Blues pianist Henry Gray has passed away at the age of 95. He is credited with helping create both the distinctive Chicago blues piano sound and the Louisiana swamp blues sound.
Gray was born on January 19, 1925. He spent his early childhood on a farm in Alsen, Louisiana, where he took piano lessons from a local neighborhood woman starting at the age of eight. He began playing professionally at 16. His blues career was sidetracked when he joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and was sent to the South Pacific. He continued playing in the Army, and was discharged in early 1945. In 1946, he returned to the U.S., landing in Chicago.
It was in Chicago that Gray’s career really took off. The Chicago blues scene was hopping, and Gray took a series of small gigs. In 1956, Howlin’ Wolf asked him to join his band. They would perform together until 1968. In addition to Wolf, Gray played as a session man on many Chess Records releases of the 1950s and 1960s, including with Muddy Waters. He also recorded or toured with Taj Mahal, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Lazy Lester, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, James Cotton, Jimmy Reed, Koko Taylor, and Guitar Slim.
In 1968, Gray returned to Louisiana to help with his ailing father and the family business. He didn’t put music aside, though, and his sound became a part of the Louisiana “swamp blues” style as he performed with Slim Harpo.
Gray was a frequent performer at WWOZ’s annual Piano Night, and he performed at nearly every Jazz Fest starting in 1974. In 1988, Blind Pig Records released Henry’s first U.S. LP, Lucky Man. In 1998, he received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album for A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf. That same year, he played at Mick Jagger’s 55th birthday bash in Paris (and alongside Mick, who jumped up for a few songs). In 1999, he joined Marva Wright and her band for a 30-day Louisiana music European tour produced by Blue House Records.
Gray’s career remained active into his final years. In 2017, Gray suffered a mild heart attack and a collapsed lung. A nonagenarian by then, his resolve to continue to play became even stronger, and he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame just two months later and went on to perform at Jazz Fest that May. By the end of his career, Gray was credited on more than 75 albums.
Henry Gray will be greatly missed by the blues communities and fans in Louisiana, Chicago, and worldwide. WWOZ sends its best wishes and thanks for the decades of fantastic music he created.
Below, a few of our favorite photos of him in recent years, and his performance with Terrance Simien and Lil Buck Sinegal at Crescent City Blues & BBQ Fest 2018.