Chicago Blues Guide Interview with Henry Gray

Henry Gray Interview

At age 91, the piano legend is a true blues survivor who has lived through the best and worst of times but continues to thrive 

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photo: Daniel Swadner

By Bill Dahl
The news was dire from Baton Rouge in mid-August.

A massive flood had submerged a good portion of the blues-fertile Louisiana city, wiping out, among many others, the home and all the belongings of 91-year-old piano legend Henry Gray. He’d managed to escape with his life, having woken up when his elbow was dampened by muddy waters rapidly rising around his bed.

At that age, a lesser man might have given up. Not Henry. Once the water receded, he salvaged what little he could from the moldy muck coating the interior of his house, then calmly commenced touring. He’s already come through his longtime former homebase of Chicago since then, playing a September gig at Rosa’s Lounge on his way back from the Blues Blast Awards in downstate Champaign, where he picked up a Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s also toured California in recent weeks with his good friends, guitarist Chris James and bassist Patrick Rynn, who have featured him on several of their recordings.

Clearly, Henry Gray is a blues survivor of the first order. Natural disasters can’t keep him down for long.

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Henry Gray & Bob Corritore at Sin City Soul & Blues Revival, 2013, Las Vegas, NV
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Until those rampaging floodwaters struck, things were going pretty well for Gray. Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest, the 2015 CD he made with harpist Bob Corritore for the Delta Groove label, generated a load of critical praise (Corritore set up a GoFundMe campaign to help Gray recover that at last look had passed the $35,000 mark and continues to climb). Henry continues to play as brilliantly as ever, his pounding boogies and after-hours blues displaying the same supple, elegant power as when he was a staple of the postwar Chicago blues circuit. For once, the phrase “living legend” is entirely apropos.

“That’s what they call me!” chuckles Gray.

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Henry Gray with the Rhythm Room Allstars for his 90th birthday weekend in Tuscon, AZ
L to R: Brian Fahey, Danny Michel, Henry, Bob Corritore, Big Jon Atkinson, Troy Sandow
photo: Marilyn Stringer

Born January 19, 1925 in Kenner, La., Henry grew up on his family’s farm in the small town of Alsen, not far from Baton Rouge. “I was about 12 years old when I started playing piano,” he says. “I couldn’t even play the blues in my mama’s house. No, man. They didn’t want me to play the devil’s music.”

Not everyone in town felt that way, notably a neighborhood lady named Mrs. White who gave him piano lessons. “She taught me a whole lot,” he says. “I was supposed to be going to school. But she’d let me hide my bicycle in the bush somewhere, and she’d play that piano. I wanted to play that piano more than go to school at that time.” Gray’s parents weren’t pleased, but he was determined. “I had a lot of ass whippings,” he says. “I’d go down to Mrs. White’s and I’d play that piano, man. I’d say the hell with school right then.”

Gray was beginning to play some local gigs when the Army swept him away in 1943 to fight in the South Pacific. After the conclusion of World War II, he picked up where he left off in Alsen, pounding the 88s rather than going into the family business. “I couldn’t stand that with my dad. My dad got up for work, he was raising cows and working in the field picking cotton. That wasn’t my bag. I couldn’t do that,” says Gray. “I wasn’t in it for that kind of work. My dad, he couldn’t sleep, and he wasn’t going to let you sleep. He had no kind of education. I think he went to the first grade, or something like that.

“All he knowed was work. I said, ‘What the hell!’”

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Henry Gray at Rosa’s Lounge, Chicago, Sept. 24, 2016
photo: Roman Sobus

Fortunately, there was a way out. “My aunt lived in Chicago,” explains Henry, who migrated north to the Windy City in 1946, when the postwar blues scene was just beginning to explode and nightspots were springing up all over the South and West Sides, amplification giving the music a tougher, more snarling tone than before. Gray’s 88s skills eventually earned him some work. “I played with Big Bill. I played some with Tampa Red too,” he says. “I played with all of ‘em.” He was already well-acquainted with young harmonica genius Little Walter.

“I played with Little Walter before we come to Chicago,” says Gray. “Little Walter was living in Marksville, Louisiana.” That happened to be about 22 miles from where Henry lived at the time. They reunited after both landed in the Windy City. “He was alright with me. He was just fast, that’s all,” says Henry. “Everything he’d do was fast, man.”

Big Maceo Merriweather, Tampa Red’s longtime piano-playing musical partner, was ailing and no longer able to dish up his trademark thundering boogies when Henry met him one night after coming to Chicago. “I was standing around at a club, me and Little Walter,” says Gray. “(Maceo) wanted me to hang around with him. He’d had a stroke, and he wanted me to play his left hand. He played the right hand, I played the left hand.” The partnership worked well for both of them, Maceo influencing Henry as they sat side by side on the piano bench. His next stop was with guitarist Little Hudson Showers and his Red Devil Trio.

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Young Henry Gray

Gray made his recording debut as a sideman in August of 1952, providing sterling backing on guitarist Jimmy Rogers’ Chess Records single “The Last Time” b/w “Out On The Road.” It was waxed at Universal Recording Corporation, the city’s top studio on the near North Side. “Phil Chess, Leonard Chess’s brother, he didn’t like me,” claims Gray. “(Leonard) Chess was alright, but Phil wasn’t.”

Perhaps that factored into why the label failed to release Henry’s first sides as a leader. He cut “I Declare That Ain’t Right” and “Matchbox Blues” at the end of a May 11, 1953 session at Universal largely featuring guitarist Morris Pejoe. Chess logged Gray’s sides under the moniker of Little Henry, a handle given him by Little Walter. It was one of a precious few sessions boasting the presence of harpist Henry Strong, who would be stabbed to death by a woman in June of ‘54. “He was real good,” notes Gray.

Like Henry, Pejoe was a Louisiana native, partially raised in Texas—a rarity on the Chicago blues scene, built primarily around transplanted titans from the Mississippi Delta and surrounding regions. “It was just strange we hadn’t met up before that. He came up somewhere we were playing at,” says Gray. “I hadn’t met him at all until I was in Chicago.”

 

Henry was there for Pejoe’s first Checker session at Universal in late ‘52, which produced the guitarist’s first single, a cover of Fats Domino’s “Tired Of Crying Over You.” He would stick with Morris as a sideman until 1956, playing on Pejoe’s romping Checker followup “It’ll Plumb Get It” (authorship dubiously credited to Phil Chess), his ‘55 Vee-Jay single “You Gonna Need Me,” and a date for United the year before that was held in A&R man Al Smith’s basement. The marathon affair produced Morris’ first version of the rollicking “Let’s Get High,” which United failed to release.

“He sang the original version, but I recorded it,” says Henry, referring to the faithful remake of “Let’s Get High” that was included on his recent Delta Groove CD. Working with Pejoe wasn’t without its challenges. “We were playing in Waukegan, Illinois,” said Gray. “He left his guitar at home on the bed. He was a beautiful guy. He just left it at home on the bed.”

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Henry Gray at Rosa’s Lounge, Chicago, Sept. 24, 2016
photo: Roman Sobus

It didn’t take Gray long to be recognized as one of Chicago’s elite blues pianists, in demand for gigs and sessions the same way Otis Spann and Johnny Jones were. “We all was very good friends. All three of us were good friends. We worked together and had a lot of fun together,” says Henry. “The three of us’d walk down State Street, and they’d be peepin’ out the windows, looking at us and trying to figure out who was who! We had a lot of fun.”

Gray was exceptionally busy in the studio during the mid-‘50s. He backed Little Walter on his “Tonight With A Fool” before joining Howlin’ Wolf on his classic “Who Will Be Next.” Henry’s services weren’t exclusive to Chess. At Vee-Jay, Henry supported young harpist Billy Boy Arnold on his “I Was Fooled” and “I Ain’t Got You,” playing behind Jimmy Reed when he tried the latter on for size. Vee-Jay session drummer Earl Phillips enlisted Gray for his Vee-Jay single “Oop De Oop,” and harpist Dusty Brown invited him to roll the ivories on his Parrot label outing “Yes, She’s Gone.” Unfortunately, Henry’s own December 8, 1955 session for deejay Al Benson’s Parrot logo, where he was backed by Little Hudson’s outfit (the titles were “Watch Yourself,” “That Ain’t Right,” “Goodbye Baby,” and “You Messed Up”), met the same ignominious fate as his Chess sides—they were shelved for a few decades.

Along the way, the ever-inventive Little Walter bequeathed Henry with a more unusual nickname that stuck for decades. “He started calling me Bird Breath!” laughs Gray. “I don’t know why.”

In 1956, Howlin’ Wolf hired Henry as his piano man. Although he doesn’t seem to have been Wolf’s lone on-call ivories ace—Hosea Lee Kennard was a longtime fixture in his combo too—it was an enduring relationship. “14 years out there with Wolf. I didn’t have a minute’s trouble out of him,” says Gray. “He was nice, but he was strict. He would tell the boys, ‘Look, ya’ll wear black tonight. You hear?’ ‘(Drummer) S.P. Leary and (guitarist) Hubert Sumlin weren’t gonna do that. But Wolf would buy the clothes for you to wear. He’d tell me, ‘You tell S.P. and Hubert to wear black tonight on the bandstand!’ And they wouldn’t do it. Hubert would come on in a pair of shorts! And then, ‘Fine ‘em $25!’ And they’re gonna say he’s mean. But he’s buying the clothes!

“When you’d get on that bandstand with Wolf, that’s strictly business. That’s the way he was. He’d fine you $25, too, if you didn’t listen.”

In addition to the occasional Chess session with Wolf (he was on 1961’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” and “My Mind Is Ramblin’” five years later) and gigging with him regularly, Henry found time to back G.L. Crockett on his ‘65 R&B hit “It’s A Man Down There” for the 4 Brothers logo and Pejoe’s wife Mary Lane for her 1966 debut single on Friendly Five.

As local gigs grew scarcer in the late ‘60s, Henry bid Chicago farewell. “I left there and went back home,” he says. Settled once again in Alsen, he found his two-fisted piano approach fit right in with the swamp blues style so prevalent in South Louisiana. Gray waxed his first very overdue single under his own name in 1970 for J.D. Miller’s Blues Unlimited label, coupling “You’re My Midnight Dream” and “I’m A Lucky Lucky Man.” There was also session work with guitarist Clarence Edwards, along with more hurdles to overcome.

“Got me a band there, and damned if two of them didn’t die,” he says. “The harmonica blower and the drummer, they died.” As usual, Gray persevered, securing frequent festival work both close to home and overseas that extends to this day. “I play worldwide,” says Henry. “You name it, I’ve been there and played it.” He made a couple of ‘80s singles for the Florida-based Sunland imprint prior to waxing Lucky Man, his domestic debut album, for Chicago’s Blind Pig Records in 1988. Produced by guitarist Steve Freund with a stellar rhythm section of bassist Bob Stroger and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, the set saw Henry pay tribute to Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed, and Big Maceo, as well as roll out some impressive originals and emphasize his Louisiana roots with a bouncy revival of Fats Domino’s “My Girl Josephine.”

His career momentum steadily building at a time when many of his peers were either retired or drastically scaling back, Henry played on the Grammy-nominated 1998 Telarc CD A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf alongside fellow Wolf alumni Sumlin and Sam Lay. 2001 brought two more CDs of his own, Watch Yourself for Lucky Cat and Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues on Hightone. Gray was featured in director Clint Eastwood’s Blues Piano, one of the seven wide-ranging documentaries in Martin Scorsese’s 2003 PBS-TV series The Blues, and in 2006 the National Endowment for the Arts gave him a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship Award. That’s a long way from the rough-and-tumble Chicago blues joints that once sustained Gray, much less the south Louisiana fields of his youth.

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Henry Gray celebrates his Blues Blast Lifetime Achievement Award in Champaign, IL on Sept. 23, 2016. L to R: Fiona Boyes (Australian blues artist), Henry, Lynn Orman Weiss (publicist, music promoter), Linda Cain (editor Chicago Blues Guide)
photo: Bob Corritore

“I like to play my piano, ‘cause I’m not gonna work hard,” he claims, despite a jam-packed touring itinerary. “I’m not the type of person that likes to work too hard. I don’t like to work in no field with no cows and things.”

“I love doing what I’m doing.”