Growing up in Lowell, Gary Hoey always loved Christmas. Opening presents. Santa Claus. The holiday cartoons. The music.
It was his mother, Barbara, who convinced him, nearly a decade into his music career, to put out a Christmas album. And on Nov. 23, in Pennsylvania, he'll kick off his 23rd "Ho! Ho! Hoey Rockin' Holiday Tour," which will take him all the way to the West Coast -- but not before hitting Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, N.H., on Saturday, Dec. 1.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's take it all the way back to the beginning, the fateful day in 1987 when a 26-year-old Gary Hoey was at home listening to the once-pioneering rock 'n' roll station WBCN -- what self-respecting, ax-wielding, rock-loving kid wasn't back then? -- and Charles Laquidara (or was it Mark Parenteau?) was interviewing one Ozzy Osbourne.
In 1987, Ozzy hadn't quite become the caricature of himself that he would when he and wife Sharon decided to make the family reality-TV stars. He had embarked on a successful solo career after being sacked by Black Sabbath and had put out three huge albums -- "Blizzard of Ozz," "Diary of a Madman" and "Bark at the Moon" -- the first two with guitar virtuoso Randy Rhoads. But Rhoads died in a plane crash in March 1982 at the tender age of 26, and after a couple other guitarists had filled in, Ozzy was looking for a permanent replacement and was talking about it on 'BCN.
Big shoes to fill, indeed. In a short time, Rhoads had firmly established himself as perhaps the next Hendrix or Van Halen. Listen to "Crazy Train" and you'll see why.
When Ozzy said he needed a new guitarist for his upcoming tour, many were listening. In a house 30 miles away, on 18th Street in the Centralville section of Lowell, Gary Hoey was one of them. Hoey had bought his first guitar -- a Les Paul -- for $450 at Russo's with money he had saved from his Sun paper route. (Years later, he would be offered $15,000 for that Les Paul. He still has the guitar.)
He had been learning and playing ever since, had played outside Berklee College of Music in Boston so he could talk to the musicians coming in and out of the place, pick their brains, maybe play a little for them.
"I always wanted to go to Berklee, but we could never afford for me to go there," Hoey says. "So my mother told me to go hang out outside Berklee, talk to the people. I learned to read music, met a guy there who said, 'Buy this book, this book and this book.'"
When he heard Ozzy on the radio, he sprang off his bed, dialed 'BCN, threw the phone on the floor -- "curly cord and everything" -- and played his heart out.
Ozzy loved what he heard. His manager got Hoey's phone number and a week or so later, Hoey got the call: Ozzy wants you to come to L.A. to audition for the band.
"I thought it was a joke, but Ozzy's manager was calling to say they were gonna fly me out to L.A. to audition for Ozzy's band," Hoey says while sitting in his studio over his garage at his home in Pelham.
Hoey went west, dreams (nightmares?) of Ozzy in his head.
Long story short, Hoey didn't get the gig. Dude named Zakk Wylde did, and he's still with the so-called Prince of Darkness to this day.
But Ozzy was encouraging.
Says Hoey, a huge fan of Sabbath and their guitarist, Tony Iommi, "They made me realize I had something. I mean, for Ozzy to say, 'You sound pretty good,' isn't too bad, you know?"
Armed with that encouragement, Hoey came back to Lowell and resumed his job teaching at Cambridge Music Center, but his mind was out west.
"I saved up $17,000 and showed up on Hollywood Boulevard one day. One of the first people I met was Jani Lane, the singer of a band called Warrant. It was a real exciting time. Lots of bands were getting signed then."
He was still teaching guitar and jamming with some other guys, including ex-Quiet Riot drummer Frankie Banali. They formed a band called Heavy Bones and released a self-titled album that went nowhere and broke up.
"Richie Zito, who had worked with Cheap Trick and The Cult and a bunch of others, spent $500,000 making that record, and it totally flopped," Hoey says.
The main reason? "Grunge happened."
Nirvana was certainly not nirvana for hair bands.
After Heavy Bones called it quits, Hoey kept his ax in the game, shredding with the best of them. In 1993, now on his own, he recorded an instrumental album, "Animal Instincts" that was highly regarded and spawned a surprise hit song, a cover of "Hocus Pocus" by the Dutch rock band Focus.
Hoey's version of "Hocus Pocus" -- a late addition to the album -- rocketed into the Billboard Top 5 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and became one of the most frequently played songs on rock stations that year.
"I actually met the guy who wrote the song, a guy named Jan Akkerman, years later when I was playing in Holland," Hoey says. "He came backstage and told me thanks for making him all that money."
With his newfound success as a rock instrumentalist, Hoey found himself in demand.
Bruce Brown, who in 1966 had directed the seminal surf movie, "The Endless Summer," in 1966, was making a sequel, "The Endless Summer II," and asked Hoey to write some music for it.
"My manager at the time was a surfer, so he got me to meet with the director," Hoey says. "I thought I might get a song or two on the soundtrack. I sent him, like, 17 ideas, and he called and said, 'I think you should score the whole movie.'"
So he did, and the next thing he knew, he started getting a reputation as a surf-rock guitarist. And, more lucratively, as a soundtrack composer.
He has written music for ESPN and songs for several movies, including "Deck the Halls," and "one of the 'Beethoven' the dog movies, I think the third one."
"I'd get a song in here and there, what I call mailbox money -- you know, when you don't know how you're gonna put food on the table and you walk down to the mailbox and there's a check from a movie or something and it's, like, 'Yes! We can eat for another month.'"
With some money in the mailbox -- and in the bank -- it was time for Hoey's next reinvention of himself. And once again, just like with the decision to hang out at Berklee, it was his mother pointing him in the right direction.
"In 1995, my mother said, 'You should make a nice Christmas album. So I recorded 'Silent Night.' Then I said, 'What if I tried to add some rock 'n' roll to Christmas?'"
This was, Hoey notes, a year before Trans-Siberian Orchestra formed to make instrumental rock Christmas music a holiday staple.
"In '95," he says, "no one was doing instrumental rock Christmas music. I mean, you had Bon Jovi doing a Christmas song, Bruce doing a Christmas song, everyone was doing Christmas songs. But no one was doing instrumental. Nobody had taken Christmas music and recorded it in a rock way."
He decided to rock up "The Twelve Days of Christmas," in which he "took heavy rock and mixed it with the melodies of Christmas, made it funky and groovy."
A radio station started playing it and -- Merry Christmas, indeed -- "they started getting calls, people saying, 'What is that music? Who is that?'"
Just like that, "Ho! Ho! Hoey" was born.
At Christmas time in 1995, Hoey released his first Christmas album, with the simple yet ingenious title, "Ho! Ho! Hoey." Numbers 2 and 3 came out in 1997 and 1999, followed by "The Best of "Ho! Ho! Hoey" in 2001, "Ho! Ho! Hoey: The Complete Collection" in 2003, and the inevitable "Ho! Ho! Hoey Live," recorded at Lowell Memorial Auditorium, in 2013.
He's preparing to kick off his 23rd Christmas "Ho! Ho! Hoey Rockin' Holiday Tour," a 14-stop trek that starts in Sellersville, Pa., on Nov. 23, and ends in Hermosa Beach, Calif., on Dec. 16.
The show at Tupelo in Derry, N.H., on Dec. 1 is the sixth stop. He'll be performing with his band, bass player AJ Pappas and drummer Matt Scurfield, and perhaps a surprise or two.
"Families come to my shows, and the records keep selling," Hoey says. "So many people have come up to me at shows and said stuff like, 'You made me like Christmas music again,' or, 'I never liked Christmas music until I heard you playing it.' There's an audience for it, and they keep coming back every year."
But "Ho! Ho! Hoey" isn't just about Christmas. It's also about charity. For years, Hoey held Toys for Tots drives at his shows. This year, Hoey is again holding a clothing drive for homeless veterans.
In 2004, Hoey moved his family back east, took a left turn, and ended up in Pelham.
He set up his own home studio, where he records albums of his own and other artists. A few years back, he co-wrote and produced an album for none other than Lita Ford. Little did the metalheads of Pelham know that "The Queen of Metal" was down the street recording an album.
For the past five years ago, Hoey has turned from metal to that old standby, the blues. His last two studio albums, "Deja Blues" in 2013 and "Dust & Bones" in 2016, include guest spots from such legends as James Montgomery and Johnny A.
He has signed with Dutch record label Provogue, which carries such blues greats as Joe Bonamassa, Beth Hart, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Warren Haynes and Robert Cray, many of whom Hoey counts as friends, and is finishing his third blues album, tentatively titled "Neon Highway."
"I've done lots of different stuff -- holiday, surf, hard rock, metal. Now I've come full circle to the blues. Blues has always been the foundation of my playing. It's the foundation of rock. I'm finding a whole new audience. People have said to me, 'Wait a minute, you're Gary Hoey, you're a shredder not a blues guy.' So I had to prove myself. It was a challenge."
At 58, Lowell's own rock star may be singing the blues in his career, but not in his life. He is content with where his career is. He and his wife have raised two kids, and he's near his mother, Barbara, who still lives in Lowell.
He still gets that "mailbox money" on a regular basis. And he's still having fun making music.
He has gotten to play alongside many of the great rock guitarists and some of his heroes.
"It's funny. I couldn't attend Berklee, but I go there now as a lecturer and speaker, and the kids call me Professor Hoey. I tell them, 'You guys don't know how lucky you are. I was standing outside these doors just trying to talk to people coming out of here. Appreciate it and don't take it for granted.'"
And maybe, just maybe, someday you'll catch the break Hoey caught that day when Ozzy Osbourne went on the radio and said he needed a new guitar player.
"Whatever comes along, I'm always willing to give it a try," he says. "I always say, 'Be prepared.' When luck meets hard work, that's when things happen.
"It's not brain surgery, right?"
* Over the course of his career, he has opened for the likes of Ted Nugent, Foreigner, the Doobie Brothers, Peter Frampton, Brian May of Queen and the legendary Jeff Beck, sharing the stage with some of them.
* He owns a guitar given to him by the late, great bluesman Johnny Winter.
* He is signed to do an upcoming Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and drummer Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. (Perry collapsed last week after performing with Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden.)
* He's playing the Rock Legends VII tour in February with headliner Roger Daltrey and such classic legends as Kansas, Buddy Guy, 38 Special, Night Ranger, Foghat, The Outlaws, The Edgar Winter Band, Nazareth and Sebastian Bach.
* His favorite guitarists are Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, Rick Derringer, Eric Clapton, Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck.
* Two of his blues songs refer directly to his Lowell roots: 2016's "Box Car Blues" is about growing up on Railroad Street in Lowell's Ayer's City section (before the family moved to Centralville) and having to cross railroad tracks to get to school; and 2013's "Boot Mill Blues" refers to the famous Boott Mill breakfast sandwich served by Arthur's Paradise Diner. In fact, the back cover of the CD, "Deja Blues," features a photo of Hoey in front of the Bridge Street diner.
* You know those Hallmark cards that open up and play music? A couple of them play "Ho! Ho! Hoey" songs.
* His brother, Bob Hoey, is on the Lowell School Committee and is, in Gary's words, "somewhat of a blues aficionado."