Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page

Henry Gray was born on January 19, 1925 in Kenner, Louisiana, an  outskirt of New Orleans. Within a few years his family moved to a small  farm in Alsen, Louisiana a few miles north of Baton Rouge. It was here  that Gray began to demonstrate his talent on the piano at the age of  eight. 

He was exposed to the piano through church, the radio and  records, and an elderly woman in his neighborhood, Mrs. White. She  recognized Henry's interest and gave him lessons. He began playing piano  and organ in the  local church. Eventually, Henry's family acquired a  piano in their home. 

Yet, as with many families, the blues was not  allowed to be played on the piano at home, so Henry had to sneak around  and play the blues where he could. Fortunately, Mrs. White encouraged  Henry to play the blues at her house.

At the age of sixteen, Henry was  asked to play with a band at a club near his home in Alsen. He gathered  the courage to tell his father. To Henry's surprise, his father agreed,  but only if Henry was accompanied by his father. Henry played the gig  and made some money. As Henry tells it, "When my father saw that I could  make money playing the blues, he liked that all right!" 

It was this  event, that gave birth to Henry Gray's remarkable sixty year career in  the history of the Blues.
Henry served several years in the army during World War II in the south  Pacific. On a many of occasions, Henry entertained troops with a piano  and his singing. He fondly recalls those moments as they were breaks  from the stress of being a war-time soldier. 

Shortly before the war was  over, Henry was given a medical discharge from the army. He returned to  his family's home in Alsen for a short period before leaving to go to  Chicago where he had relatives.

 Soon after arriving in Chicago in 1946, Henry began frequenting the  clubs and joints checking out the piano players and measuring his skills  and talents with theirs. At times, he would sit in a play in some of the  places. 

While doing this, Henry caught the eyes and ears of Big Maceo  Merriwether, who is considered one of the best blues and barrel house  piano players in history. Maceo was born in Detroit but had moved to  Chicago to make money playing the piano. Merriwether mentored Henry and  showed him the ropes in the blues scene in Chicago. 

It wasn't long before Henry was being sought after for his abilities.  For the next twenty-two years, Henry played and/or recorded with many  notable players and innovators of the blues.

In 1956, Howlin' Wolf asked Henry to join his band. Henry did and  remained Wolf's main piano player until 1968. This is evidenced on many  of Wolf's recording during this time. During the fifties and sixties,  Chess Records employed Henry many times as side man on their recordings.  Also, he can be heard on many of J. D. Miller's Louisiana Excello blues  recordings in the fifties and sixties.

Photo by: Josh Pailet of Gallery of Fine PhotographyThe following is a list of  blues artists that Henry has worked and/or  recorded with in his career: Robert Lockwood, Jr.., Billy Boy Arnold,  Morris Pejoe, Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Abe Locke, Hubert SumlinLazy Lester, "Little" Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller)"Homesick" James, Jimmy Reed ( including a Carnegie Hall concert), Jimmy  Rogers, Elmore James (with him the night he died), "Snooky"  Pryor, Koko  Taylor, Otis Rush, "Little" Milton, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Raful Neal,  Kenny Neal, Taj Mahal, BB King, Tabby Thomas, Larry Garner, Moses  "Whisperin" Smith, Silas Hogan, Guitar Kelly, Washboard Sam, and Guitar Slim. This list in not complete but it gives one the idea of the  prolific and vital history of Henry's accomplishments. 

Henry left Howling Wolf's  band and Chicago in 1968 to return to Alsen, due to the death of his  father and to assist his mother with a family fish market business.

Since 1968, many have wondered what Henry has been doing. He worked  with the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board as roofer for nearly  fifteen years before retiring, helped raise a family with his wife  Rivers Gray for the last thirty years, and remained active as a musician  in a number of ways. 

click for larger imageDuring the last thirty years, Henry has been  performed at virtually all New Orleans Jazz Festivals, two Chicago Blues festivals (1987 & (1989), the Montreal Jazz Fest  (1988),  nearly every Baton Rouge Blues Festival since its inception,  the San Francisco Blues Festival, Memphis's W.C. Handy Blues Festival  Blues Festival, several Festival Internationals (Lafayette, Louisiana),  the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, the festival  (Helena, Arkansas), and many other festivals around the United States. 

Also, Henry has travelled to Europe to play festivals and concerts  regularly during this time. He is on several European releases with  several bands. Henry can be found playing occasionally at Blind Willies in Atlanta, Georgia, the Rhythm Room in Phoenix, Arizona, Tabby's Thomas' Blues Box and Abe's Barbecue in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1988, Blind Pig Records released Henry's first  stateside feature LP entitled "Lucky Man."  

More recently, Henry received a Grammy nomination for his work on TelArc  Records' 1998 release "A Tribute to Howlin' Wolf". Also, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones paid homage to Henry by having him play at Jagger's 55th birthday bash in Paris in '98 along with a few other blues legends. In the summer of '99, Henry joined Marva Wright and her band for a 30-day Louisiana music European tour produced by Blue House Records. Finally, Henry Gray and the Cats will continue "keepin' the blues alive" according to God's plan. Support the blues! Peace.

Andy Cornett


(337) 269-5153
Andy Cornett