Not a Gray Age
At 88, blues legend Henry Gray is still kicking with a weekly Mud & Water show
By Jake ClappPosted Mar 27, 2013
The small baby grand piano was mildly out of tune and had a slight tinny sound – not the best for playing beefy, powerful blues. But that didn’t matter to Henry Gray. He could still make it sing.
“This one – you might have heard of Big Maceo Merriweather – me and him were tight. That’s where I got my left hand,” Gray said before pulling out a Merriweather blues boogie.
Even at 88 years old, Gray’s hands still fly across the keys, at once strong and pounding while still being graceful, clean, and agile. They could well be the hands of a 30-year-old, but maybe a little more wrinkled and rough.
If his résumé isn’t enough, within the first seconds of music it’s obvious why the Baton Rouge blues musician has been labeled a living legend.
Beginning March 27, Gray will take up a music residency at Mud & Water, playing an 8 p.m. set every Wednesday evening with a trio of musicians: James Johnston, Lester “Pick” Delmore, and Marshall Bolden, who are all blues icons in their own right.
“Every great blues legend deserves an audience, especially an audience that can enjoy a cocktail in a club setting,” said Jeremy Woolsey, Mud & Water co-owner. “I was astounded the Mr. Gray was not gigging much, other than his weekly Piccadilly lunch shows, and I wanted to change that. Not to mention a good deal of these legends in New Orleans and Baton Rouge don’t always receive fair treatment on the financial side of things. This is a way to give back.”
Woolsey approached Alan Abrahams and Kenny Neal, Gray’s managers and friends, and pitched them the idea.
“Alan and I understand the importance of this artist and want to make this a special weekly event for the city,” Woolsey said. “When it’s not about money or power or the things that can cloud collaborations such as this, the process becomes easier.”
Abrahams said it wasn’t difficult to convince Gray, and there are plans to turn the residency into a recording opportunity.
“Just one set, with him and a band every Wednesday, for as long as he wants to do it. And a few weeks in, we’ll record a live album,” Abrahams said.
Woolsey said he hopes the residency will benefit the city, and not just Mud & Water.
“Honestly, I will be proud 10 or 20 years from now to say we hosted Henry on a weekly basis,” he said. “I also hope this becomes a can’t miss residency that attracts tourists and locals alike to Baton Rouge that are looking for something that really captures the essence of Louisiana music and it’s influence across the world.”
Born in Kenner and raised in Alsen, just north of Baton Rouge, Gray took up the piano at the age of 8. He was playing blues music in clubs by the time he was 16.
In 1943, Gray joined the Army and served in the South Pacific during the final years of World War II, working on ships and, of course, playing music to entertain his fellow troops.
“That’s the reason I’m here,” Gray said with a laugh. “If I wasn’t [playing music] I wouldn’t be here. They kind of kept me back a little bit for entertainment, but I was working on a ship. Every once in a while they would take me out, but they never took me to the front line.”
Gray likes to tell stories to illustrate his point, and age has not slowed him down in the slightest. He’s fiercely independent and not afraid to speak his mind, and it shows through in casual conversation.
In 1946, he briefly returned home before moving to Chicago. He began getting steady gigs around the city and before long became a regular session musician, playing in the studio behind guys like Bo Diddly, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter. For the next 20 years he would play with the icons of Chicago blues, and is even credited with helping to develop the Chicago blues piano sound.
Gray joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band in 1956 and would become his main piano player for 12 years.
“I liked Howlin’ Wolf,” Gray responded when asked what musician, of all he’s played with, sticks out the most. “Now, a lot of people didn’t like him because he was strict. You come on the bandstand with Howlin’ Wolf, you’re going to be dressed alike. If you wouldn’t, he would fine you.”
During the same period, Gray became a session player on numerous recordings made by Chess Records.
The list of icons Gray has played with will make your head spin. The Rolling Stones, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter Jacobs, B.B. King, and the list goes on.
“I was playing with Howlin’ Wolf, he died. I played with Muddy Waters for three years, he died. I was playing with Elmore James when he died. I was playing with Sonny Boy Williams, he died. I played with Morris Pejoe, he died. I’m the only one left kicking,” Gray said.
In 1968, Gray returned to Alsen after the death of his father to help his mother with the family-run fish market. Over the more than 40 years since, Gray has remained a highly prolific performer in the national blues scene.
Since then, Gray has performed regularly at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Festival International in Lafayette and the Baton Rouge Blues Festival, among other prominent festivals around the U.S. and Europe.
In 1998, Gray was nominated for a Grammy for his album A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, and the same year played for Mick Jagger’s 55th birthday.
Several years later, in 2006 – with a couple of more albums and even some appearances in films and documentaries in between – Gray was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s top honor for folk artists.
To date, Gray has roughly 60 albums to his credit.
“There’s a term with musicians when they’re playing, called ‘playing beyond themselves,’ meaning he’s not thinking,” Abrahams said. “When he sits at the piano, he just sits back and lets it go. And, if I may say, it’s something you can count on: when Henry Gray steps up to the piano it’s always going to be great.”
Gray shows no signs of easing up anytime soon. This year already looks like the beginning of another busy period in the musician’s life.
When asked if he feels comfortable being labeled a “living legend,” Gray laughed, shrugged and said “sure,” without hesitation. After so long behind the keyboard, Gray knows how to measure his success.
“Everybody looks like they seem to like me,” Gray said. “Everywhere I go, people seem to like me. And I like everybody. I don’t care what color, how you look – old, young, crazy, cripple. If you like me, I like you.”
with James Johnston, Lester Delmore, and Marshall Bolden
Mud & Water
Every Wednesday, beginning March 27
An Abrahams Neal production