By Nick DeRiso
Blues Music Magazine, July 2017
Blues Music Magazine, July 2017
Henry Gray never completely stepped out of his old boss Howlin’ Wolf’s shadow on the national stage, never became a huge star away from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Instead, what he did was something more personal, something more integral to his chosen profession, and something that will last forever in his adopted hometown.
Gray is the very embodiment of craft, a sturdy practitioner, and a piece of living history – all wrapped up in the deprecating demeanor of someone who came to work every day with an artisan’s rock-ribbed sense of duty. “If you do it,” Henry memorably said, “it will pay off. I tell a lot of young guys, ‘If you like it, you do it. The blues will pay off.’”
Along the way, he’s survived a series of health scares, seen the best and brightest of his generation (and then the next) pass on, and swum out of an historic flood in his native Louisiana that took almost everything from him – even his iconic piano-festooned tie.
But Henry Gray remained indomitable, and he eventually got that tie back.
His first successes date to the post-war blues boom, when Gray played piano with a string of certifiable blues legends. (He was on stage with Elmore James, for instance, on the night the legend died of a heart attack.) By the time he became a regular sideman with Howlin’ Wolf between 1956-68, Henry had already helped create the nomenclature of Chicago blues piano.
Then when Gray returned home, he kept the swamp blues of Slim Harpo going in Baton Rouge during the years after the genre’s acknowledged pioneer passed – and he does so even now, well past age 90. Stop by the local Time Out Lounge on Tuesday nights, and you’ll find Gray playing a beloved solo gig, just like always.
“Henry Gray is an institution and legend in Baton Rouge,” said Clarke Gernon, president of the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation. “While he is one of our great local bluesmen, he is also a direct and living connection of the Mount Rushmore of Blues: I am talking about the fact that he played piano and toured with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Little Walter. That is an amazing resume, by any standard. But he is also the guy who plays at the Time Out Lounge once a week in the most casual, relaxed environment you’ve seen. Folk sit on the piano bench with him, and he plays and takes photos for the Facebook posts, and local musicians wander in and out to jam.”
Recognition for that remarkable constancy followed in May at the Blues Foundation’s 38th annual Blues Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where Gray joined five other honorees. He’d come a long way from his rustic Louisiana youth. “I’m not the type of person that likes to work too hard,” Gray said. “I don’t like to work in no field with no cows and things. I love doing what I’m doing.”
Born in January 1925 in Kenner, Gray grew up a few miles north of Baton Rouge in Alsen, Louisiana. He found the blues at an early age, but kept it to himself. “I couldn’t play the blues in my mama’s house,” Henry said. “No, man. They didn’t want me to play the devil’s music.”
In a sign of things to come, however, there was no stopping Henry Gray. He simply snuck off to a neighbor’s house. “I was supposed to be going to school,” he admitted, but “I had my bicycle, and went to a lady’s house and played the blues on her piano. My mom was gonna whip my behind, but I still played it.”
Period recordings by Roosevelt Sykes clearly made an impact on the youngster, and he was later taught by Big Maceo Merriweather. Still, he didn’t make his way to Chicago (where an aunt lived) until the early ‘40s, and didn’t make his initial mark in music until after a stint in the Army during World War II. Big Maceo introduced Gray to the figures who would one day compete for his services in the studio.
He made his recording debut in 1952, playing piano on Jimmy Roger’s “The Last Time” for Chess; he cut his first sides for Chess the next year, issuing “I Declare That Ain’t Right” under the moniker “Little Henry.” He collaborated regularly with guitarist Morris Pejoe, a fellow Louisiana native, until the Howlin’ Wolf gig came along.
By ’68, Gray had been called home to assist with his family business after his father fell ill, and he eventually took a job as a roofer for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board in between local gigs. “I stayed on the road 26 years, and I just got tired,” Henry said. “It’s that simple.”
Harpo’s death in 1970 coincided with a general downturn in interest in the blues, however, as newer genres like R&B and rock moved to the fore. Gray issued his signature song “A Lucky, Lucky Man” for Jay Miller’s Blues Unlimited imprint in ‘70, but Miller later admitted that was his studio’s only blues recording for that entire year. Henry supplemented his income by driving a bulldozer; he eventually got a chauffeur’s license, too. In time, a string of black-owned nightclubs on Baton Rouge’s North Boulevard – long known as the heart of the local blues culture – were shuttered.
Henry Gray kept the faith, participating in the first home-jam sessions organized in the late ‘70s by Tabby Thomas, who later opened a well-known local heritage hall called the Blues Box. That steadfast determination eventually paid off. Recordings for the German-based Bluebeat led to overseas dates. Into the ‘80s, fans, archivists, booking agents and record labels continued to rediscover this seemingly lost treasure. He recorded a series of singles for Sunland, and memorably performed at the Montreal Jazz, San Francisco Blues and Chicago Blues festivals.
Wherever he roamed, however, Henry always returned to his old stomping grounds. Gray was regularly featured at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival through 1977. He appeared in a Clinton, La.-based precursor to the former River City Blues Festival, held in 1980, and subsequently at the first official editions of the event – now called the Baton Rouge Blues Festival. He was a regular at Tabby Thomas’ Blues Box before it closed in 2004.
A suddenly resurgent recording career began with ‘Lucky Man’ in 1988; more recent albums include ‘Watch Yourself’ (2001), ‘Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues’ (2001), ‘Henry Gray and the Cats: Live in Paris’ (2004), ‘Times Are Getting Hard’ (2009) and ‘Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest’ (2015), which features 14 recordings from 1996-2015 sessions produced by Bob Corritore, among others. He was nominated for a Grammy for 1999’s ‘A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf,’ not long after being handpicked by Mick Jagger to perform at the Rolling Stones legend’s 55th birthday party in Paris.
“In 1980, Henry was considered a giant among the Baton Rouge blues community,” Gernon added. “Flash forward to 2017, and nothing has changed.”
Married to Rivers Gray, with whom he has three children and a number of grandchildren, Gray appeared in Martin Scorsese’s PBS series ‘The Blues’ in 2003, earned the nation’s top honor for folk artists from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006, and was given the Living Legend award from the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation in 2016.
Then disaster struck, as Henry awoke to devastating Louisiana flooding later that same year. The rising waters were already at the edge of his mattress. His piano was wrecked; Gray’s favorite hats were floating in a toxic stew. What didn’t wash away was later stolen by a looter; he swiped a safe that included Henry’s birth certificate and the Grammy medallion for ‘A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf.’
Eventually, “he said, ‘The water was up to my neck,’” family friend Maxine Crump remembered. She immediately thought of Henry’s signature ties. “Because, every time you see Henry play, he has on his piano tie. It broke my heart to think that I wasn’t going to see Henry playing, wearing his piano-keys tie.” The cover of ‘Times Are Getting Hard’ memorably featured this same tie, with the words “Henry Gray and the Cats” inscribed on the front.
Crump shared this heartbreaking tale with Chris Brooks, chairman of the Baton Rouge Blues Festival, and Brooks found a local design company to replicate Henry’s familiar neck ware. Two ties were presented to Gray during a raucous 92ndbirthday celebration earlier this year at the Time Out Lounge.
It represented a small thing in the face of so much loss, but the symbolism was nevertheless writ large. So was what happened next. Once the birthday cake had been cut, the night’s honoree responded in his own typically unwavering fashion: Henry Gray launched into a particularly emotional version of his best-known song, “Lucky Man.”