Bat McGrath died Tuesday night, in much the same way as he wrote and sang. With no drama, no fuss, quietly, at his mountainside home in Tennessee with his wife Tricia Cast, all on his terms.
A member of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, the 73-year-old McGrath was diagnosed with cancer on Dec. 12. A suspicious colonoscopy result led to the discovery that the cancer had spread throughout his liver. With treatment, it was estimated McGrath might have another 1½ years to live. But these procedures would seriously compromise his quality of life, and McGrath and Cast made the difficult decision to decline treatments. A decision, they were told, that would leave McGrath with mere months to live.
He made good use of that time. Some of it was nostalgia. In the early months of 2019, he joined longtime musical partner Don Potter to record a new version of The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me,” the first song the two ever song together when they were 15 years old in their native Glens Falls. But McGrath’s longtime friends, musicians and producers had even greater ambitions. With the clock ticking, they joined McGrath to assemble a collection of vintage McGrath, new versions of old songs, and a few recent live recordings. Nineteen in all, released in April and simply titled, “Bat McGrath.”
This was music that emerged from his teenage years and his Rochester band The Showstoppers, signed by Columbia Records music legend John Hammond. Music from McGrath’s years as a duo with Potter when they lived on a farm in Italy Valley outside of Naples, writing and playing with Chuck and Gap Mangione, Steve Gadd and Tony Levin, as all of them were launching their own careers. Music that filled Hyliemorris’ Alley, the Rochester coffeehouse owned by McGrath and Potter, with jams that went until 2 and 3 in the morning.
“Bat McGrath,” is also unreleased demos and music likely stored away in the mind as McGrath walked away from the music industry to work as a bodyguard and chauffer for the rock band Van Halen. It is a new version of “Come Some Rainy Day,” a hit he wrote for Wynonna Judd when he’d returned to writing music. It’s inspiration from working with the legendary country songwriter Harlan Howard, who advised Bat that, “If we don’t get a song by noon, we’ll go get a drink.” It’s music culled from his dozen albums, including releases with Potter. The later efforts were self-released solo CDs, hand packaged in their cardboard sleeves by music-industry rebels McGrath and Cast while sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle of red wine.
Their remote home in Tennessee suited McGrath, Cast and their three dogs. Cast worked on her quilts, with easy access to the airport in Nashville so she could fly to Los Angeles and continue her acting career; among other gigs, she spent 14 years on the soap “The Young and the Restless.”
And at their Tennessee home, McGrath would write; his songs were recorded by Kenny Rogers, Chely Wright and Earl Thomas Conley, among others. McGrath would coach aspiring songwriters there, and use his Kung-Fu training to teach them how to defend themselves with a punch to the chest, breaking the breastbone of an assailant.
McGrath wrote and sung many of the lyrics on what proved to be Mangione’s breakout album, 1970’s “Friends and Love.” Yet he remained absent from the Rochester scene for years afterward, until 2007 when Mangione and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra brought back McGrath, Potter and much of the old gang for two shows at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre celebrating “Friends and Love.” McGrath and Potter were reunited again in 2011 for a set of three more sold-out “Friends and Love” shows the Eastman.
Encouraged by the reception, McGrath began making twice-yearly returns to the area, playing house concerts, the Naples Grape Festival, clubs around town, The Little Theatre, and even an evening at the Rochester International Jazz Festival for a free show on a crowded Gibbs Street. When McGrath and Potter were inducted separately into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2013, their onstage reunion as a duo, after so many years of going their own way, was the stunning musical highlight of the night.
But with the cancer diagnosis, and knowing he was running out of time, McGrath returned to Rochester for what he suspected might be his final concert, January’s solo show at the Lyric Theatre. A frail-looking McGrath was greeted with a standing ovation from a sell-out crowd of 800 before he’d even played a note on his guitar.
Despite his fear that he might not make it into the spring, McGrath remained strong enough to return one last time to Rochester, an April show at the venue he’d been playing here most often in recent years, Lovin’ Cup Bistro & Brews. His body was dwindling, yet his voice remained strong.
But it’s that Lyric Theatre show that he’s left with us, with three of the songs from the evening included on “Bat McGrath.” Two of them, among his most popular, best reflect his time here: “Wegmans” and “From The Blue Eagle,” a celebration of a rural bar near Branchport. There is some of his trademark, easygoing stage banter as well, although a typically self-deprecating comment from that night did not make the final cut:
“A great artist knows when it’s time to leave the stage. Having said that, I’m not a great artist.”
McGrath leaves the stage survived by Cast, two children from a previous marriage, five grandchildren and a legion of fans captivated by his history here, and his music.
Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.
WXXI's Veronica Volk produced the audio report.