With the passing of 97-year-old blues singer-pianist Pinetop Perkins in March, the genre lost an irreplaceable link to nearly 100 years of its history.
“He was one of the last great Mississippi bluesmen,” B.B. King, one of the many who praised Perkins, said.
With so many blues greats having left the bandstand, who’s left to carry on? That would be 86-year-old Henry Gray, the Louisiana singer-pianist born in Kenner and raised north of Baton Rouge in Alsen. What’s more, Gray is the product of two blues capitals, Baton Rouge and that great American music city, Chicago.
Gray moved to Chicago in 1946. He joined many of the city’s stars ? including Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Rogers and fellow Louisiana expatriate Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs ? in the Chess Records studio. He also played piano in the mighty Howlin’ Wolf’s band from 1956 through 1968.
Gray moved back to Louisiana in 1968. Although he worked in his family’s fish market business and as a roofer for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, he didn’t give up on the blues.
“I love what I’m doing,” he told The Advocate in 1999.
That love shows in Gray’s 1988 album, Lucky Man. Recorded in Chicago, the recently reissued disc may be the best account of Gray on record.
He performs raw, spine-tingling originals “Cold Chills” and “I’ll Be Up Again Someday,” a romping take on Fats Domino’s “My Girl Josephine” and two piano instrumentals, “Gray’s Bounce” and “Finger Snappin’ Boogie.”
Probably more than any other individual Gray recording, “Finger Snappin’ Boogie” summarizes his keyboard skills. Above a propulsive boogie-bass pattern, his right hand executes trills, playful stabs at chords and glissandos. Even better that he’s strictly solo here, no band around to crowd his piano.
Not one to be mistaken for a crooner, Gray’s piercing vocals have their own simple and true power. On the fun side of things there’s “Lucky, Lucky Man.”
“I got money, a diamond ring, whole lot of women, and most everything,” he brags.
And then there’s “I’ll Be Up Again Someday,” a slow blues piece that contains the genre’s foundational message in a single song.
Gray’s a local treasure, all right, not to mention a 1998 Grammy nominee and 2006 recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship.
His recent gigs include the Blues Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Baton Rouge Blues Festival.
Henry Gray - LUCKY MAN