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.
PLAY THE BLUES IN MY MOTHER'S HOUSE'
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,
Did you play organ, too?
Yes, I play organ. I can.
But you loved the blues
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
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.
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. '
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
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
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
Yes, I did. 'He don't love you.' (He must have mistaken it for
the recording he made for Parrot in '55.)
Huh? Hudson Showers? Well, he was with the Red Devil Trio. It
was me, Hudson Showers, James Bannister, we were the Red Devil
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
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.
Yes, the first one.
How did you record the piano
With a little amplifier. It wasn't like it is now. I think they
were using eight track.
Did you put microphone in
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
Henry Strong was playing
harmonica at that time. What was he like?
He was very good. His girl friend killed him with scissors by
She didn't intend to kill him.
That's too bad. It's a sad
'Hand Me Down Blues'
Do you recall recording for Parrot?
It was with Dusty.
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
I don't know. It was a long time ago.
Is Shaky Jake Magic Sam's
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
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
(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
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.
'I WAS TIRED
OF CHICAGO. MY LIVING WAS MADE IN BATON ROUGE.'
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
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
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)
I heard you've had a day
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
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.
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
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
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?
IT(BEING IN THE HOWLIN' WOLF BAND). A LOT OF PEOPLE DIDN'T LIKE
HIM, 'CAUSE HE WAS VERY STRICT.'
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
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
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.
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
I hope so.
Your wife is going to worry
Well, she loves the same thing I do, money. She loves money and
I do too.
TURN YOUR GUITAR TOO LOUD.'
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
So a lot of times I play solo by myself, really I don't need
I'm gonna have to kick off by myself. Solo piano. Then I bring
the band up.
Are you tired from the long
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
Have you tried Japanese
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
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
WALTER GAVE ME THE STAGE NAME, BIRD.'
You seem like a nice family
I have three kids, eight grand kids. And four of them are with
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
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
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
Do you have alligators,
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,
Did you have a day work
Yes, I did. I had a day work for a while. I worked at an electrical
MUDDY WATERS WHEN HE DIDN'T HAVE A CAR. HE USED TO BORROW MY
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!
WALTER IS FROM THE CREOLE FAMILY. SO AM I.'
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
Yes. Gumbo, Jambalaya.
In Japan we have Cha-han.
That's very similar to Jambalaya.
Well, it's not necessarily
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
That's Kenneth. A lot of people call it New Orleans but it's
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
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
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
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
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
Not for the music.
Manager: We're gonna take
photos with the whole band right quick.
Legend of Chicago Blues
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
Gray's New CD !
Gray & The Cats
'Blues Won't Let Me Take My Rest' (Lucky Cat Records LC 1001)