Henry Gray obituary

Blues pianist who played and recorded with Howlin’ Wolf

In the electrifying blues scene of 1950s Chicago there were two men who rose above all others. On one side stood the stylish Muddy Waters; on the other the towering, intense Howlin’ Wolf. Henry Gray, who has died aged 95, played with both of them.

It was with Wolf he went deepest. Beginning in 1956 Gray spent more than a decade playing the piano on some of the Mississippi bluesman’s finest sessions in the studio while leading his band outside it, always making sure the other musicians stuck to Wolf’s firm no-drinking, no-smoking onstage rules. Older, wiser and more disciplined than many of the others, he proved to be the steady hand Wolf was looking for.

Wolf had an uncompromising reputation. But for all the fear he struck into people, he got along with Gray just fine. “He was very strict,” Gray said, years later. “But I ain’t never had no problems with Howlin’ Wolf.”

Gray was born in Kenner, Louisiana, an only child growing up in a poor family. His early years were spent in Alsen, a tiny town a few miles north of Baton Rouge. The Gray household was deeply devout. Though there was plenty of music to be heard, it was strictly the spiritual kind. “There was no blues in the house,” he said years later. “They’d say ‘it’s the devil’s music.’”

Henry Gray playing Worried Life Blues

Gray began playing the piano at the age of eight. Though he initially stuck to spirituals, by the age of 16 he had begun to earn a living playing in bands around the area. The steady income helped quell his family’s reservations. A wartime stint in the US army followed, during which he spent much of his time playing his piano to entertain the troops. He always maintained it kept him from being sent into combat. “Piano saved my life,” he frequently said. “I didn’t have to go on the front line and get killed.”

After returning from the army in 1946 he spent a week at home before heading north to Chicago, the city’s fast pace and bright lights having left an indelible impression on him during a trip years earlier. Once there he linked up with other southern musicians, though the most important connection he made was with Big Maceo Merriweather. Merriweather’s modern, hard-blues piano style proved a huge influence, laying the foundations of a style Gray would continue to play for the rest of his life. When the elder bluesman suffered a debilitating stroke, Gray played alongside him: Gray would play the left-hand part, Merriweather the right.

A meeting with Muddy Waters’ guitarist Jimmy Rogers proved to be Gray’s big break. In August 1952 he entered the recording studio for the first time, playing behind Rogers at Chess Records. It was the first of many sessions at Chess, and he would gain a reputation as one of the city’s finest pianists.

He toured with Little Walter and picked up an astonishing array of casual gigs throughout Chicago. His playing partners serve as a who’s-who of Chicago’s finest: Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, JB Lenoir, Elmore James, Earl Hooker, Jimmy Reed.

He joined Wolf’s band in 1956, going on to become his primary pianist for most of the next 12 years. From the start the relationship between the two was amicable and professional. “Some musicians didn’t like Wolf telling them what to do and what to wear,” he said in 2001. “But if your name was out there, would you want a band behind you with their asses hanging out?” He played on some of Wolf’s greatest sides, including I Ain’t Superstitious and Goin’ Down Slow, and led his band through a period of huge success. By the time Gray left, his boss was the toast of young musicians in the US and, especially, the UK.

Henry Gray in Storyville Films’ Barrelhouse Piano

Gray returned to Louisiana in 1968 following the death of his father, initially helping in the family business before working as a roofer. A sideman for most of his career, he recorded more under his own name in later years and was nominated for a Grammy award for his playing on Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf (1999). He played festivals throughout Louisiana and further afield: in his 80s he continued to travel, as far as Paris (for Mick Jagger’s 55th birthday party) and Rio de Janeiro.

He faced some hard times over the last few years of his life, losing most of his possessions in the 2016 Louisiana floods and incurring a collapsed lung and mild heart attack in 2017. But he never stopped playing. In the last year of his life Gray could be found happily tinkering away in restaurants throughout Baton Rouge, playing the same tasteful piano rolls that Merriweather taught him, that had filled smoky barrooms in Chicago and made Howlin’ Wolf’s eyes light up.

His wife, Rivers (nee Arthur), died in 2005; he is survived by his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

• Henry Gray, blues pianist, born 19 January 1925; died 17 February 2020


Jack Barlow

The GuardianTramp

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