Henry Gray – Shake a Hand
Wolf Records CD 120.634
18 songs – 55 minutes
Although he was dwarfed in fame by many of his peers, piano player Henry Gray was unquestionably one of the most important artists of his generation in a career that spanned seven decades before his passing at age 95 in 2020. And he gets to live again in this lovingly produced release of long-forgotten recordings made across Europe in the mid-1990s.
A 2016 Blues Blast Music Awards lifetime achievement honoree who was born in a New Orleans suburb and raised on a farm near Baton Rouge, Henry began playing at age eight and entertained troops when serving in the South Pacific during World War II. His career took off after emigrating to Chicago after his discharge, where he picked up his percussive, two-fisted playing style from Big Maceo Merriweather, one of the early proponents of the Windy City sound.
When Maceo lost the use of his left hand following a stroke, Gray shared the bench with him during his gigs and served as its replacement. Henry’s first recording session came with Jimmy Rogers in 1952 and he worked regularly with Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson II and a who’s who of others before spending 12 years in Howlin’ Wolf’s band and serving as a session player on many of the hits emanating from Chess Records in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
When Henry returned to Louisiana in 1968, he became a key cog in the Gulf Coast music scene as the keyboard player on many early swamp blues hits. Beginning with the release of They Call Me Little Henry on the Bluebeat imprint in 1977, he enjoyed a successful career as a front man on several labels and gigging frequently with harmonica player Bob Corritore, his partner on his final two CDs.
Captured during live performances in London, Stafford and Shiplake, England; Schwelgen and Alesund, Norway; Dunkirk, France; and Belfast, Northern Ireland; in 1994 and 1995, this set was produced, recorded and mixed by Steve Coleridge who served as the bassist on several of the sessions. The instrumentation varies from cut to cut and includes guitarists Derek Holt, Andrea Curbelo, Colin John, Richard Rhoden and Big Moe, drummer Keith “The Baron” Webb – who handles vocals on one cut — and harp players Shakey Vick, Jolly Jumper and Errol Linton.
After a brief introduction from The Baron, the action kicks off with a cover of “Shake a Hand,” an R&B chart-topper that was first recorded by Faye Adams in 1953. Gray’s powerful bass runs with his left hand support delicate trills with his right, and his voice is full of emotion as the tune opens as a ballad, erupts into a rocker and alternates to a close. He dips into the first generation of Chicago blues for a propulsive cover of Leroy Carr’s “How Long” before an uptempo attack on the standard, “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Big Moe’s slide carries the Gray original, “All in My Sleep,” with Henry taking a break from the 88s to provide vocals and launching into a rollicking, but unhurried version of “Down Home Blues,” which dominated the airwaves via covers by Z.Z. Hill and Denise LaSalle a decade earlier. “It Hurts Me Too,” a song the pianist played frequently behind Elmore James, follows before he revisits the original, “I’m a Lucky Man,” the tune that put him on the map as a band leader.
A muscular rendition of Lowell Fulson’s “Sinner’s Prayer (aka Lord Have Mercy)” Lowell Fulson precedes the self-penned “How Can You Do It?” before Gray pays tribute to two of his former frontmen with traditional takes of Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” and Reed’s “Boogie in the Dark” before Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti” and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” bookend Memphis Minnie’s 1932 classic, “Everybody’s Fishing.” Wolf’s “Howlin’ for My Darlin’” and Fats Domino’s “My Girl Josephine” follow before “Good Bye Baby,” a tune Henry recorded with harp player Alfred Harris and guitarist Little Hudson in 1955, bring the set to a close.
Henry Gray released great CDs late into his golden years. But he’s at the top of his game in this flashback. It’s a treat for anyone with a passion for traditional blues piano.