Blues Blast Magazine 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award
Henry Gray is one of the last standing artists that link the rural blues of the deep south with the electric blues of the Windy City of Chicago.
The 91-year-old Gray was born in the small town of Kenner, Louisiana in 1925, but it was in the big city of Chicago that he would leave an indelible mark on the modern blues. He started playing the piano at the age of eight and was already under the spell of blues music at that point.
As a teen, Gray played in the Baton Rouge area with several different combos, sharpening his skills with bigger and better things on his mind. He got his first taste of the bright lights of Chicago on a brief trip up north in 1939, but a permanent move there would have to wait.
In 1943, with World War II in full rage, he was drafted to the South Pacific and served in the tropics until he was discharged in 1946.
Soon Gray gravitated back to Chicago, a town he would call home for the next two-plus decades. Guitarists Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red were a couple of Gray’s initial contacts in Chicago and it wasn’t long before he struck up a friendship with another legendary piano player – Sunnyland Slim.
Sunnyland introduced Gray to one of the most renowned pianist in Chicago in the late 1940s – Big Maceo Merriweather. After meeting Merriweather, Gray’s style changed considerably and his left-hand technique improved immensely as he dove head-first into the hardcore blues. Merriweather and Gray become inseparable friends and after Big Maceo was sidelined with a stroke, rendering his left hand useless, Gray didn’t hesitate to help out on the bandstand. He simply played the left side of the piano, while Merriweather played the right.
In the early 1950s, Gray backed up Jimmy Rogers at Chess Records, cutting “Out On The Road Again” and ‘”The Last Time.” He befriended harmonica ace Little Walter Jacobs (who like Gray, was born in Louisiana), and soon they could be found playing the blues together all around Chicagoland. Chess Records was he preeminent blues label in Chicago – if not the world – in the mid-50s. Gray was right in the middle of this explosion. He became Leonard Chess’ go-to piano player for his impressive roster of blues artists.
The Red Devil Trio (Little Hudson Showers – guitar; James Bannister – drums; Gray – piano) was Gray’s steady outfit, but he found the time to work with Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam and Howlin’ Wolf, as well.
It was Gray’s association with Wolf that turned out to be the longest tenured, with the two playing together on and off from 1956 until 1968. Gray was a key part of what many consider to be the Wolf’s penultimate group, along with guitarist Hubert Sumlin and drummer SP Leary. While he was still in the Wolf’s employ, Gray also managed to often work with other artists around Chicago slide guitar king Elmore James.
In the late 1960s, tired of life on the road with Howlin’ Wolf, Gray headed back down south to the familiar confines of Baton Rouge.
Back home, Gray hooked up with Slim Harpo and played with him until his death in early 1970. In 1977, Gray recorded his very first solo album, They Call Me Little Henry in Germany on the Blue Beat label. In the late 1980s, Gray’s career as a bluesman began to pick up a second head of steam, when he cut Lucky Man – his first solo album released in the United States on Blind Pig Records.
In the early ’90s, Gray met harmonica player, producer and club owner Bob Corritore. The pair struck up a fast friendship and beautiful working relationship that remains strong to this day.
Corritore and Gray’s latest release – Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest – is nominated in the Historical or Vintage Recording category in the 2016 Blues Blast Awards. (Both Henry and Bob are performing at the awards this year!)
So, just how revered is Henry Gray and his piano playing? Well, in 1998 Gray was invited to fly over to Paris and play at Rolling Stones’ singer Mick Jagger’s birthday party. Gray played piano, while Jagger strapped on a guitar and blew the harp on a few choice songs.
Unfortunately, a lot of Gray’s peers and fellow piano players from the golden age of the Chicago blues – cats like Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, Sunnyland Slim and Big Maceo – are no longer with us. Henery is as vital a part of the blues scene today as he was back in 1956.
In recognition of his individual style and vibrant career spanning eight decades Blues Blast Magazine is proud to present its 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award to Mr. Henry Gray.