Henry Gray

henry gray

It seems curious now to recall that blues pianist and singer Henry Gray who died on 17th February, was still quite an obscure figure when he made his Luk debut at London’s 100 Club around the end of the 1970s. Although he had toured and recorded in Europe a couple of years previously he was still seen primarily as a sideman, though one who had recorded in his own right for Chess in 1953, with the first two (of three) tracks only eventually seeing the light of day in 1975 on the ground-breaking box set, ‘Genesis Vol. 3- Sweet Home Chicago’. The songs were credited to ‘Little Henry’, and they generated a small degree of excitement back then chiefly because the totally obscure one-time Muddy Waters harp player Henry ‘Pot Strong was among the backing musicians. Henry Gray was bom in Kenner, Louisiana on 19th January 1925 and began playing blues piano when he was around eight years old, playing with groups in the Baton Rouge area by the time he was in his teens. He went to Chicago briefly when he was a youngster, but he was drafted in 1943, serving in the Pacific, before being discharged in 1946. After this, he picked sixty pounds of cotton back home in Louisiana (by his own admission) before deciding that this was not for him and he headed again to the Windy City, where Sunnyland Slim introduced him to Big Maceo, who became a huge influence on his playing- particularly as Henry would often play the left-hand lines as Maceo played the right after his stroke. In the 1950s Henry worked with The Red Devil Trio, with Little Hudson Showers and James Bannister, and he was in demand for session work at Chess Records and elsewhere. He worked with Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Morris Pejoe and many others, and also recorded under his own name for Atomic-H and Parrot, although again, the results only appeared many years later. He was best-known for a twelve-year stint in Howling Wolf’s band, before a dispute (over drinking, or a woman – it is unclear which) led to Henry quitting and going back to Baton Rouge in 1968. Henry quickly slotted into the city’s local blues scene, recording as a leader and sideman for Jay Miller’s Blues Unlimited label, Excello, and Arhoolie. His own debut album, ‘They Call Me Little Henry’ was recorded in Cologne in Germany in 1977, and the growing interest in the blues of Baton Rouge in the ’80s ensured that he recorded 45s for Sunland and on albums for Storyville and Blind Pig – ‘Lucky Man’ was his first solo album in the USA and brought plenty of attention. He also turns up on Austria’s Wolf Records, and he recorded with Short Fuse, who were very active in the UK and Europe around the end of the decade. He was one of the headliners at The Great Rhythm & Blues Festival at Colne in the early 1990s. Many of B&R’s staff have fond memories of Henry returning to his hotel after his show, and treating us to an impromptu performance on the bar’s piano, still wearing his silver tail-coat. (not forgetting B&R’s 10th anniversary party in 1994, when Henry was our special guest, and needless to say needed no prompting to make good use of the keyboard – Prod Ed). He met Chicago harpman Bob Corritore in the early 1990s and the two men maintained a working relationship and friendship right up until Henry’s death. Some years ago he had suffered a collapsed lung and a minor heart atlack, but he carried on playing, and the last few decades saw Henry record plenty of material, with little diminution of quality. He will be sorely missed.

Written by Norman Darwen Blues Rhythm