An all-star lineup will gather Thursday for a fundraising jam session and tribute in Baton Rouge for Henry Gray, the 94-year-old blues singer-pianist who has performed and recorded with such blues legends as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and B.B. King.
Gray, who continued to perform the music he loves into his 90s, is in hospice care at his home in Baton Rouge. All proceeds from the $10 admission to the event at Phil Brady’s on Government Street will go to Gray, said tribute organizer Johnny Palazzotto.
“Henry has been important to the Louisiana music scene and the Chicago music scene for more than 60 years,” Palazzotto said. “At 94, there is not a more significant blues pianist still with us.”
Thursday’s performers include Chris Thomas King, Larry Garner, Kenny Neal, Lil’ Ray Neal and Smokehouse and Mamie Porter. The tribute begins at 8 p.m. at Phil Brady’s, 4848 Government St.
“These are the next-generation guys who came after Henry,” Palazzotto said of the event’s lineup. “They all love Henry and they’ve all played many, many gigs with him. They’re all stepping up to send him off in style.”
Gray’s many honors include the National Heritage Fellowship Award he received in 2006 and a 1998 Grammy nomination for “A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf.” He’s recorded for several record labels, including Chess, Blind Pig, Hightone, Wolf and Telarc Blues.
Until this year, Gray didn’t let his increasingly frequent ill health stop him from performing his beloved blues music. In 2017, after he experienced a collapsed lung and mild heart attack in quick succession, he vowed, “I’m going to stay playing my piano.” Following multiple hospital stays that year, Gray returned to his Tuesday night residency at the Time Out Lounge.
“I got to take care of my own business,” he said.
A primal blues pianist and vocalist who sings with raw, often mournful emotion, Gray can also rip it up with such raucous rock ’n’ roll classics as Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” A songwriter as well as an interpreter, his 2009 album features seven originals, including “Barack Obama Boogie,” Gray’s homage to the first African-American president of the United States.
In 2017, Gray recorded his latest album, “92.” Grammy-winning zydeco artist Terrance Simien co-produced the project with Gray at Dockside Studio in Maurice.
“Henry’s responsible for so many things, helping create the Chicago blues sound,” Simien said then. “It was such a gift, for me, to be a part of this.”
Born in 1925 in Kenner, Gray grew up in the East Baton Rouge Parish community of Alsen. Gray learned to play blues piano as a child despite his religious parents’ disapproval. From 1946 to 1968, he lived in Chicago, performing and recording with many blues stars. His sideman work included 12 years in the Howlin’ Wolf band.
Gray returned to Baton Rouge in 1968. He worked in his family’s fish market and later as a roofer for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
In the decades that followed, he continued performing, appearing throughout the world, including the Chicago Blues Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Baton Rouge Blues Festival.
His engagements included Mick Jagger’s 55th birthday party in Paris. In Baton Rouge, he appeared regularly at Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall.