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Rock's best-kept secret

Joe Grushecky: Iron City legend, devoted teacher

By Laurie Ure

Joe Grushecky recently co-wrote a Grammy-winning song with Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce Springsteen

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Music critics place him among the best rock and rollers ever.

Over the past two decades, he's raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for all kinds of causes, including headlining a sold-out (in 57 minutes!) "Flood Aid" benefit concert last December in Pittsburgh with his good buddy Bruce Springsteen.

He's a musician, singer, songwriter, record producer, music arranger, recording artist -- and he leads what's been described in top music publications as "one of the best bar bands in America." Moreover, a song he co-wrote with Springsteen recently won a Grammy for best solo rock vocal performance ("Code of Silence").

Do you know him? Probably not.

Here's the lowdown on Pittsburgh's Joe Grushecky.

Grushecky, 56, is a highly acclaimed, almost-famous rock and roller, who, along with his band, "The Houserockers," still fills small and medium-sized nightclubs nationwide. They've also toured overseas a few times in venues packed with appreciative audiences.

But that's just a hobby. His day job involves teaching developmentally disabled, physically disabled and emotionally disturbed kids -- a high burnout career, and he's been doing it for more than 25 years.

Born in Pittsburgh to a musical family, Grushecky's father warned him to get a good education and have something to fall back on if the music gig didn't work out.

Armed with a special-education degree and many postgraduate credits, he works full-time at Pittsburgh's Wesley Highland School with exceptional children who have suffered hard lives at home.

They have severe emotional and mental problems, "everything from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia to post-traumatic stress," he says. "They're really the forgotten kids."

He describes them as "rebellious," with "an anti-authority thing" that he can relate to.

A rough day can involve a child who acts up due to a particularly bad weekend away from the structured environment of the school. "The next thing you know, you're involved in physical restraint with the kid and you're laying on the floor, and they're fighting you and punching you and kicking you and spitting at you."

Despite this, he's "made a lot of friends with these kids," some of whom look to him as a father figure. "It takes years to learn to interact with them appropriately and be able to guide them and help them."

Springsteen and Johnny Grushecky
Grushecky is friends with Bruce Springsteen, seen here playing with Grushecky's son Johnny.

At the end of the day, Grushecky goes home to his wife, Lee Ann, and his 16-year-old son, Johnny. (Nineteen-year-old daughter Desiree is a college freshman.)

Also waiting in his spare time is his music career.

Despite a lack of stardom or a big hit record, Grushecky hasn't missed a beat. He has a small but still growing devoted fan base, which he describes as "a pretty loyal bunch. I like to think they're a little more intelligent than the average rock fan. It takes a little bit more effort to be a Grushecky fan," he says with a laugh.

His discography is impressive. MCA released Grushecky's first album "Love's So Tough" in 1979 to tremendous critical acclaim. He and his band were then known as the Iron City Houserockers, and the collection was crowned the "debut record of the year" by Rolling Stone.

There was a second album, followed by a third and a fourth, all receiving magnificent reviews from Billboard, Creem, The Village Voice and other influential publications.

Grushecky was practically on fire with excitement. "We were this close to making the big, big time," he says, holding up two fingers an inch apart.

But the band never burst on to the national scene. "The sales never matched the reviews, ever," he says. The record company dropped the group; the band broke up. "It really took the wind out of our sails," Grushecky remembers.

Eventually he re-emerged with the current lineup called Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers and released several more CD's, some as a solo artist, others with the group. The music encompasses the singer's many influences, including blues, roots rock, hard rock, pop, and a hint of country.


The reviews? Great, as usual: "Passionate," "unique blue collar sensibility," "no bulls***."

The sales? Disappointing, confounding those familiar with the music.

Grushecky tries to explain it. "I don't know if the record company didn't know how to market us, or maybe we didn't have all cylinders firing at the same time."

Grushecky did win over one very impressive fan, though. He met Springsteen in New York City in 1980, and "to this day, we're close friends," says Grushecky. And they still collaborate.

Springsteen produced Grushecky's 1995 "American Babylon" CD, and toured on stage with the band for eight days.

Grushecky recruited Springsteen for "Flood Aid," last December's benefit concert that helped Western Pennsylvanians who suffered huge losses to the worst inland flooding in 100 years after Hurricane Ivan.

"He's the patron saint of causes," says Larry Kuzmanko, director of special events for Pennsylvania's Allegheny County parks department.

Joe Grushecky has a lot of rock and roll left in him. He's planning to release a double live CD/DVD before mid-year. He's got new songs ready for recording, and some songs inside him yet to be penned.

"I'm gonna keep on till I can't do it anymore," he says, inviting the curious to check out his music at

As he sings on his latest CD "True Companion," "I'm only in my fifties. I got a long, long way to go."

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