With a song in his heart...
Madison resident performs original music at local nursing homes
Wednesday, February 12, 2014 10:00 AM
Pete Gross roams around inside his Madison hilltop apartment piecing together the components for his one-man show.
Pete Gross plays an echo harp held by a customized stand that also holds his microphones in place. Now 76, Gross plays every chance he can get, including stops at several local nursing homes where he entertains the residents with a collection of old-time gospel and country-western songs, as well as a few originals. (Staff photos by Ken Ritchiefirstname.lastname@example.org)
A clutter of instrument cases and amplifiers sits in the corner near the sliding window. There is just enough space between the heap and the nearby TV to make a comfortable walking path to the kitchen and dining room.
First, Gross, 76, unveils his echo harp and the peculiar contraption he attaches it to that resembles a spindle. The piece was once used at a theater but was given to Gross years ago.
"Over there on Michigan Road there was an old man who made this for me. I'm the only person in America that has one like this," he joked.
Next, out comes the acoustic guitar - a beautiful piece of woodwork with intricate patterns on each fret. Finally, Gross pulls out a homemade folding poster board with the words, "The Pete Gross Show"on the outside and a list of more than 200 gospel, country and original tunes on the inside.
The list of songs face him and the sign faces the audience, which on this day is a crowd of three during a midday show in Gross' living room.
His echo harp - an oversized harmonica with a side for the key of C and another for key of G - is the unmistakable focal point of his act.
Well, that and the man behind it.
"I'm the only person in Madison whose got this," Gross said beaming and gesturing to his harp. "Nobody's got my sound."
There's no doubt. And there's likely nobody in town more willing to share that sound with others. Gross uses the harp for catchy melodies and hooks while simultaneously maintaining a steady country-style strum on the guitar.
Five years ago, he started performing at local nursing homes, including the Jewel House - which is a stone's throw from his apartment - Thornton Terrace and The Waters of Clifty Falls. And if those guests are lucky enough, he might even bring along some baked goods for them to enjoy during the show.
Gross typically plays for about an hour with few breaks.
"I just like to play for people and give 'em all I've got," he said.
Originally from Vevay, Gross remembers playing with guitars since he was 5 years old, but said he seriously picked up the instrument when he was 11 in 1949.
That year, he sold a cow to raise money for a brand new Gibson guitar, which carried a price tag of $85. He was taught the guitar essentials - G, D and C chords - and then picked up the rest himself.
Gross' first show came at the ripe age of 12 at a local Christian church, where 50 guests stood to hear him play and sing. He admits he was "scared to death," but the butterflies were not enough to deter him from performing again.
In fact, it paved the way for a long relationship between Gross and the stage. As a youngster, his dad often would drive him around to play different spots -including a small show for soldiers at Camp Atterbury once.
"I've just loved music all my life," Gross said.
As an adult, Gross had his own five-piece group and once shared the stage with Country music Hall of Famer Merle Travis. Gross still has the picture of him and Travis on his wall. It's sort of his conversation piece and an item he shows new guests as soon as their feet touch the welcome mat.
In the picture, Travis is holding Gross' oldest daughter.
"I wouldn't part with that for anything," he said.
Professionally, Gross worked for local car dealerships detailing vehicles. In between his career and performing, Gross raised 14 children and now has more than 50 grandchildren.
"I would work all the time and play when I can," he said.
Oddly, he was one of the first members of his family to show interest in music and few have shown interest since. However, recently, Gross influenced his 9-year-old granddaughter Tyra Humphrey to take up guitar. Gross' eyes light up as he talks about Tyra's keen ear for music and ability to maintain a steady pace.
"Boy, she's really interested, big-time," he said. "And the people that listen to her, they really love her to death."
Gross has written a handful of originals, most of which came about in the 1970s. One of his favorite songs is an original, "Desert Rock." Gross' inspiration for the song came from a painting. The imagery sprang into words, a smooth melody and a catchy harp lead and chorus.
He finished it in 45 minutes.
Gross said he has never recorded any of his originals - a fact that didn't seem to disappoint him in the least. But he never misses a chance to share them, like a true entertainer.
All he needs is a stool, microphone, guitar ... and that trusty harp.