Juke Blues (Summer 2002)
Henry Gray – Plays Chicago Blues & Willie “Big Eyes” Smith – Blues From the Heart
Here are a couple of releases by veterans of the blues scene. Both men were accompanists in the heavyweight Chicago blues hands of Muddy and Wolf–and you can’t get more serious than that. Has any of the greatness rubbed off on either or both of them?
There is sometimes a tendency for modern recordings by vintage performers to suffer from a stylistic anonymity, with antiseptic flavourings and tempos that are spiced with a dash of briskness. One album can sound like another, and even someone else’s, as the monarchs of bluesdom rush to indulge our feverish cravings. They often dispense little more than patent placebos or indulge us with monochrome solutions to our technicolour fantasies.
There are no such problems with this Henry Gray album. For many years he played piano in the Howlin’ Wolf band, and here he knocks out one of those comfortingly robust sets. It’s full of drive and vitality with good vocals and driving piano and an incredible performance from a 70 year old. The material consists of a mixture of standards and originals with no attempt at innovation or surprise, and I would rate this album amongst the most enjoyable that I have heard from a veteran performer in a long time. As there is relatively little available by Henry Gray, this is a very welcome release. My promo copy doesn’t reveal many details, but the participants include Chico Chism, Bob Margolin, Kid Ramos, and producer Bob Corritore. Despite the lack of recording information, the evidence is that they do exactly what it says on the sleeve–play Chicago blues–and well. One to get–treat yourself!
For a couple of decades Willie Smith shuffled the beat in the Muddy Waters band, and here he leads a unit made up of northern lights from Canada’s blues community. Bands led by drummers are more unusual, but range from tub-thumpers to the complex polyrhythmic jazz messages of Art Blakey, and I imagine that the added effort of vocalising alongside the normal functions of a drummer calls for heightened sensitivity plus athleticism. Willie may not be a dynamic or assertive vocalist but I think he gets away with it and some of his songs are pretty good too! The sound is that of his latter day activities in the Legendary Blues Band or the Muddy Reunion Band, and even though it may be nearer the branch than the root, it is a very good album despite the suggestion that it is a facsimile of headier days. This is a nice set where everyone gets a shot in the limelight, and I particularly enjoyed the muscular harp of Al Lerman–once in a while he may blow himself into a cul-de-sac before plotting his escape, but he’s otherwise in very fine form. Occasionally, some tracks can segue into each other, but this is a nice set overall and a lot better than the lousy cover would suggest.
Both sets are music to be enjoyed and present unchallenging blues listening. I suppose that I feel more comfortable with the Henry Gray, but that’s more likely a result of him being a more natural and familiar leader rather than any failing on Wlllie Smith’s part. Both are recommended to pleasure-seekers -a genuine aid to relaxation.
— Ian Jones, Juke Blues Summer 2002, No. 51
Bluebeat Music (August 2001)
This CD deserves special mention for preserving a lost art form …. blues ensemble playing. Henry has a long history in Blues, from Howling Wolf’s band to some incredibly tough sides under his own name for the Blue Lake label. This CD, produced by Bob Corritore, captures the art of playing together as a unit … not a bunch of individuals waiting for their turn to solo. Kid Ramos, Bob Margolin, Chico Chism and Corritore himself all play as if they had been together for years. This CD, along with the new Willie Smith release “Blues From The Heart,” give hope to us that it ain’t all about rank wanking by clueless guitar gods.
– Charlie Lange
Blues Access (Fall 2001)
The 75-year-old former Howlin’ Wolf pianist’s fourth solo album is a catchy revival of the ’50s Chess sound. Producer/blues harpist Bob Corritore enlists the aid of Howlin’ wolf drummer Chico Chism, The Fabulous T-Birds’ Kid Ramos and Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin to achieve a rowdy, authentic-sounding mix. While not in the same league as Otis Spann, Gray’s pounding piano boogie keeps the rhythm section jauntily in the pocket. The choice of standards and Gray’s original songs is only so-so but the kick-ass execution makes this one hard to resist.
– Ken Burke
Blues Revue (July / August 2001)
Have you turned a downtown corner and suddenly seen a gleaming, perfectly kept classic car — say, a ’57 T-Bird — in all its glory? That momentary, crystal-clear glimpse into the past can take your breath away. Listening to Henry Gray’s Plays Chicago Blues is a lot like rounding that corner.
Blues and cars share a trait, too. Stylistically, things have gone downhill in the past 40 years. That’s one reason to celebrate this beautiful-sounding record — it’s underproduced to perfection. Gray, who for years backed Howlin’ Wolf in Chicago before returning to his native New Orleans in 1968, brings along drummer Chico Chism, another Wolf alumnus, and welcomes guests like Bob Margolin and Kid Ramos to the party.
Gray’s still got the chops. He tears through the instrumental “Henry’s Houserocker,” dancing atop the solid support of pros Chism and Paul Thomas (who splits bass duties with John “Pops” McFarland). On Lowell Fulson’s “Trouble Blues” and Gray’s own “Showers of Rain,” Margolin’s Muddy Waters-style licks spar with Bob Corritore’s harp fills, as Gray supports his upper-register jabs with fearsome left-handed rhythms. Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” has real bite, with Kid Ramos slipping sumptuous melodic fills around Gray’s convincing vocal.
Opener “Talkin’ ‘Bout You” is a Gray original — not the Berry tune, but a tough stop-time shuffle. Also notable among uptempo numbers are the simple, funny “That Ain’t Right” and the Louis Jordan-themed boogie “They Raided the Joint,” but the standout is a frolic through the public domain tune “Everybody’s Fishin’.” These performances create a truly infectious mood. Gray’s singing and playing reflect his lifetime in music. His lyrics, traditionally simple, imply as much as they say straight out. Producer Corritore surrounds him with smart players who know when to lay back and when to light up. Rarely do we get a new blues record that brings the past into the present and makes it real again. Henry Gray’s laying it down for you. Go buy this record.
– Jeff Calvin
Blues Rag (June 2001)
Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues: its title is just as direct and gimmick-free as its gloriously traditional contents. Perched atop a piano-stool throne, Gray was a valued commodity starting in Chicago’s 1950s blues-market, serving as both desired sideman (most famously for Howlin’ Wolf from ’56-’68) and formidable frontman (with sides for Chess and later Excello). Now at 76, he not only stands as one of the last remaining piano elders (alongside of Pinetop Perkins) with firsthand knowledge of colleagues like Wolf, Muddy, Big and Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and countless others — but he also has the records to back it all up. These 14 tracks distill sessions that sprawled over the past five years and find Gray to still be a very much living — and storming — incarnation of history. “All for one and one for all” is the prevailing motto for a spirited ensemble-minded squad that includes Chico Chism (another Wolf alum), Kid Ramos, Bob Margolin (the likely source of quivering slide on “Trouble Blues”), and Bob Corritore (who doubles as producer and burning harpist). Whether generating tremendous drive (“Talkin’ ‘Bout You” and “Everybody’s Fishin'”) or drag (“I Held My Baby Last Night” and “Ain’t No Use”), Gray’s perfectly rumpled croak always wallows in the back alley and his piano chatters away throughout. A reprise of his mid-’50s Chess piece “I Declare That Ain’t Right” and the snappy instrumental that earns its title of “Henry’s Houserocker” are among several originals; Wolf’s “How Many More Years” and the Elmore-associated “It Hurts Me Too” take bows to old pals. Legend-authenticated old-school primers like this don’t romp past often enough these days.
– Dennis Rozanski
Record Convention News (June 2001)
Though he first began playing blues as a New Orleans area teenager, Hightone Records is telling the pure truth with the title of this CD. This is the best pure Chicago-style blues release I’ve heard in a long while. Seventy-six or so years have not diminished the energy and talent of Henry Gray. He got to Chicago shortly after WWII, was noticed and then mentored by Big Maceo Merriwether. That effort took root and eventually he became Howlin’ Wolf’s piano man. From 1956 to 1968 actually. At one time or another he’s recorded or toured with just about every big Chicago blues act and others as well. His playing, as intimated already, is vibrant and energetic. One tune after another and I’m in awe of his vocals as well. Reminiscent of Muddy Waters more so than the Wolf, he nonetheless has his own voice and it’s a strong one. Ably accompanied by Chico Chism, Bob Margolin, Kid Ramos and Bob Corritore throughout, most of these songs are chestnuts of the genre, but nonetheless stand up very well to the original and most familiar versions. I like his treatment of “It Hurts Me Too,” “Everybody’s Fishin’,” “Showers Of Rain” and definitely “Henry’s Houserocker.” No clinkers here. Recommended.
City Link – Fort Lauderdale, FL (June 2001)
The title of this album should be accompanied by an exclamation point. A sideman with Howlin’ Wolf for a dozen years, 76-year-old Henry Gray is a master of the idiom. The tracks captured here were recorded over a five-year period by Tempe, Arizona, producer-harmonica player Bob Corritore (check out the superb multi-artist All-Star Blues Sessionson the HMG label) who also blows gritty Little Walter-inspired harp behind Gray. Backed by a roster of exceptional Chicago blues musicians, the long-time Windy City resident displays an energy that belies his advanced years, tearing into tunes like the opening “Talkin’ ‘Bout You” and “Everybody’s Fishin’ ” with great glee. Gray, who was born just outside New Orleans, puts plenty of Crescent City bounce in his music as well as the harder rhythms of Chicago blues piano that were defined by players like his mentor, Big Maceo Merriwether. There’s a nod to Wolf, his employer from 1956 to 1968 with a potent read of “How Many More Years” where Gray hammers out the trademark syncopated piano riff. Another Wolf alum, drummer Chico Chism provides expert support throughout. Guitarist Bob Margolin lends his deep Chicago blues acumen on a handful of songs, his slide work all but definitive, as does the very tasteful Kid Ramos of Fabulous Thunderbirds fame. Both men augment the brick solid leads of Johnny Rapp, who handles the lion’s share of the fretwork. The bass playing of Pops McFarlane and Paul Thomas is also right on target, which is to say, somewhere in the vicinity of the South Side. Gray barrelhouses with a furious elegance, beautifully displayed on the boogying “Henry’s Houserocker” and seems to revel in relating the details of “They Raided The Joint,” keeping the proceedings mostly on a partying level. But he also digs deep on emotive reads of “Times Are Getting Hard,” “Trouble Blues” and “I Held My Baby Last Night” showing the essential dichotomy of the Chicago blues, which alternates raucous good times with heartbreak and seems to celebrate them both.
– Bob Weinberg
Buscadero – Italian Music Magazine (May 2001)
Eccellente album blues da parte del pianista cantante, inciso con la collaborazione di Bob Margolin, Bob Corritore, Johnny Rapp, Kid Ramos, Paul Thomas e John McFarlane. Chicago blues di grande qualita.
Bad Dog Blues (April 2001)
During his illustrious career pianist Henry Gray has played with a who’s who of Chicago blues greats. At 76 Gray is at the top of his game on Plays Chicago Blues, the best piano blues record I’ve heard in a long time.
Gray rolled into the windy city in the mid-40’s and came under the influence of pianist Big Maceo. It wasn’t long before his powerful two handed playing attracted attention and he found steady gigs with Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Rogers and Billy Boy Arnold among others. In 1956 he joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band settling in for over a decade. In the past dozen years he returned from an extended layoff and cut records for Blind Pig, Wolf and last year for Lucky Cat. Plays Chicago Blues is an old school piano romp supported by a stellar backing band that may be his best yet
Gray’s rumbling vocals and driving, forceful playing is front and center on this collection of excellent originals and well chosen covers. Producer and harmonica player Bob Corritore has done a marvelous job surrounding Gray with great ensemble players including Bob Margolin and Kid Ramos on guitars and Howlin’ Wolf alumnus Chico Chism on drums. Gray lays down a rock solid groove as everyone falls in behind and plays brilliantly. Gray also happens to be a fine songwriter as evidenced on orginal compositions like rocking “How Could You Do It”, the doomy “Showers Of Rain”, the rollicking instrumental “Henry’s Houserocker” and the bouncy “That Ain’t Right” a remake of a song he cut for Chess in 1953 that remained unissued for years. Gray tackles some first rate covers including great readings of Wolf’s “How Many More Years”, the late night vibe on the Elmore James classic “I Held My Baby Last Night” and the boisterous juke joint anthem “They Raided The Joint.”
Other than Pinetop Perkins, Gray remains one of the last of the great piano men and as this record affirms he hasn’t lost a step. Piano blues this good is rare thing these days so make sure to check this one out.
– Jeff Harris
Blues Bytes (April 2001)
The 1950s was THE golden age of Chicago blues according to many blues scholars and fans. I count myself as one of the many lovers of the classic Chicago sound, and cherish any new recordings by the few remaining musicians from that era. Pianist Henry Gray is among the best of the Chicago veterans still on the blues scene, and this new album,Plays Chicago Blues, captures the rawness and raucousness of the music from that period.
Phoenix-based producer and harmonica player Bob Corritore assembled a solid supporting cast for the sessions represented on Plays Chicago Blues, including drummer Chico Chism, who was also a part of the Chicago scene during the same period as when Gray was active there, and former Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin. Rounding out the backing band are Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Kid Ramos and a trio of Phoenix’s top blues players in Johnny Rapp (guitar), Paul Thomas (bass), and Pops McFarlane (bass).
The disc starts strongly with a rambunctious original, “Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” that puts the listener into the mood for a good time … no sign of any depressing blues here.
If there’s any question as to whether Gray’s piano playing has lost any nimbleness or agility through age, he puts that fear to rest with the frenetic instrumental “Henry’s Houserocker.” Aided by the superb drumming of Chism, this number recalls the wild and “almost out of control” instrumental romps of Gray’s former employer, Howlin’ Wolf.
The blues doesn’t get any bluer than on the slow number “Trouble Blues,” with incredible Muddy-style slide playing from Margolin, who makes his guitar sing along with Gray’s pained vocals. The spirit of Wolf is recalled again on the uptempo shuffle “How Many More Years,” with Corritore’s harp riffs dancing playfully around Gray’s raspy vocals and his pounding piano accompaniment. Without taking the limelight away from the star of the show, Corritore makes this album a personal statement for his tasty harmonica playing, especially the fuller, heavily amplified sound on the Gray original “How Could You Do It.”
Ramos lends his guitar talents to the slow blues “It Hurts Me Too,” providing more sophisticated licks to contrast Gray’s most impassioned singing on the album. Rapp comes to the front of the bandstand on the midtempo shuffle “Don’t Start That Stuff” with a beautiful solo in the middle of the song.
The album closes with one of the better numbers, a serious Chicago blues original, “Showers of Rain.” Gray’s co-stars, Corritore and Margolin, each are given the opportunity to show their best stuff here, and they take full advantage with excellent solos and accompaniment. Margolin has long been regarded as one of the most faithful evangelists of classic Chicago blues, and his sympathetic accompaniment on this album shows why he has earned that reputation.
After listening to Plays Chicago Blues, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the windy, inhospitable streets of Chicago. But that’s what happens when you assemble a living legend with a band of guys who love to play this kind of music, even if you do so in a studio in Arizona, and not in Chicago. The result is the best collection of Henry Gray recordings in many years.
– Bill Mitchell
Delta Snake Daily Blues (2001)
Authentic. Now there’s a word that gets tossed around frequently in describing blues music. A multitude of musicians can lay down 12 bars and a cloud of dust and claim authenticity. Yeah, the music maybe, but the musician–maybe not.
An authentic blues musician’s pedigree should extend back to the period of time and place when and where the music was created, whether it is Mississippi Delta, Piedmont or Chicago blues. In other words–they were there and too many are not here any longer.
Blues pianist Henry Gray was there during the formative years of Chicago blues, playing extensively in Howlin’ Wolf’ bands and backing up a great number of the architects of the sound on record. He has also been an exponent of the Louisiana swamp blues groove, having been born there and having lived in Baton Rouge since 1968. So, when a cd comes along, entitled Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues, the authenticity should be unquestionable. The question, though, may be, “Can he still do it?”
Yep, he can and does, thanks to Arizona producer/harpman, Bob Corritore. Corritore captured Gray’s genius, along with a number of blues veterans that passed through Arizona between 1986-98, on the well received compilation, Bob Corritore’s All-Star Sessions (HMG1009). That release promised that there was a lot more in the vault and now we have the proof with this Hightone Record’s product.
On the all star session, Corritore released Gray’s rendition of Memphis Minnie’s “Everybody’s Fishing”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years” and Gray’s reprisal of his Excello tune, “Showers Of Rain”. These three songs showcased the fact that Henry Gray was still a vibrant pianist and blues singer that had not really been heard from since Blind Pig’s 1988 Lucky Man.
The new cd adds eleven more esquisite examples Chi-town ensemble blues to those three with Gray credited for penning half of the fourteen cuts. Along for the ride that Gray lays down is veteran drummer Chico Chism (Howlin’ Wolf), and guitarists Bob Margolin (Muddy Waters) and Kid Ramos (Fabulous Thunderbirds and everybody on the West Coast). Johnny Rapp’s guitar and Corritore’s harp are the constants throughout the mix along with Paul Thomas and John “Papa” McFarlane swapping out on bass duties.
It is Gray’s show all the way, though, and he is the ultimate director who leads the charge through this program of solid blues. He prompts the rhythm section with a rock steady left hand, while his right hand bounces, pounces and shapes each tune. Primarily influenced by Big Maceo, Gray shows his boogie woogie prowess on “Henry’s Houserocker” and how lowdown the piano can get on “Showers Of Rain”. Each cut on the disc illustrates the skills that he was known for and sought out for during the heyday of the genre.
Want to hear blues with a feeling? Lowell Fulson’s “Trouble Blues” and Elmore James’ “I Held My Baby Last Night” brings just that out in Gray’s tortured versions that reflect an emotion rarely captured on disc any longer. And, when he sings, “Too much tax on your groceries, too much tax on your meat, you ain’t got a job, boy, where you gonna eat?” from his own “Times Are Getting Hard”, Gray leaves no doubt that he’s been there and lived it. The man can evoke the deep blues, vocally.
Corritore’s effective harp work is the closest thing to a solo throughout this disc, which is as it should be with Chicago blues. These cats are all wailing away in unison within each tune and it is the magic of the musicians to make it work into a cohesive, ensemble unit that feeds off each individual instrument and molds it into one glorious sound.
Indeed, folks, Henry Gray IS playing Chicago blues. The way it was, the way it is and the way it always will be and by a man that should know. Thank goodness that he is still around to remind us of how it should be done and bless you Bob Corritore for sharing it with us. Now, what else you got?
– by Richard Bush