinatra, to name only a few, said he first met Grover in the mid-1980s. Miller just had purchased a home in Mount Washington and was itching to play.
“I put my bass in the car and was roaming around the Berkshires,” he said. “I went to The [Lion’s] Den, and I saw him. He was playing. I really responded to his musicality and his whole spirit.”
During a break in Grover’s set that evening, Miller introduced himself and asked Grover if he could grab his bass and join him onstage. The two hit it off. Every Thursday for the next 25 years or so, Miller would leave New York at 2 p.m. in order to make it to The Lion’s Den to join Grover onstage.
“When you respond to someone’s music, you respond to, for lack of a better word, their aura,” Miller said. “He was wonderful. It’s a huge loss for the Berkshires.”
This summer marked Grover’s 40th year performing children’s concerts at 10 a.m. Saturdays during July and August at the gazebo. His last performance at the gazebo, in August, marked his last public performance, Kathy Jo said.
The family has started a fundraising page, gofund.me/66644790, to help with finances.
In addition to his wife, Grover leaves behind a stepson, three grandchildren, three sisters and two brothers.
He was predeceased by his daughter, Jessica. Her death in 2018, at age 42, “devastated him,” Kathy Jo said.
“He very sincerely loved people just the way they were,” she said. “Everybody.”