Fans streamed into into the Time Out Lounge on January 17, 2017, hoping to wish Henry Gray a happy 92nd birthday. What they witnessed was something bigger than cake and candles, more important than another celebratory banner and helium-filled balloons.
Henry Gray got a piece of his legacy back.
The Grammy-nominated bluesman survived devastating 2016 floods in Louisiana, but he lost all of his possessions – including a signature part of his stage show. For years, he’d worn a tie with a piano design and the words “Henry Gray and the Cats” inscribed on the front; later, it became to cover image for a 2009 album, as well.
It disappeared last August, on a night when Gray awoke with rising waters already at the edge of his mattress. His piano was wrecked, his favorite hats were floating in a toxic stew, and his tie was gone. What didn’t wash away was later stolen by a looter, who swiped a safe that included his birth certificate and the Grammy medallion honoring Gray’s 1998 album A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf.
“Henry was telling me about losing everything in the flood,” said Maxine Crump, a founding member of the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation. “I said, ‘Henry, everything?’ He said, ‘The water was up to my neck.’ And I said, ‘Henry, did you lose your tie?’ Because, as you know, every time you saw Henry play, he had on his piano tie. Henry lost his piano tie in the flood – and it broke my heart to think that I wasn’t going to see Henry playing, wearing his piano-keys tie.”
Later, she shared this heartbreaking tale with Chris Brooks, chairman of the Baton Rouge Blues Festival. His response: “We’ve got to get his tie back.” It represented a small thing, in the face of so much loss, but the symbolism was nevertheless writ large. Brooks found a design company, Matt Dawson’s Stay Gray Ponyboy, to replicate Gray’s familiar neckware, and had two ties created in time to present them to Gray during this raucous birthday celebration.
Gray started the night performing inside a semi-circle of well wishers, before his big surprise. A galaxy of local blues stars filtered in to pay their respects, among them Larry Garner, Chris LeBlanc and Kenny Neal, even as Gray offered unique takes on favorites like “Tipitina,” and “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Staggerlee” – reanimating his own often-overlooked role in constructing the post-war city-blues sound.
A recipient last year of the Living Legend award at the 2016 Baton Rouge Blues Foundation blues gala, Henry Gray was born in Kenner, Louisiana, in 1925. His journey toward shared stages and sessions with the likes of Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Rogers and Buddy Guy would detour, however, through the Pacific battles of World War II. By then, he’d already re-traced the familiar trail of mid-century African-Americans from the South toward Chicago where, after his time in the service, Gray apprenticed with Big Maceo Merriweather before becoming a sideman with Chess Records. An association with Howlin’ Wolf lasted some 14 years; he also served as a pianist with Muddy Waters – they’d met so early in Waters’ career that Muddy used to borrow Henry’s car – and with Elmore James.
Gray eventually returned to Louisiana, buying a home in north Baton Rouge while working for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. He had a regular working band for a time, established a regular gig at the late Tabby Thomas’ Blues Box and released a series of well-received albums – including a collaboration with Bob Corritore titled The Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest in 1999, Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues in 2001 and Times Are Gettin Hard in 2009, among others. More recently, he had settled into a series of warmly regarded solo performances like the one at Time Out Lounge – where Gray appears regularly on Tuesdays – and then the skies opened up in 2016.
Clarke Gernon, president of the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation, presented Gray with his new ties even as the crowd at Time Out quickly quieted. “Henry, it was so important for us to try to give something back,” he said, sparking a new round of cheers. “We know you lost everything in the flood, and we know this tie is a very important part of who you are when you go out and travel the world. We appreciate everything you do for us.”
Once the birthday cake had been cut, he responded to this emotional evening in his own inimitable way: Henry Gray launched into a boisterous version of his best-known song, “Lucky Man.”