Although Henry Gray has resided in Scotlandville for the past four decades, he is the obvious heir to the Chicago blues piano throne. Gray lived in the Windy City from 1946 to 1970, when he recorded under his own name as well as with Billy Boy Arnold, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed and most memorably, Howlin’ Wolf. He was present on such blues classics as “Tail Dragger,” Going Down Slow,” Killing Floor” and “You’ll Be Mine.”
As a young teen, Gray visited an aunt in Chicago in 1939. He fell in love with the city and vowed to return, but his draft notice arrived and he was sent to the South Pacific instead, serving in the army until 1946.
“I was back in Louisiana one week and then took the train to Chicago,” Gray said in 2001. “I wanted to be a musician. I worked in a steel mill for a year and went to clubs almost every night. I played with Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson. The one that got murdered.”
Gray was mentored by Big Maceo, who by the early 1950s was considered the Chicago’s top blues piano player. In 1954, Gray toured with Little Walter and did spot gigs with Magic Sam, J.B. Lenoir and Elmore James. Two years later, he began a 12-year association with Howlin’ Wolf.
“Wolf was strict, but we got along. He had his .38 and I had my .38. He bought the band uniforms and you damn well had to wear it. Wolf was a good showman. He would crawl around the stage on his hands and knees like a real wolf and drive the crowd crazy.”
Gray was responsible for bringing a new sound to ensemble Chicago blues in 1959: the electric piano.
“It was a Wurlitzer. I played it through a Fender Bassman (amplifier). I got tired of playing out-of-tune, torn-up pianos and having to play around the bad notes.”
Gray split with Wolf in 1970 and returned to Louisiana. His first American solo album, Lucky Man, from 1988, has recently been reissued on CD for the first time by Blind Pig.