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Music Is Staff of Life for Bandleader

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If it’s true, as the Swahili proverb says, that music is food for the soul, bandleader Val Grayson seems proof positive it does a body good as well.

Grayson turns 85 Friday, but anyone meeting him or watching him conduct his orchestra Sunday at the Glendale YWCA will swear those numbers are transposed.

“Music is better than any medicine I know,” he said. “I can’t remember how many times I got out of a sickbed, went out and played a job and got 100% better.”

Grayson’s near-lifelong association with music began in an Illinois orphanage. At age 9, with both parents dead, he and the two younger of his five siblings were sent to Mooseheart, a residential school operated by the International Moose organization.

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“Mooseheart was our savior,” he said, recalling the facility where every youngster learned a trade, such as carpentry or drafting. Grayson “got pretty far” in training to be a sheet metal worker and graduated as a trained stenographer.

But in his case, it was the extracurriculars of symphony orchestra and dance and concert bands that led to a career. He graduated knowing how to play clarinet and saxophone, then headed north to Chicago. There he dropped his given name of Foss Micheli and organized the first Val Grayson Orchestra (“The name was easier to pronounce than Micheli”), which toured the Midwest during the 1930s and ‘40s.

In 1953, he moved west with his wife, Adeline, and two sons, Ken and Dennis, and 3,000 albums from a Chicago record store he had just sold to the Crescenta Valley area, where he rented 800 square feet of storefront on Honolulu Avenue in Montrose.

For the next 35 years, the Val Grayson Orchestra was on hiatus. “My wife wanted me home nights,” Grayson said.

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But Grayson’s Tune Town was a magnet for area music lovers, from teenagers looking for the latest Fats Domino and Everly Brothers 45-rpm singles to adults buying LPs of Bing Crosby and Julie London.

(Along the way, he reconnected with a banker from across the street who remembered Grayson’s orchestra playing at his college graduation in Dubuque, Iowa, in the 1940s.)

As the chain stores gradually took over the record and tape business, Grayson built up instrument sales and music lessons. In the mid-1980s, the family opened a two-story, 6,500-square-foot building, including half a dozen practice studios, which anchors the west end of the Montrose Shopping Park. A community fixture, the store also sponsors Musician of the Year awards at Crescenta Valley High and Rosemont Middle schools in La Crescenta.

After Grayson’s wife died in 1989, and with his sons working in the business, he decided to rejuvenate the orchestra. Grayson, 10 musicians and singer Michie Sahara perform big band dance music at least one Sunday a month from 2:30 to 6 p.m. at the Glendale YWCA.

The orchestra will return to the newly refurbished Glendale Civic Auditorium on July 26. The remodel included sanding and refinishing the building’s floating dance floor. That plus Glenn Miller- and Benny Goodman-era sounds should draw generations of listeners and dancers alike, Grayson said.

“People who don’t have music don’t know what they’re missing,” he said. “It’s the best thing there is.”

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Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please send suggestions on prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338. Or e-mail them to valley@latimes.com.

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