Despite a recent double health scare, artist Henry Gray has vowed to keep playing the blues music he’s loved since he was a child in north Baton Rouge.
Following surgery for a collapsed lung, Gray, 92, experienced a mild heart attack on Feb. 20. He was released from Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center later that week.
“I’m going to stay playing my piano,” he said.
“He is a strong man,” said Deandre Tate, Gray’s great-grandson. “He’s tough.”
“I’m back home,” Gray added. “I’m doing all right.”
Locally, Gray plays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays at TimeOut Lounge on Bennington Avenue. His future bookings include the Baton Rouge Blues Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
In January, Gray celebrated his 92nd birthday at TimeOut. Kenny Neal, another internationally-recognized, Grammy-nominated blues man from Baton Rouge, sat in with the singer-pianist during the special occasion.
“So many people came out to show their love for Henry,” Neal posted on Facebook. “What a great night. He wore me out. He did not want to stop playing. I hope I’m like that at 92.”
Gray’s birthday presents included two keyboard ties of the kind he’s often worn at gigs. The Baton Rouge Blues Foundation replaced the keyboard ties Gray lost in August when floodwaters destroyed his home.
Funds raised by an online GoFundMe campaign are helping Gray obtain a new house. He stayed with his great-grandson immediately after the flood but refused to remain for an extended period.
“He didn’t have to leave,” Tate said. “But, he said he wanted to give me my complete privacy.”
In 1946, after his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, Gray moved to Chicago, then a mecca for blues artists. Established blues artist Big Maceo Merriwether took the young pianist from Louisiana under his wing.
During Gray’s 22 years in the Windy City, he worked with major blues acts on stage and in the recording studio. In 1956, he joined blues star Howlin’ Wolf’s band as pianist, a position he held for 12 years.
After Gray returned to Alsen in 1968, he worked in his family’s fish market and as a roofer for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. His music making, however, didn’t stop.
Gray has performed at music festivals throughout the world. His recordings include the Grammy-nominated 1998 album, “A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf.” Also in 1998, Gray performed for Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger’s 55th birthday party in Paris. In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts named him a National Heritage Fellowship Award honoree.
Following Gray’s recent illness, fans and fellow musicians expressed their appreciation for him.
“Henry has had just about the longest and most storied careers that a musician could expect to have,” said Clarke Gernon, president of the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation’s board of directors. “We are lucky to have Henry as part of our active blues culture here in Baton Rouge. Just a few weeks back, I saw him play for more than three hours straight, on his birthday.”
Larry Garner, another local blues artist known worldwide, recalled a night in London when Gray showed up at Garner’s gig in the British capital.
“It felt great when Henry walked in and sat in with us,” Garner said. “Gave me a leg up. Henry is the last of the older blues piano cats. It’s a blessing that we can still enjoy him.”