Early life and education
Shortly after he was born Gray, an only child, moved with his parents to a farm in Alsen, LA, a few miles north of Baton Rouge, where he would spend his childhood years. Gray began studying piano at the age of eight with a neighborhood woman, Mrs. White. Gray also credits the radio and music records in his home for inspiring his love for music at a young age. A few years later, Gray began playing piano and organ at his local Baptist church, and his family eventually got a piano for the house. While blues playing was not encouraged within his family's home, Henry did play blues at Mrs. White's house, and by the time he was 16 he was playing blues music at a club in Alsen. His father initially disapproved of Gray's "club gig" but, after seeing how much money he was making, Gray's father became supportive. In 1943, Gray joined the United States Army and was sent to the South Pacific during World War II. While in the Army, Gray would frequently entertain his fellow soldiers with his piano playing and singing. Shortly before the war was over, Gray was given a medical discharge from the army. He returned to the U.S. in 1946 where he spent a brief time in Alsen before relocating to Chicago where he had relatives.
After arriving in Chicago, Gray began spending a great deal of his time in the growing postwar jazz and blues club scene. He would spend hours listening to and trying to learn from the Windy City's best piano players and would occasionally get hired for smaller gigs. One day while he was sitting in at a club, he caught the attention of Big Maceo Merriweather, an important jazz and blues piano player in Chicago (from Detroit). Merriweather befriended Gray and had an important impact on influencing Gray's "two-fisted playing" and introducing him to several notable bands and club owners. As a result, Grey was able to obtain steady gigs with groups like Little Hudson's Red Devil Trio (Hudson Showers) and guitarist Morris Pejoe before moving into extensive work as a session musician in the recording studio behind Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Billy Boy Arnold, Pejoe, and others. His first recording session was in 1952 with Jimmy Rogers. Gray also worked occasionally with Little Walter, who nicknamed the young pianist "Bird Breast."
In 1956, Gray joined Howlin' Wolf's band and was Wolf's main piano player for twelve years in performance and on recordings. Also during this time, Gray became a session player for numerous artists on recordings made by Chess Records. He recorded with many icons of the blues including: Abb Lock, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Homesick James, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Billy Boy Arnold, Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Hubert Sumlin, Lazy Lester, Little Walter Jacobs, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Little Milton Campbell, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed, and Koko
Taylor among others. Gray also made some recordings on other labels including several recording with J. D. "Jay" Miller's Louisiana Excello blues band during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963, Gray played with Elmore James on the night that James died of a heart attack.
Gray left Wolf's band and Chicago in 1968 to return to Alsen, Louisiana due to the death of his father and to assist his mother with the family fish market business. Gray became an important part of Louisiana's music scene where his big, rollicking sound became part of the region's "swamp blues" style. In addition to performing, Gray worked with the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board as a roofer from 1968-1983.
During the last thirty years, Gray has performed at virtually all New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festivals, three Chicago Blues Festivals (1987, 1989, and 2005), the Montreal Jazz Festival (1988), nearly every Baton Rouge Blues Festival since its inception, the San Francisco Blues Festival, Memphis's W.C. Handy Blues Festival, several times at Festival International (Lafayette, Louisiana), the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival (Davenport, Iowa), the King Biscuit Blues Festival (Helena, Arkansas), and many other festivals around the United States.
Gray has also traveled to Europe frequently to play in festivals and concerts and can be heard on several European releases. In 1988, Blind Pig Records released Gray's first stateside feature LP entitled Lucky Man. The album was produced by guitarist Steve Freund who also joined Gray on the album for a combination of both Windy City blues and bayou boogie. In 1990, he recorded Louisiana Swamp Blues on the Wolf Records label. In 1998, Gray received a Grammy Award nomination for his album A Tribute to Howlin' Wolf released on TelArc Records. That same year he played for Mick Jagger's 55th birthday celebration in Paris. In the summer of 1999, Gray toured Europe with Marva Wright and her band giving concerts of "Louisiana music" under the sponsorship of Blue House Records. In 2001, Gray recorded two albums: Watch Yourself on the Lucky Cat label and Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues for Hightone Records. During 2003, Henry Gray & the Cats released a CD and DVD entitled Henry Gray & the Cats: Live in Paris. Additionally 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 Scorsese's seven part series, "The Blues", which was aired nationally on public television. Gray was awarded the 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Award by the NEA which is the nation's top honor for folk artist.National Endowment for the Arts. 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'" produced and released by SunLion films. That same year, Gray starred in the independent film The Glass Chord as Saul Solomon, an aging musician suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Gray continues to tour as a soloist and with his band Henry Gray and the Cats.
At one point in his life Gray suffered from alcoholism but has now obtained sobriety for many years. In 1989, his home in the Baton Rouge area was destroyed by a tornado. Gray is married to Rivers Gray and they have three children and eight grandchildren together.
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