Back in the 1920s and ’30s, there were a couple of things that you just didn’t do in most places down south, and both of those things revolved around the ‘Good Book.’
The first thing that you didn’t do was to miss Sunday service.
The second thing that you didn’t do was to play the blues inside your house.
Especially if you father was a deacon in the local place of worship.
Just ask legendary piano player Henry Gray, who has first-hand knowledge of such things.
“I used to play spirituals, but there was no blues in my house … no, no, no,” he recently said. “My daddy was the deacon in the church, so there was no blues in the house. They used to say it was the devil’s music.”
However, the stance that Gray’s father took softened just a bit when he saw that his son might be able to bring home a nickel or two by playing the blues at local dances.
“When my daddy saw I could make money playing the blues, he liked that all right,” said Gray. ” A lot of times my daddy would be with me, so I never had any trouble (playing music as a teenager in some possibly questionable locales).”
Thus, a seven-decade career of playing the blues was born for the young man from Kenner, Louisiana.
And at age 91, Gray – who started playing piano at the tender age of eight – has no intentions of closing the lid on his piano anytime soon.
“Nope, not yet,” Gray responded when asked if retirement was imminent.
So important are Gray’s contributions to popular music, that he was the recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006, one of the most prestigious honors in the world of the arts. “That made me feel real good,” Gray said of the award.
A man of few words, Gray simply lets his fingers and hands do the lion’s share of the talking for him, just as they did back in the days when he was burning up the bandstands all around Chicago in the employ of larger-than-life characters like Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf.
More recently, for six or seven years inside of the New Millennium, Gray’s main gig was his noon-time engagement at the Piccadilly restaurant in his home stomping grounds of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
However, things are considerably more quiet around the café on Florida Boulevard in Louisiana’s capital city these days.
“I don’t play there anymore … I play more out of town than I do around here,” he said.
One of Gray’s favorite terms of endearment is ‘He’s alright with me.’ For those in Gray’s orbit that hear those words, it means that they have a special place inside Gray’s heart.
Bob Corritore is one of those whom Gray says, ‘He’s alright with me.’
Harmonica ace Corritore and Gray have been playing together since the late ’90s and Wolf Tracks: A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf (Telarc Records), the album that the duo first played together on, garnered a Grammy nomination back in 1998.
Their latest collaboration, Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest (Delta Groove), an album that Corritore also co-produced, is up for Best Historical or Vintage Recording at this year’s Blues Blast Awards.
“Yeah, me and Bob have played a lot together and we still do,” Gray said. “He’s a good musician, too. You know, he’s alright with me.”
After receiving a medical discharge from his three-year stint in the South Pacific during World War II (“A lot of times I was held back from the front lines because I was entertaining them (playing piano for the troops). It was like a break from the stress of being a war-time soldier, too,” he said. “The piano saved my life.”) Gray headed back to his home state of Louisiana for a short spell.
That stay didn’t last long and his next destination was for the bright lights and hustle-and-bustle of Chicago, a place he would call home for the next two-plus decades.
“That’s where all the big blues stars were at … Chicago. That’s why I went up there, because I wanted to play the blues like I’d heard them playing,” he said. “And, since the music was there, you could make a lot more money up there than down here (in Louisiana).”
No doubt the basic differences between Chicago and Alsen, Louisiana were like night and day. But when you factor in the little matter of also trying to play the blues on such a big stage – in a place with musicians already established – that really had to be intimidating for a young man from a rural setting.
Not so, said Gray.
“No, no, not all,” he said. “That’s what I wanted. That’s why I went up to Chicago, to play with those guys. That didn’t bother me … no.”
It didn’t take long after his arrival in 1946 before Gray was immersed in the Windy City blues scene and was well on his way to becoming one of the hottest young piano players around. “There were really only three blues piano players there at the time – Otis Spann, Little Johnny Jones and me,” said Gray.
Rubbing elbows with Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy ultimately led Gray to meeting the great Sunnyland Slim. And in turn, it was Sunnyland that introduced Gray to a man that turned out to have the most influence and impact on his career – Big Maceo Merriweather.
“Sunnyland introduced me to him and we became good friends. He (Big Maceo) was alright with me,” said Gray. “He’s really the one that showed me how to play with my left hand on the piano. He really helped me with my left hand. We was good friends.”
Big Maceo’s tutelage of Gray not only jump-started his rise on the Chicago blues scene, it also gave birth to Gray’s patented ‘two-fisted piano playing.’ Gray never forgot just how instrumental Big Maceo was in his development and when Merriweather became sidelined with a stroke and lost the use of his left hand, he eagerly helped his friend out on the bandstand.
“After he had a stroke, I would play the left side (of the piano) for him and he would play the right. Yes, sir … that’s what we did,” Gray said.
In the early 1950s, Gray caught the attention of the one-and-only Little Walter Jacobs. Nicknaming Gray ‘Birdbreast’ (“I guess he thought I was thin and looked like a bird,” laughed Gray), Little Walter and Gray could soon be found playing the blues together all around Chicago. The stories of Little Walter’s temperament are legendary and according to Gray, those stories are both accurate and well-earned.
“He was just as crazy as everybody said he was. Yep, he sure was. I played a whole lot with him,” Gray said. “Everything he did was fast. Fast, fast, fast. Talked fast, walked fast … played fast. He was crazy.”
Gray also spent a considerable amount of time traveling the country with another iconic figure that was also known to be a tough taskmaster – Howlin’ Wolf. In 1956 Gray became the piano player in Wolf’s outfit and other than guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Gray’s 14 years spent with the Wolf was the most of any of his bandmates.
“He was alright with me. Yes, he was strict. No smoking and no blue jeans. You had to dress up to play with him,” said Gray. “I didn’t have any run-ins with him. I did what he said and had no problems with him. You went up on the bandstand and you better be dressed up. He would buy you clothes and for my part, I would wear them. You didn’t wear them and he would take $25 from you (as a fine). If you didn’t do what he asked, he’d find somebody else. Yes … he was alright with me.”
Along with bandmates Sumlin, and drummer SP Leary, Gray was a part of what many consider to be the ultimate lineup of the Howlin’ Wolf band. In late 1968, Gray finally left Wolf’s band – and the city of Chicago – and headed back home to Louisiana.
Some of Gray’s other noteworthy accomplishments in Chicago include being one of Chess Records’ go-to piano players for much of the late 1950s and ’60s. He could also be found regularly playing with artists like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Guitar Slim, Billy Boy Arnold, Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Johnny Shines, names that just scratch the surface of Gray’s expansive reach.
Gray also played with the king of the slide guitar – the influential Elmore James. Gray and James were even scheduled to play a gig at the Club Copacabana in Chicago on the evening of May 24, 1963.
However, the date that never materialized.
“I was at the club (that night) before we was supposed to go on. He didn’t show up, so I called his house and his wife told me he had died,” Gray said. “He was taking a bath and had a heart attack and died. He (James) was really nice … he was alright with me.”
Upon his departure from Wolf’s band, Gray went back to Louisiana to help out his mother at the family fish market after the passing of his father. Gray found work playing with the mighty Slim Harpo, weaving his boogie-woogie, Chicago blues piano into Harpo’s swamp blues potion. The two gigged together until Harpo’s death in 1970. He also gigged with Guitar Kelley and Silas Hogan around that same time frame.
In 1977, Gray cut his very first solo album – They Call Me Little Henry (which was also his nickname at times). So why did it take so long for Gray to record his first solo album?
“I just wasn’t ready before then. That’s it … I just wasn’t ready,” is how Gray explains the gap before he first started playing and when his first full-length album was issued.
When times got a bit lean – with opportunities to play music sometimes few and far between in Louisiana – Gray didn’t panic.
He simply picked up a hammer and started working as a roofer with the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. He did that for 15 years, up until 1983.
“I love Louisiana. Sometimes I wasn’t always so busy (playing music), but everything’s been all right for me here,” he said.
It wasn’t that long after he stopped working on roofs before Gray bounced back and issued his first solo album in the United States with Lucky Man (Blind Pig Records).
In 1998, the head man for The Rolling Stones – Mick Jagger – invited Gray to fly over to Paris to play at his 55th birthday bash. Gray played the piano, while Jagger played guitar and blew some harp on some blues standards. Maybe we should back up just a bit and try and suss out just who backed up who that evening in the City of Lights.
“Well … he played with me, you know,” said Gray. “He’s a pretty nice guy and I played for his momma, too. And yes, he can play the blues.”
And at the end of the day, when Gray eventually does stop playing the blues, what does he most want to be remembered for?
“Well, I don’t know when I’m going to quit,” he answered. “I don’t have no plans at doing nothing but to keep on playing. Everybody that calls me – some of the biggest blues musicians there is – wants me to play and that’s just what I’m going to do. I just love the blues and so many people write to me or call me and tell me that they love the blues, too … and I love to play them.”
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.