Editor’s Note: Last year, around this time, we began a series of “10 Things You Didn’t Know,” about the upcoming Blues Hall of Fame inductees. We continue the tradition this year, and who better to start it off than a man with over 70 years in the music business, who is still going strong? We offer you 10 Things You Didn’t Know about the great Louisiana piano man, Henry Gray.
1. The son of a church deacon, Henry Gray began playing piano at the age of eight. Due to the strict Christian attitude of his father, he was only allowed to play spirituals in the family home. He was, however, allowed to play blues in the home of his piano teacher, Mrs. White. By the age of 16, he was playing blues professionally, at a local club in Alsen, Louisiana. Although his father didn’t approve of the “devil’s music,” he became supportive of his son’s endeavors when he realized the money he was making. Deacon Gray then began accompanying young Henry to his gigs.
2. Gray joined the Army at the age of 18. The year was 1943, and he was sent to the South Pacific to fight in World War II. Many times, his popularity from playing piano for the troops kept him from the front lines. After serving three years, he received a medical discharge, and went home to Louisiana.
3. After a brief stay at home, Gray relocated to Chicago. He knew that’s where all the big name blues players were at the time. He also thought that he could make more money playing there, than in Louisiana. In 1946, there were only a couple of young, hot, piano players in the Windy City. One of them was Otis Spann, who had moved there, the same year, from Belzoni, Mississippi. The other, was Spann’s cousin, “Little” Johnny Jones, who had traveled to Chicago from Jackson, Mississippi, the previous year. Soon, all three would have one person in common.
4. Major “Big Maceo” Merriweather, had been a Chicago hit-maker for five years when Gray arrived. He had served as a mentor to both Spann, and Jones, and soon took Gray under his wing as well. Maceo taught him the intricacies of using his left hand, developing the “two fisted” playing for which Gray became famous. When Big Maceo suffered a stroke, Gray would appear with him on stage, playing the left hand parts for his friend.
5. In 1956, after years of gigging, and becoming a successful session musician, Gray joined the Howlin’ Wolf band. After guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, Gray’s 14 year tenure, made him the Wolf’s longest lasting band mate. During that stint, he also continued his session work, playing and recording with artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Otis Rush, and Koko Taylor. Currently, Gray has over 75 albums on which he is credited.
6. Following the death of his father in late 1968, Gray moved back to Alsen, Louisiana, to help his mother with the family fish market. He also began work as a roofer, for the East Baton Rouge Parish School District. It was a job that he kept for the next 15 years. He never gave up on music, however. It wasn’t long after his return, that he began playing with Slim Harpo. The combination of the two, helped promote the burgeoning “swamp blues,” sound of the area.
7. After nearly 40 years as a professional musician, Henry Gray cut his first solo album, They Call Me Little Henry, in 1977. Ironically, it was his popularity in Europe that made the record possible. Recorded at Rhenus Studio, in Cologne, Germany, the album was released on the British label, Bluebeat. It was another 11 years before his next album. This time, it was the stateside offering, Lucky Man, on the Blind Pig label.
8. Gray has had an ongoing, working relationship with harmonica doyen, and club owner, Bob Corritore. In 1998, they first played together on the album, Wolf Tracks: A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf. They were joined by other alumni of Wolf’s band, including Sam Lay, Eddie Shaw, and Sumlin. Other guests on the album reads like a who’s who of the blues. Taj Mahal, Debbie Davies, Kenny Neal, Lucinda Williams, Lucky Peterson, James Cotton, and more all took part. The Telarc release garnered a Grammy nomination.
9. So loved is Gray in Europe, that, also in 1998, he was invited to perform at Rolling Stones frontman, Mick Jagger’s 55th birthday party in Paris. The two jammed together, with Gray on piano and Jagger on guitar and harmonica. As a special request from the birthday boy, Gray also played for Jagger’s mother at the event.
10. Having turned 92 in January, Henry Gray has suffered from both a collapsed lung, and a heart attack this year. Last August, his home was destroyed by a flood. But nothing keeps this last of the blues piano greats down. Recovering well, he still plans to participate in the upcoming Baton Rouge Blues Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Gray will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, on May 11th, in Memphis.
Please feel free to share your memories of Henry Gray in the comments.