Nothing can stop 92-year-old Henry Gray from playing the blues.
Not time. Not illness. Not the flood that engulfed his north Baton Rouge home last year.
Following his second hospitalization this year, Gray, a 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Award honoree and 1998 Grammy nominee, has returned to his Tuesday night residency at the TimeOut Lounge.
Gray has also released a new album, “92,” coproduced by Grammy-winning zydeco artist Terrance Simien.
“It’s fine,” Gray said of the album at home with his wife, Wanda, in north Baton Rouge.
Gray recorded “92” at Dockside Studio in Maurice with guitarist Paul “Lil’ Buck” Sinegal, harmonica player Bob Corritore and Simien band members Danny Williams, Stan Chambers and Oreun Joubert.
Simien met Gray at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans, where they both performed. At that time, Simien was 18 years old and had never encountered a real blues man.
“Henry was phenomenal,” Simien recalled. “Just him and his piano. Huge crowds gathered around him every time he played.”
During Gray’s breaks, he told the young zydeco musician stories about the classic blues artists he’d worked with for 22 years in Chicago. A member of Howlin’ Wolf’s band for 14 years, Gray also performed with Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson and fellow Louisiana native Little Walter Jacobs.
“Because blues influenced just about every style of popular music, these icons helped create American music,” Simien said. “At the time, Henry’s stories were coming into my little head, me coming straight out of Mallet, the sticks, it just blew my mind.”
“I’ve been all over the world,” Gray said. “I played with all the big boys. Howlin’ Wolf in Chicago. I played with B.B. King. Me and B.B. was tight. I played with Elmore James. He died. I played with Muddy Waters. He died. Played with Wolf. He died. All of ’em died. That’s why I left Chicago and came back home.
"I said, ‘Man, I’m gone.’ Because it looked like it was catching. I ain’t ready yet.”
After the World’s Fair, Gray and Simien occasionally saw each other again at gigs, including the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise and Switzerland’s Lucerne Blues Festival. They met again two years ago at a Gray performance in Lafayette.
“He started playing and singing,” Simien said. “He hit every note and sang every note. Nothing was missing. And the dance floor got crowded with people. I’m like, ‘Wow. Ninety years old and still doing it just like the first time I saw him.”
Inspired, Simien asked Gray if he’d be interested in recording a new album.
“Because Mr. Henry is not only an inspiration for musicians, he’s an inspiration for every human being,” Simien said.
After unsuccessful attempts to interest a record company in the project, Simien financed it himself.
“It’s money well spent, because the world needs to hear Henry,” he said. “He’s the last man from his generation.
"Henry’s responsible for so many things, helping create the Chicago blues sound. It was such a gift, for me, to be a part of this. I’m so proud and happy that we did it.”
Meanwhile, at the TimeOut Lounge, co-owner Kathleen Byers feels much the same.
“Henry gives it all he can every time,” Byers said. “He’s a treasure to me. He should be a treasure to every person in Baton Rouge.”
Following his most recent illness in October, Gray was eager to play again at the TimeOut Lounge. The blues won’t let him rest.
“Hmm, hmm,” he said. “I wanted to come back. I got to take care of my own business.”
WHERE: TimeOut Lounge, 4619 Bennington Ave., Baton Rouge
WHEN: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays