Blues Fest 2007: A Two-Fisted Legend - Henry Gray: Sunday, 7:30 p.m., Tent Stage Print
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 27 June 2007 02:56

Henry GrayIt's only a slight overstatement to say that blues piano legend Henry Gray has played with everybody who's anybody.

"Just about everybody," said the Louisiana native in a recent phone interview. "You name it, I've either worked with 'em or recorded with 'em."

I asked him if anybody stood out, or if he had any favorites.

"Shoot," said the 82-year-old with a laugh. "I would have to name at least 40 or 50 people, I've worked with so many people."

After a bit of hemming and hawing, Gray threw out the names of Elmore James and Muddy Waters, and you don't get much bigger than those two when it comes to the blues.

A winner of the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship in 2006, Gray was among the best blues-piano players in the Chicago area in the 1950s. He arrived in the Windy City in 1946 after getting out of the Army and learned from Big Maceo Merriweather.

"He had a good left hand," Gray said of Merriweather. "He showed me all about that left hand, the boogie-woogie ... . You all don't need a bass player ... but I still got one, you know."

Henry Gray He was playing with Little Walter when, in 1956, Howlin' Wolf asked him to join his band. He did, and stayed with him for a dozen years.

He moved back to Louisiana in 1968 and worked as a roofer, but claimed he didn't like it. "I had a job, and I quit that," he said. "I was a roofer for the the school board." How long did that last? A mere 14 years.

He released his solo debut in 1988 for the Blind Pig label and has recorded a handful of discs since then.

In Blues Revue, Hal Horowitz wrote about his 1999 live disc: "Gray is easily on par with greats like Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, and Sunnyland Slim. Here, he pounds, boogie-woogies, and barrelhouses his way through 15 songs on a 72-minute disc that never lets up. The pianist proves as comfortable with rootsy rock 'n' roll nuggets like ‘Twistin' the Night Away,' ‘C.C. Rider,' and ‘Stagger Lee' as with blues classics. As showcases for his astounding double-fisted talent, they provide a framework for Gray and his longtime band to shift effortlessly from swamp ... to upbeat Louisiana blues."

Those skills are still in evidence on his Henry Gray & the Cats: Live in Paris, which was recorded in 2003 and is available on CD and DVD from Gray's Web site (http://www.henrygray.com). Gray and his band run through 14 songs, from blues nuggets to "The Twist" to Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." His energy remains remarkable for somebody who was, at the time, pushing 80.

In these later years, Gray doesn't appear to be slowing down. He's playing festivals - "I play for just about all of them," he said - and a Howlin' Wolf tribute on which he performed was nominated for a Grammy in 1999. He's going to Russia (for what he thinks is the third time) in January, he said, and "everywhere I go, they like me." Does he like Russia? "I make some money, I like it," he said.

And in 1998 he played at Mick Jagger's 55th birthday party. How was that? "He was nice. Fine. Good money."