Living Blues Review

Shake a Hand by Henry Gray (Wolf Records)


Great Piano Blues by the
Louisiana & Chicago Legend
Louisiana Swamp
Blues Vol. 8
Wolf – CD120.634

Published by
When Henry Gray died in early 2020 at age 95, the blues world lost one of its last direct links to the transformative early years of postwar Chicago blues of the late 19405 and 19505. Gray’s remarkable music career spanned eight decades and he remained a powerhouse of blues and boogie woogie piano into his 94th year, making dozens of overseas tours since the mid-1970s when his reputation started to spread internationally.

Wolf’s latest installment of its long-running Louisiana Swamp Blues series, Shake a Hand: Great Piano Blues by the Louisiana & Chicago Legend, finds Gray in usual top form on recordings taken from a half-dozen club dates and a studio session during two European tours in 1995 and 1996.

Backed by a small combo of sympathetic players, Gray barrels through 17 well-chosen covers and strong originals. Along the way, as those who were familiar with his powerful live shows will recognize, the blues piano master takes his audience on a virtual history tour of the blues that stretches back to its pre-war days (Memphis Minnie’s Everybody’s Fishing, Leroy Carr’s How Long, and Robert John-son’s Sweet Home Chicago), continues on through Chicago’s electrified heyday (Jimmy Reed’s Boogie in the Dark, Elmore James /Tampa Red’s It Hurts Me Too, and his former longtime bandleader Howlin’ Wolf on Little Red Rooster and Howlin’ for My Darling), and onto more recent times of the soul blues era (Z.Z. Hill’s Down Home Blues). Gray and company also provide a few numbers from the rhythm side of the blues, with rousing versions of such R&B classics as Fats Domino’s My Girl Josephine, Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, Ray Charles’ iconic What’d I Say, and the title track, Faye Adams’ 1953 hit Shake a Hand.

Of course, Gray also wrote some fine songs of his own and several are featured throughout, including his signature I’m a Lucky Man, which in his brief introduction he explains was the reason he was originally invited to perform in Europe. (Gray’s 1970 single for J.D. Miller’s Blues Unlimited label first exposed to the world his talents as an exceptional leading artist in his own right.) Also on display is Gray’s rapid-fire song delivery as the pace he sets here, although somewhat manipulated due to nature of the release, accurately reflects his typical no-nonsense approach to his live performances.

He knew hundreds of songs and was always ready to immediately launch into the next one as soon as the final note rang out. Having recently hit the 70-year milestone at the time of these performances, Gray was arguably at the top of his game both instrumentally and vocally. Incredulously, what no one could have foreseen at the time was that he would continue for more than two decades like this with all of his exceptional talent, power, and vitality still intact. With a first-rate production quality that places his commanding piano and impassioned vocals front and center, confident backing, and a solid playlist, Shake a Hand stands as a
fine testament to Henry Gray’s extraordinary legacy as one of the great piano players of postwar blues.

—Gene Tomko