Friday, June 26, 2015

Henry Gray: Still Howlin'

(As published in the August 4, 1999, issue of the Times of Acadiana...)

A perusal of any ticket-selling website shows that there’s no shortage of musical living legends on the road these days.  Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are playing together for the first time in more than a decade, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon for the first time ever.  The problem is that anyone who wants good seats at both shows will spend a total of $190.50—$381.00 if he brings the wife, $827.25 if he adds the two-point-five kids.

The good news for people with both a mortgage and a taste for legendary concerts is that the Summer Cultural Arts Series by Henry Gray at the Lafayette Middle School auditorium this Sunday afternoon costs absolutely nothing.  Backed by Andy Cornett (bass), Brian Bruce (harmonica), and Earl Christopher (drums)—a.k.a. the Cats—the 74-year-old Baton Rouge pianist and veteran of the Howlin’ Wolf group will roll out an hour-long set of the music that’s made him one of the world’s most in-demand blues musicians.

Henry Gray was born on January 19, 1925, in Kenner and grew up in the town of Alsen.  By the age of eight, he’d taught himself piano, and by 16 he’d begun playing with a band in a local club.  Although he joined the Army two years later and eventually saw combat in the Philippines during the last years of World War II, he continued to hone his musical skills in USO shows by playing rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues.  “The same thing I play now,” he recalls.  “They love it today, and they loved it then.”

Upon his discharge, Gray moved north to Chicago and fell in with a burgeoning electric-blues scene that would transform rock-and-roll 20 years later when approximated by the Rolling Stones.  By the time he joined the Howlin’ Wolf band in 1956, he’d spent a decade making a name for himself both as a session musician (having recorded with Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed, Junior Wells, and Willie Dixon) and as a live performer (with Bo Diddley and Morris Pejoe).  When he left Howlin’ Wolf in 1968, he’d etched his name in blues history.  Since then he has maintained that place with a performance schedule that would exhaust many a younger man.

It was at a club performance  in Baton Rouge during the early 1970s that Gray first met Andy Cornett, the bassist and harmonica player who would eventually become his manager.  “There were people like Tabby Thomas, Guitar Kelly, Silas Hogan, and Moses ‘Whispering’ Smith,” says Cornett, 49, who now resides in Lafayette.  “Henry was playing piano, and he was amazing.  Between sets we were both meandering in the crowd, and I kept thinking, ‘I ought to go up to him and tell him I really like his stuff.’”

Suddenly, Cornett bumped into someone, turned around, and found himself face-to-face with the great man himself.  After a brief exchange—in which Cornett admitted that he played harmonica and guitar “a little bit”—Gray offered a hearty “Keep it up, man, keep it up” and shuffled off.

A year later, the two met again.  “They had him playing at LSU in the Student Union building for Black History Month,” says Cornett, “and he was ripping it, man!  He took a break, and I went up to him.  I said, ‘How are you doing, Mr. Gray?  You remember me?’  He said, ‘Yeah, I remember you.  You playin’ harmonica still?’  I went, ‘Damn!  That was pretty amazing to me.”  Cornett, harmonica in hand, asked to sit in, and Gray said O.K.  “We locked in,” says Cornett, “and we really ain’t looked back since.”

The Gray-Cornett combination has proved mutually rewarding.  Cornett has had the pleasure of performing with his hero, and Gray has benefitted from Cornett’s organizational skills.  Cornett not only set up a steady backing band for Gray, who dislikes performing solo, but also has kept Gray in the public eye by scheduling tours and recording sessions like the one in 1988 that resulted in the Blind Pig album Lucky Man.

Lucky Man elevated Gray’s public profile, but those closest to him think that it fell short of doing Gray justice.  “I don’t think it was a well-produced record,” says the veteran British slide guitarist Martin Simpson, who has performed with Gray off and on for the last 10 years.  “I don’t think it represented what Henry really is.”  Brian Bruce remembers that he and Cornett had sent Blind Pig a tape of Gray with the Cats but that the label’s producers thought that they could get a better record out of him themselves.  “They did their take on Henry,” says Bruce, “but it wasn’t Henry in his element.”

Gray’s element, according to practically everyone who has seen him perform, is the stage.  To this end, Cornett organized a Henry Gray show last March at the Grant Street Dancehall that not only brought Gray together with Martin Simpson again but that also brought Simpson together with his Acadiana slide-guitar counterpart Sonny Landreth.  One result was Live: The Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest, a 15-song, 73-minute CD of the evening’s highlights with which Cornett hopes to attract the attention of a record company capable of promoting it as the major blues release that it is.  (Those disinclined to wait can order it at

“We spent about three years trying to put this together,” says Bruce.  “We have a number of different recordings from different clubs, but there was always something that didn’t work.  This one made it.”

“We had been talking for a long time about doing something that we had complete control over,” adds Cornett, “and it worked.  The night was amazing, and we were able to capture it.”

Cornett and Bruce are not alone in their enthusiasm.  The album has yet to be officially released, and already the blurbs are piling up.  “His piano and voice are in top form as he boogies, shuffles, strides, and plays straight 12-to-the-bar blues,” says the Louisiana Music Factory’s Jerry Brock.  “This new CD is delightful and is a great addition to my collection,” says the Saphire Uppity Blues Women’s Ann Rabson.  “These are raw, deep blues, musically unpredictable and unfettered.”

Gray's own assessment of the album is terser.  “It’s all right,” he says.  “It came out pretty good.”

It’s a hot July afternoon, and Gray is relaxing in the living room of his Baton Rouge home after a month-long European tour.  His popularity abroad, which is considerable, has a downside.  While it enables him to make more money in a month than most other 74-year-old men make in a year, it also requires him to submit to rigors that musicians half his age have been known to find taxing.  “They want me to go back to Europe in September,” he says, “but I don’t think I’m going.  I’m tired.”

According to Gray, the most tiring parts of a tour are the amount of sleep that he gets (“hardly none”) and the riding (“Travel all day and play half of the night”).  Then there’s the availability, or the lack thereof, of sidemen.  On this latest tour, he was paired with the Marva Wright band for three weeks, but he also did a week of solo gigs.  “I’ve played by myself all over the world,” he says, “but that don’t mean to say I like it.  By yourself is a killer.  I like to be with somebody.”

Last July Gray made headlines by performing for Mick Jagger.  It seems that the head Rolling Stone had requested the presence of the Legends of Chicago Blues—an all-star ensemble featuring Gray and other original members of the Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter bands—at his 55th birthday party, and the American Legends concert promoters were happy to oblige.

In addition to Gray, the Legends of Chicago Blues include Dave Myers and Little Smokey Smothers (guitars), Abb Locke (sax), Mojo Buford (harmonica), Bob Stoger (bass), and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (drums).  Together they attended the Rolling Stones concert at the Stade de France in Paris before proceeding to the hotel at which Jagger’s private birthday party was held.  That the Stones had made their initial splash by covering songs such as Howlin' Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” and Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” made the hiring of the Legends seem almost like a belated thank-you gift.

At one point, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and members of the Stones’ extended stage band joined Gray and company for an impromptu jam, after which Richards was heard to exclaim, “This band is the shit!”  Coming from Richards, such praise was high, probably in more ways than one.

As with most aspects of his career, Gray has little to say about partying with Jagger.  (Q: [Coaxingly] “That must have been some party.”  A: “It was.”)  When pressed for reminiscences, anecdotes—anything—from his dozen years with Howlin’ Wolf and his 20 years as a member of Chicago’s blues elite, all he’ll say is “I don’t know stories.  They was all nice to me.”

The one subject he will discuss is money.  Why did he leave Morris Pejoe in 1956 for Howlin’ Wolf?  “More money.  I wanted money.  I needed money.  So I did it.”  Why, although his résumé includes playing spirituals in a Chicago church, does he avoid playing gospel music in his shows?  “I don’t get paid for that.  I’ve never made a dime on gospel.  I get paid for playing the blues.  I’ve got to eat too.”  What advice does he have for young musicians?  “I would tell them to listen to the blues if they want to make some money.  There’s nobody that wants to listen to rock-and-roll but teenagers.  Old folks, they don’t want to hear rock-and-roll.  They want the blues.”

Gray is wrong about a couple of things.  First, there is money in rock-and-roll.  (Just ask Ticketmaster employees about Bruce $pringsteen and Paul $imon.)  Second, old folks aren’t the only ones who like their blues Gray.  Tab Benoit’s duet with Gray on “Too Many Dirty Dishes” is a high point of Benoit’s 1997 live album Swampland Jam.  And Kenny Neal, the son of Gray’s fellow Baton Rouge bluesman and occasional touring partner Raful Neal, sings a killer lead vocal on “The Red Rooster,” a track from Telarc’s Grammy-nominated Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, on which Gray performs. 

But Gray is right about a bluesman’s needing to watch his wallet.  “These old guys have seen too much,” says Cornett, who once had to tell a record company that Gray was blowing off a scheduled recording session in favor of a European tour that paid better.  “You know, too many promises, not enough money.”

Sit with Henry Gray long enough, however, and something besides the love of money glints from beneath the cracks in his facade.  Labeling that something can be difficult, but it’s at the root of what makes musicians treasure the memory of their first encounter with him.  “At the end of the very first song that we played together,” Martin Simpson recalls, “he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you ever get above me, boy!’”  The Gueydan guitarist Bobby Broussard recalls that he “had a really screwed-up guitar” when he first performed with Gray.  “It sounded terrible when I went to play some slide.  But he liked me and accepted me, which I thought was amazing.”

Perhaps when it comes to identifying his true motivation, Gray himself says it best: “I get paid for the blues, I love the blues, and I play the blues.  Now that makes sense to me!” 

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