Advocate staff photo by BRIANNA PACIORKA — Henry Gray performs on the Front Porch Stage during the Baton Rouge Blues Festival in 2016. Gray was one of many internationally-known Baton Rouge musicians affected by the recent flooding.
Henry Gray, the Grammy-nominated Baton Rouge blues singer-pianist, died about 9 p.m. Monday at 95.
Beloved by the local blues community, Gray’s long career included stints performing with Chicago stars Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.
A musician for more than 80 years, Gray performed throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. His festival performances included 39 appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as well as engagements at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the prominent King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, and the Chicago and Baton Rouge blues festivals.
“Henry’s music has put smiles on thousands of faces and will continue to enrich us all for many years to come,” said Grammy-winning Baton Rouge blues artist Chris Thomas King.
A Chicago resident from 1946 to 1968, Gray worked with many of the city’s classic blues artists, including Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton and his fellow Louisiana natives Buddy Guy, Little Walter Jacobs and Morris Pejoe.
“To play Henry’s boogie-woogie style, you had to have that left hand like a hammer,” said Rob Payer, the host of blues, rhythm-and-blues and jazz programs at WBRH-FM. “He was also a gentleman, always so sweet and affable.”
Playing blues and rock ’n’ roll standards as well as his original songs, Gray typically performed a mix of joyfully up-tempo selections and heart-wrenching blues. His many honors included the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship Award he received in 2006. The Memphis-based Blues Foundation inducted Gray into its Hall of Fame in 2017, the same year it inducted Mavis Staples. In 1998, Gray received a best traditional blues album Grammy nomination for “A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf.”
Although Gray’s 1998 performance in Paris for Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger’s 55th birthday wasn’t a formal honor, it said much about his place in American music. Playing for the blues-loving British rock stars was a fun gig, Gray said, but the partying Stones wouldn’t let him get any rest.
“Kept me woke four days,” he told The Advocate in 1999. “They can’t sleep and they ain’t go let you sleep — not if they like you. They down to earth, good people, but they just crazy.”
Incidents such as the 1989 tornado strike that destroyed his house in north Baton Rouge and the city bus that crashed into his car in Chicago in 1951 earned Gray his nickname — Lucky Man. He served in the South Pacific during World War II and survived the 2016 flood that affected thousands of Baton Rouge area households. Floodwaters ruined his home, electric piano, clothes and 1994 Ford Crown Victoria. After his rescue by boat, looters stole the safe where Gray stored documents and valuables, including his Grammy-nominee medallion.
Born Jan. 19, 1925, in Kenner, Gray grew up in the East Baton Rouge Parish community of Alsen. A woman in his neighborhood taught him to play blues piano. His religious parents disapproved until his father realized Henry could earn money playing music.
Following his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, Gray returned to Louisiana, but didn’t stay long.
“I don’t pick no cotton, I don’t grow no corn, I don’t plow no mule,” he said. “My daddy put me out there, wanted me to chop corn. I cut my own good foot. I did it on purpose! I picked 60 pounds of cotton in my life, said that was it.”
In 1946, Gray moved to Chicago, a destination city for African Americans who left the South and brought the blues with them. He found a mentor in Big Maceo Merriweather, one of the city’s great piano men. “I was playing some blues, but not like I play now,” Gray said. “He showed me the fundamentals of the blues.”
Gray spent 12 of his 22 years in Chicago playing piano in blues star Howlin’ Wolf’s band.
“I was playing with Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, a boy called Morris Pejoe, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson,” Gray said in 1999. “See, I was playing with all of the big guys. I was making my money, too. I had plenty of work. Every night if I wanted to.”
In 1968, Gray left Wolf’s band and returned to Louisiana. He disputed accounts that Wolf fired him due to his drinking.
“That was over a woman,” Gray insisted. “I walked away. I went back to Baton Rouge. I was just as important as Howlin’ Wolf. That’s the way I felt. He may have been Howlin’ Wolf, but I was Henry Gray.”
In Baton Rouge, Gray worked in his family’s fish market and later as a roofer for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
Gray recorded for several record labels, including Chess Records in Chicago, APO, Telarc Blues, Bluebeat, Hightone, Wolf, Blind Pig and Lucky Cat. Three of his recordings are featured on the 1992 MCA box set “Chess Blues.”
In 2004, Gray released the DVD “Henry Gray & the Cats: Live in Paris.” The French audience treated his performance as if it were a classical recital in a world-class concert hall.
“Everywhere I go over there, they love the blues,” Gray said.
Gray is also featured with Dr. John in the Clint Eastwood-directed “Piano Blues,” an episode of the Martin Scorsese-produced 2003 PBS series, “The Blues.”
A songwriter as well as a singer and pianist, Gray’s original songs on his 2009 album, “Times Are Gettin’ Hard,” include “Barack Obama Boogie,” his homage to the first African American president. “He’s my man,” Gray sings. “If he can’t do it, can’t nobody can.”
Gray’s recordings include 2015’s “The Henry Gray/Bob Corritore Sessions, Vol. 1: Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest” and 2017’s “92.” Grammy-winning zydeco artist Terrance Simien, co-producer of “92,” met Gray at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.
“Just him and his piano,” Simien recalled. “Huge crowds gathered around him every time he played.”
Even while Gray appeared at festivals around the world, he played regularly at the Piccadilly cafeteria on Baton Rouge’s Government Street for more than a decade. In his early 90s, Gray gigged at the Time Out Lounge every Tuesday for nearly three years. He refused to stop performing there despite a collapsed lung and a mild heart attack he experienced in quick succession.
Henry gave “it all he can every time,” said Time Out Lounge co-owner Kathleen Byers. “He’s a treasure to me. He should be a treasure to every person in Baton Rouge.”
“I’m going to stay playing my piano,” Gray vowed. “I got to take care of my own business.”
In a 1993 interview, Gray expressed his belief that blues as a musical genre would endure.
“Every person who’s ever been through anything, they’ve gotten the blues,” he said.