Henry Gray Interview in Tokyo, Aug 1998

interviewer : Hiroshi 'Edogawa Slim' Takahashi, Makoto 'Teacher' Takahashi and Mie Senoh
for the Blues Market Magazine, Japan, Nov./Dec.'98 Issue

Out of the clear blue sky, something good came true. The Legend of the Chicago Blues Band with Hubert Sumlin came to Japan to perform.
The editor of the Blues Market Magazine and I wanted one of the legends for an interview, and we agreed to interview Henry Gray.

Why Henry Gray? Some people asked, but you know Gray is one of the survivors among the great pianist who led the golden age of Chicago blues! Why not interview such a modest important figure?

After we waited with a butterfly in our stomach for ten minutes, there came a nice mild gentle man. He told us he had just played for Mick Jaggar's birthday bash in Paris two weeks before. Although he looked a little tired after a long trip, the interview(chat?) lasted for nearly two hours, which was way past the scheduled length of 30 minutes.

Here's what he told us.


I'm a big fan of you. You were born in January, 1925, right?
I was born in Kenner (He pronounces 'Kenneth'.), Louisiana on January 19, 1925.

How was your boyhood life.

What kind of rough?
It wasn't too nice. My family wasn't rich. And grew up partly on a farm.
I was the only child.

But you had a piano at home.
Yes. I started playing the piano when I was about eight years old, but no blues.
I couldn't play the blues in my mother's house. By twelve years old I couldn't play the blues in my mother's house.

What kind of music were you playing at that time?

Did you play in a church, too?

Did you play organ, too?
Yes, I play organ. I can.

But you loved the blues at time.
Yes, I did. I just couldn't play at home.

Did you have chances to play anywhere else?
Yes. I was supposed to be going to school, you know, I had my bicycle, and went to a lady's house and played the blues on her piano. My mom was gonna whip me behind, but I still played it.

Who influenced you to play the piano?
Really don't nobody influenced me, 'cause... My grandfather played harmonica. I played harmonica, too. But I just never did love to play the harmonica. I always wanted to play the piano.
The lady named Miss White. She could play the blues on her piano.
I was just a little kid, you know. I listened to her playing the blues on her piano. I just wanted to play the blues. She lived right down the street from me.


How about the songs and artists that you liked on the radio at that time?
How about Big Maceo?

He was my teacher you know. I didn't get to see him until '46.

You went to Chicago in about '46?

You went to the war?
Yes. In '43 and got out in '46.
I'd been to Chicago before then. I've been there in '39. My aunt was living in Chicago and her husband died. I just stayed about a week.

In '46 you went to Chicago. What was the impression of Chicago music scene at that time?
It was nice. Something like New Orleans. There was music everywhere.
Something like New Orleans there was music on the street.

How did you meet Big Maceo?
When I came to Chicago, a guy called Sunnyland Slim. I met him through Sunnyland Slim.
Then Big Maceo had a stroke. He couldn't use his left hand. So I used to go around with him, sometimes playing the left hand for him. That's how I learned his style.

When you formed a first band in Chicago, who was in the group?
It was the Red Devil Trio. Before that I played with Dusty Brown.

Did you have a recording with him?
Yes, I did. 'He don't love you.' (He must have mistaken it for the recording he made for Parrot in '55.)

Hudson Showers?
Huh? Hudson Showers? Well, he was with the Red Devil Trio. It was me, Hudson Showers, James Bannister, we were the Red Devil Trio.

Did you go to Chicago to be a professional musician from the first?
Yes. I played with Howlin' Wolf for fourteen years. Before that I played with Little Walter.

In 1952 you recorded with Jimmy Rogers. Was that the first recording of yours?
No. Who I recorded with first? I think Dusty Brown was the first one.

When I first heard your recordings with Jimmy Rogers, your style was quite different from the former pianist for him, Eddie Ware.
I played mostly the Maceo Style.

I asked many people about Eddie Ware in Chicago but nobody knew what became of him.
I don't know what happened to him, either.

You recorded with Morris Pejoe. Did you record a lot with him in Al Smith's basement?
Yes. I also recorded with Jimmy Reed.

At the second session with Pejoe, you recorded your leader track, right?
Yes, I did.

Matchbox Blues.
Yes, the first one.

How did you record the piano sound?
With a little amplifier. It wasn't like it is now. I think they were using eight track.

Did you put microphone in the piano?
Yes, yes. They didn't have no electric piano then.

Listening to your Chess records, your piano was very unique. You have a lot of Louisiana flavor.

Henry Strong was playing harmonica at that time. What was he like?
He was very good. His girl friend killed him with scissors by accident.
She didn't intend to kill him.

That's too bad. It's a sad story....
Do you recall recording for Parrot?

It was with Dusty.

'Hand Me Down Blues' (RELIC 7015)

Who played the harmonica?
I think Shaky Jake recorded it.

Many blues fans assumed maybe it was P.T. Hayes or Good Rockin' Charles. It was Shaky Jake then.
I don't know. It was a long time ago.

Is Shaky Jake Magic Sam's uncle?
I think so. I didn't record with him, but I played with him. I played with Elmore James when he died.

Then you were the regular pianist for Howlin' Wolf.
Yes. fourteen years.

Were you busy?
Yes. See, Johnny Jones was really Elmore James's piano player. Then he died, you know. And Otis Spann was Muddy Waters'. I was Howlin' Wolf's.
Well, when Johnny Jones died and Otis Spann died. So there was nobody but me.
Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, I was between both of them. In fact I was between the three. There ain't nobody but me.
(This can't be right. Elmore James died in '63 and it was before Johnny Jones died.)

Did you sometimes have to play in three different clubs?
Yes, I have.

You did some Decca Sessions with Robert Night Hawk in '64?
Robert Night Hawk! I've played with him but I didn't record with him.
(His name is on the discography, though)

This CD ('Down Home Slide' TESTAMENT TCD-6009) was recently released and on the eighth track, Henry Gray and Homesick James played with George Coleman. Do you remember?
Yes. I saw him last year. He had heart attack several times when Elmore James died. Elmore had a heart attack and Homesick James had a heart attack.

Your play on this song 'Mad and Evil' with George Coleman was really amazing.

Especially the left hand. Great.


I played the piano for Tab Benoit. I played on 'Too many dirty dishes.'
It's been out but three or four months. He is from Louisiana. I play in Tabby Thomas's club in Baton Rouge on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. That's where I live, Baton Rouge.

You went back home in Baton Rouge in 1968. What was the reason for coming home.
I was tired of Chicago. My living was made in Baton Rouge. You see, my daddy had a grocery store, fish market.

Do you like fishing?
I have two boats.

Is your father's fish market still there?
The market is still there but I had to close it, 'cause I wanted to stay at home. My mother's still there. My mother's 91.

Mother who said 'Don't play the blues.'

When did she allow you to play the blues?
When I was twelve. That's when I started making money at it. But I was too young to go into clubs. My daddy had to go in the club with me. He took all my money though. I was his (favorite) son then.

I heard you've had a day time job.
I am a roofer for the school board. I would still playing the piano. And I drive eighteen-wheeler bulldozer. I've got the chauffeur's license. I can drive anything on wheels.

Can I take pictures of you and your license?
Sure. I can drive a taxi cab, bulldozer, anything.

Do you still have the daytime job?
No. I'm retired. I'm retired from all of that but music. My wife's trying to get me retired from music.

Hahaha. Is that right?
Well, I can.

Please don't!
I get a check from the army, too. And I get a check from the school board. Two check a month. That takes care of everything I pay for. I have five cars, two boats and everything I've got to pay.

You've got five cars!
Two brand new. I drive a Subaru, and my wife drives a Subaru. And then a Dodge Ram, a station wagon, and a Plymouth.

I like your song 'Lucky man'. What kind of situation were you in when you wrote that song?
A girl friend of mine, she gave me the idea. She figured that I was a lucky man, which I wouldn't think I was lucky, but she thought I was.

What's Baton Rouge music scene like now?
There are a quite a few clubs in Baton Rouge. Tabby Thomas's... Most of these clubs are mixed clubs, both black and white.
I don't have my CD with me. I was in Paris two weeks ago, and a guy in Germany was supposed to send me some there, but I didn't get them. I still don't have them.

Is that a new album?
New CD.


Did Wolf say something when you left for Louisiana?
He was silent.

What was it like to be in the Howlin' Wolf band?
I liked it. A lot of people didn't like him because he was very strict.
Anything you do he would do off the band stand. On the band stand strictly business. You're going to be dressed alike. Your shoes must be shined. You should wear a tuxedo. No drinking on the band stand.
When he was off the band stand, anything you want, he would do it with you.
I didn't have no problem out of him, 'cause I go properly dressed, he wore tuxedo, I wore tuxedo. I didn't have to buy it, he'd buy it for me.

Oh, great!
So there wasn't no problem for me, he wanted me to wear a tuxedo, I wore a tuxedo. I wasn't paying for it, he was paying for it

This is you in a cool suit in this picture. Very handsome man.

There are many young people in Japan who play the blues. Do you have any advise for them to keep playing for a long time?
If you do it, it will pay off. I'd tell a lot of young guys if you like it, you do it. The blues will pay off.
A couple of weeks ago I was with the Rolling Stones, Ike Turner & the Iketts.
I've played with all of them Belgium, Paris, France. Just about every festival there is, they are going to call me. There aren't many legend players left.

Your busy days will keep on.
I hope so.

Your wife is going to worry about you.
Well, she loves the same thing I do, money. She loves money and I do too.


When I play in a band, I always have hard time, 'cause the guitar, the drums and others are loud. How do you keep your piano sound heard? Do you sometimes have frustration, too?
Well, in my band, see, I have a band, too. In my band I tell them just don't turn your guitar too loud. So if he turned the guitar that night, the next night he's fired. Because I sing and I also play, and I can't sing or play over no loud guitar. If he play loud one time, I tell him don't do it, and the next night he's fired.

I'd tell them to find new job, 'cause I'm not gonna sing over loud guitar.
So a lot of times I play solo by myself, really I don't need them.
I'm gonna have to kick off by myself. Solo piano. Then I bring the band up.

Are you tired from the long trip?
I'm used of it. Two weeks ago I left Europe, ... Europe by two weeks and went home, and stayed five days and right back (on the road).

Have you tried Japanese Sake?

But you take some alcohol?
I don't drink. No alcohol. I used to. I haven't had alcohol about five years. Not even beer.

Is that because of your health problem?
No. I just quit drinking. It made me sick.
It was just corn whiskey, they call it moon shine. It made me sick in Norway. It was so cold there, you know. I think it was about 52 below zero.
I don't know what they put in that stuff. I would drink it out of cold jars, you know. And that stuff made me sick. I went to doctor in Norway and they gave me a shot to make it to London, England. And in London, England I had to go to the doctor again. They gave me a shot and pills, so I could make it back to the United States. So that's just taken all the taste of liquor from me. I just don't fool with it.

The reason why we asked was that a man who is a big fan of you, who lives in the Northern part of Japan, he runs a liquor store, and he wanted to give you Japanese Sake as a present. Here's his letter for you.
All right. Okay.

But if you don't drink, you can just give it to the rest of the band, and have some fun.
I sure will. I appreciate it. I might take it home with me. Well, I have some liquor at home, but I don't drink it.

This is made from rice, just pure rice.
Pure rice! Good. I really thank you.

Can I take a picture with your sake?


You seem like a nice family man.
I have three kids, eight grand kids. And four of them are with me.

Do you have any musicians in your family?
Nobody but me.

Little Walter game me a stage name Bird. You know the bird that flies.

I don't know why.

Your fingers fly!

You said something about Rafael Neal. Raful Neal, Kenny Neal, we all play together.

He came to Japan three or four years ago.
Well, he opened up a club now, Raful Neal. Tabby Thomas club, they are going to close it down, because the highway's coming through. All that's gonna be torn down. Kenny Neal's been trying to get me to go with him, but I can't make it. He stays on the road too much. Him and B.B. King, too. I've played with him, but I don't want to work with him 'cause he's never home.
He stays on the road too much.

Do you remember when he was little?
Kenny? Yes. I've know him ever since he was a little boy. And the whole family of them were musicians. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years old, all of them were musicians. Even the girls were musicians. Their momma sings, too.

One of the brothers recently play with Bobby Bland, right?
Yeah, uh-huh, we call him Little Ray. He recorded with me. I don't know if it is out.

Sunland? Is this it?

Does Raful Neal live in East Baton Rouge?
He lives in Baton Rouge, and I live in North Baton Rouge. See. It's about six or seven miles. I live mostly like in the suburbs.

Are your children interested in music?
I have one grandson, he is eleven now. He plays hell of a piano. His name is DeAndrae. He plays it for school. He's very smart.

Do you teach him?
Yes. He plays good, too.

I want to visit Baton Rouge!
I would love that. If you like to fish, I'm gonna take you in my boat.

Do you have alligators, too?
Oh, yeah. They love chicken. I saw one about three four weeks ago. I was fishing. Bayou Pigeon, I thought it was a log it was on, he laid still, you know, When I got closer to the post, he didn't move, I thought it was a log, but I saw red eyes. I thought 'Oh, man, look what I did.' Somebody had set a trap on him. He didn't bother us, I didn't bother him. If he was to come toward me, I was gonna shoot him.

Do you carry a gun when you go on fishing?
I'm allowed to carry a gun. I have a permit to carry a gun. See, I'm a senior citizen, and I've been to the army, and also I'm a legend in music.
They know sometimes I carry large sum of money. So they gave me a permit.
And at one time, I was the honoree with mayor of Baton Rouge.

I heard a story when you came back from Chicago, people said, 'Wow, there's a very famous man is coming back home!' and gathered around you.
They were a lot of my buddies, you know, they heard that I was coming back home, yeah, they were waiting on me, you know. I came back home with a big Fleetwood Cadillac. They were sitting all over my car, you know. The home boys weren't use to see it, you know.

Did you have a day work in Chicago?
Yes, I did. I had a day work for a while. I worked at an electrical steel refinery.


So you basically worked as a musician. Did you work with Bo Diddley?
Yes. I worked with him. I didn't record with him, but I've worked with him. I've known Bo Didley when he didn't have a guitar. He used to play a thing called pew-plank. A tall board with a bar around here and hooked with a strap.

Uh-huh. Yeah. I knew Muddy Waters when he didn't have a car. Muddy Waters used to borrow my car. Muddy Waters was hiking coal.
Put coal there in the furnace for steam heat. That's kind of work Muddy Waters was doing.

What year was that?
'46. Muddy Waters didn't have a car.

That's a great story!


McKinley Morganfield!
That's his name. McKinley Morganfield from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Like Little Walter, his name was Marion Jacobs.

I went to his cemetery to pay some respect for him.
Did you? Well, he was from Louisiana, too, Marksville, eighty miles from me. He's from the Creole family. So am I. I'm a Creole.

Do you speak French?
No. I wasn't raised around them. My mother speaks it.

In Louisiana, foods are very good.
Yes. Gumbo, Jambalaya.

In Japan we have Cha-han.

That's very similar to Jambalaya.

Well, it's not necessarily so.
Dry curry looks more like it.

Really I have people on my mother's side who can't speak English.
Everybody on my mother side, Creole.

Do they live on the Bayou?
Yes. You see I was born in Kenneth. That's Creole. See Kenneth is at eight mile out of New Orleans, where the airport is.

Where the New Orleans Airport is...
That's Kenneth. A lot of people call it New Orleans but it's Kenneth.

When I got out of the plane there I felt heat!
It was 96 when I left. In Texas it went up to 104!

I remember Little Walter's song 'Temperature.'
Temperature rises!

Some people say you play on Jimmy Rogers's 'Chicago Bound.'
Yes, I used to tour with him. I played that song, too. It was Johnny Jones recorded that song. I think Johnny Jones recorded that song.

I love 'I ain't got you.'
Billy Boy Arnold, uh-huh. I played on that.

I especially love your piano on that song.
Yeah! (Slim and Henry start singing)
I saw him six or seven months ago in Germany.

When I saw him perform in Chicago, he came out with a guitar.
He blows harmonica.

He didn't play the guitar, he played harmonica.
Crazy as ever.

Do you play octaves a lot on your right hand?
Yes. Most likely they'll have me by myself about three or four numbers.
I always kick the show of by myself. Then after that they call them one by one. In my show I always kick off first.

Why don't you kick off by yourself with 'Worried life blues' tomorrow night?
Yeah, I'm gonna play by myself. But I mostly I start off with a bounce, one of my number called 'Craze bounce.' Not too fast, not so slow. Boogie style, medium. Then after that I play about two slow blues. And then call Smoky (Smothers). And then Willie Smith, and then call Hubert Sumlin. I have to play the whole show.

Play by yourself as long as you can! At least ten minutes!
Well, I don't mind doing it. If I get paid the most, I'd play the whole show.

Remember the song 'Last Time' by Jimmy Rogers?
'Last time'! Little Walter used to play it. But it was Jimmy Rogers who wrote the 'Last time'.

Back then, in Chicago, when they came to the solo part, piano, harmonica and guitar, they all kind of start improvise together. And then on this song, when you play the solo, there was nothing but your piano. I think it very unique. Was that your idea, or Chess brothers'? Did they like you a lot?
Well, it was Willie Dixon's idea. A lot of recording I was on Chess, but Phil, one of Chess brothers, well, he didn't like me. And some of the records that I made with Jimmy Reed, I don't know how he did it, but he's taken piano off of them.

Oh. Why? It's a shame....
Well, see, I had what he had wanted. I had a woman he wanted. He couldn't get her.

Hahahahaha! That's a good story. Phil Chess!
Yeah, Leonard's brother. Well, he didn't like me for that.

Just for that. Not for the music.
Not for the music.

Manager: We're gonna take photos with the whole band right quick.
All right.

Legend of Chicago Blues Band

Well, it must have been a long hard road, but right in front of us was a nice old gentleman. The nickname 'Lucky Man' sounds just the name for this man.

Henry's piano in the back ground itself was something to enjoy. Right after a song by Willie Smith, Henry sang a song. The song he sang 'Blues Won't Let Me Take My Rest' had some good Louisiana flavor.
After the last boogie with the whole band, Henry alone returned on stage as a reply for our encore, singing 'Blueberry Hills'. I was deeply moved by his performance.
Henry, keep on playing the blues live and well. And I hope you come to Japan and perform again with your 'Baton Rouge All Stars.

We'll be waiting!!

Henry & Slim

Henry Gray's New CD !

Henry Gray & The Cats
'Blues Won't Let Me Take My Rest' (
Lucky Cat Records LC 1001)



Hiroshi 'Edogawa Slim' Takahashi

Special Thanks to : Makoto 'Teacher' Takahashi, Mie Senoh & Andy Cornett

Copyright(C) 1999-2000 by Hiroshi Takahashi