Nonagenarian Blues Pianist Henry Gray to Celebrate Birthday at Rhythm Room – Phoenix New Times

They say women love blues pianist Henry Gray, and Henry Gray loves women. He married a woman 30 years younger than himself.

Rhythm Room owner Bob Corritore recalls him joking that you shouldn’t put two older people together.

“You don’t get a spark with two dead batteries,” Gray told him.

Gray will celebrate his 90th birthday with a performance Saturday, January 17, at the Rhythm Room.

Gray has played for more than seven decades with many of the blues greats and traveled the world entertaining blues lovers.

His built his reputation for beautiful blues by using unique chords, as well as for his great boogies and shuffles. His Louisiana voice is known for enticing listeners.

Gray played with Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Otis Span and Jimmy Rogers. He described all of them as nice, but said Little Walter was crazy due to his marijuana use and Howlin’ Wolf was demanding.

“Howlin’ Wolf was strict on the music, on how we dressed, and didn’t allow anybody cigarettes. He would buy us all clothes to make sure we looked nice,” he said.

Nice is the key word because that’s how most of his fellow bluesmen describe Gray.

In 1956, Gray joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band and stayed with him for 12 years.

Little Walter nicknamed Gray “Bird Breast.”

Bob Corritore, Phoenix-based blues harmonica performer, has been playing with Gray periodically since 1996.

“I have been blessed to know him. He plays and records here each year,” he said. “He’s a beloved fixture at the Rhythm Room.”

Gray and Corritore have recorded with Dave Riley and Tail Dragger.

“Nobody plays like Henry Gray,” Corritore continues. “When you’re hearing Henry, you’re hearing somebody special.”

Gray made his first album with Chess Records in 1952 and has been with most of the blues greats as a sideman since that time. Gray has been on 58 albums.

Gray started playing the piano when he was 8 years old and soon played for his Baptist Church in Louisiana. He started playing in a blues club when he was 16. His father didn’t like that at first, but once he saw the money rolling in he agreed to it.

He served in the Army in South Pacific in World War II. He would entertain his fellow troops with the blues. After a medical discharge in 1946, he moved to Chicago.

Shortly after moving to Chicago, he met Big Maceo Merriweather, who was big in the jazz and blues scene. Big Maceo became his mentor and introduced him to many musicians as they watched Gray’s career soar.

In 1963, Gray was playing with Elmore James the night he died of a heart attack.

In 1968, Gray returned to Louisiana after his father’s death and quickly took up the swamp blues.

For the last 30 years, Gray has been a fixture at the New Orleans and Chicago festivals, but he has also played festivals throughout America and performances throughout Europe.

In 1988, he cut the Lucky Man CD on Blind Pig Records, and in 1998 his CD A Tribute to Howlin Wolf was nominated for a Grammy.

In 2006, Gray won the National Heritage Award. He continues to tour as a soloist and as Henry Gray and the Cats.

Henry Gray is scheduled to play Rhythm Room on Saturday, January 17.