Henry Gray may well be Louisiana's oldest active legendary master Blues pianist. At 86, with a career that spans over six decades, Henry continues to deliver his rollicking, two-fisted boogie-woogies and passionate blues to people throughout the world.
Perhaps best known as Howlin' Wolf's pianist, he was also a much-in-demand session player for the Chess and Vee-Jay labels, recording with artists such as Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Oits Rush, Billy Boy Arnold, and Bo Diddley. Not only is Henry hailed for his contribution to post WW II Chicago blues, he is also recognized as one of the key contributors to Louisiana's unique 'Swamp Blues' sound.
As David Kunian wrote in Blues Access, "Henry Gray's influence is immeasurable. If you've listened to blues music in the last half-century, you've heard pianist Henry Gray... he recorded and played with everybody... he helped create the blueprint for Chicago blues piano and all that it would be... Henry pioneered the sound of electric piano in Chicago blues. Whenever you hear someone play a familiar blues riff or turnaround on the piano, there is a good chance they learned it from Henry Gray - or someone who learned it off Henry Gray."
Henry Gray was born in Kenner, Louisiana on January 19, 1925. As a youngster, it seemed that Henry's future was already set - he would follow his relatives into a work cycle in the fields that stretched until noon every Saturday. But sneaking around the 'jukes' as young boy, Henry soon discovered that his talent on the piano could put him in the spotlight. So, around the age of 14, with his father in tow, Henry began his 70-year career as a blues musician in the joints adjoining the Louisiana cotton fields.
He played house parties and church services before being drafted into the army during World War II. He was regularly selected to entertain the troops with his South Louisiana blues and jitterbug music. After the war, Henry's talent as an entertainer pointed the way to Chicago. He soon developed a reputation in the clubs on the South Side that brought him to Big Maceo Merriweather, the most eminent blues pianist in that era of the formation of the 'Chicago Blues.' Merriweather befriended Gray and became his mentor, having an important impact by influencing Gray's "two-fisted playing" and introducing him to several notable bands and club owners.
From those early days in South Side blues clubs, Henry emerged as one of the original architects of the Chicago blues piano. Beginning in 1956, he spent twelve years playing piano with the legendary Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett). According to Lily Burnett, Wolf's wife, Henry became the leader and vocalist for the band when 'Wolf' had to travel to make solo appearances. Henry wrote some of his best blues songs during this time.
After a dozen years of touring and recording with one of the hottest blues bands in the country, Henry returned home to Alson, Louisiana in 1968 to help his mother run the family's fish store. He also spent fifteen years working as a roofer for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. But Henry had not given up his music, by any means. He played two or three times a week in the clubs around Baton Rouge, helping, with Tabby Thomas, to create and sustain the 'Swamp Blues' sound of that area. Henry's activity kept him in the local public eye enough to catch the attention of the New Orleans and Jazz Heritage Festival. Since that time, Henry has played at virtually every New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Rolf Shubert, a German blues promoter, discovered Henry at one of these festivals in the mid 1970's. Shubert began to bring Henry over to Europe to play festivals and venues as a solo blues artist. In 1978, Shubert released Henry's first feature album which spotlighted Henry as a solo artist, singing and accompanying himself on the piano. Henry became popular with European blues enthusiasts. Henry's importance in the Baton Rouge blues scene garnered him a spot as one of the featured artists in the original 1985 nationally televised public television's Rainin' In My Heart, a documentary on Baton Rouge blues artists.
Describing Henry's performance at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1987, Larry Kart of the Chicago Tribune wrote, "When Henry Gray took the stage (with his voice like a slab of slate, his piano work tough & jumping) the blues were there for real." As a result of Henry's appearance at the Chicago Blues Fest, Blind Pig Records released Lucky Man in 1988, his first U.S. recording on which he was the featured artist. Audio magazine said, "On Lucky Man, Gray performs as if the heyday of Chicago blues never ended." The album helped to begin a new career for Henry as a bandleader and as a touring solo artist in Europe and the U.S., and led to a featured spot at the prestigious Montreal Jazz Fest in the summer of 1988.
During the 1990's, Henry played concerts each year in Europe, either as a solo artist, or with the backing of European blues bands. In the States, he continued to play selected nationally known festivals such as the San Francisco Blues Festival with his own band, Henry Gray and the Cats.
In 1999 he was nominated for a Grammy for his playing on theTribute to Howlin' Wolf album released by the Telarc label, and in 1998 he was handpicked by Mick Jagger himself to play Jagger's 55th birthday soiree in Paris.
Since 1999, Henry Gray & the Cats have released three critically acclaimed CDs on the band's label, Lucky Cat Productions. In 2001, Gray also recorded an album for Hightone Records entitled Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues.
In March 2003, while appearing for a week at the prestigious Lionel Hampton Jazz Club in Paris, Henry Gray & the Cats set nightly attendance records, resulting in the CD and DVD entitled Henry Gray & the Cats: Live in Paris. While in Paris, France's Blues Society awarded Henry the country's top honor as 2003 'Blues Pianist of the Year.'
Also in 2003, Gray was featured along with Ray Charles, Dr. John, Pinetop Perkins and Dave Brubeck in Clint Eastwood's "Blues Piano," which was part of Martin Scorcese's seven part series, "The Blues." Gray was awarded the 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the nation's top honor for a folk artist. In the same year, Gray was featured along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Pinetop Perkins, Marcia Ball and Little Red in a concert at Morgan Freeman's club Ground Zero in Clarksdale, MS which became the DVD Falsifyin'. Also in 2006, Gray starred in the independent film The Glass Chord as Saul Solomon, an aging musician suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Henry has lost none of the power that was seeded in the Louisiana jukes and flowered in Chicago's South Side. He continues to tour as a soloist and with his band Henry Gray and the Cats.