NEA Arts Magazine

Henry Gray

Blues piano player and singer, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

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Henry Gray at the piano

Henry Gray takes the audience on a tour of the "swamp blues" he helped create during his performance at the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert. Photo by Tom Pich

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, blues pianist Henry Gray has performed for more than seven decades, having "played with everybody from the Rolling Stones to Muddy Waters." He has more than 58 albums to his credit, including recordings for the legendary Chess blues label.

Gray helped to create the distinctive sound of the Chicago blues piano while playing in Howlin' Wolf's band in the 1950s before returning to Louisiana in the 1960s where his big, rollicking sound became part of the region's "swamp blues" style. Having received a Grammy nomination and four W.C. Handy nominations, Gray continues to tour as a soloist and with his band Henry Gray and the Cats.

Gray spoke with the NEA about the start of his long career and the future of the blues.

NEA: Tell me a little bit about when you started learning to play the piano.

HENRY GRAY: When I was a child my grandmother bought me an old piano. I started out playing a harmonica when I was about six or seven, but I didn't like that thing. I liked my piano and I just started to play. I grew up in rural Louisiana, a little town called Alsen. I doubt there were 100 people there. There was a lady, Ms. White, who had a piano and starting when I was seven or eight I would go by there. She played the blues and showed me a whole lot of stuff on the piano. I was quick to learn. All I wanted was to get the fundamentals of it and learn the keys. After learning that, I had it made. You know, my daddy whupped me a couple of times because I'd skip school to go over to Ms. White's to play piano. I didn't want to go to school. I just wanted to play the piano.

NEA: Do you see any challenges to keeping the blues tradition alive?

GRAY: The blues are here and are going to be here to stay. Now they've got a whole lot of this stuff, the rap and all that, but that's not like the blues. The blues have been here and are always going to be here.

NEA: What advice do you have for young artists who are learning piano blues?

GRAY: Keep at it. Just keep at it because you're not going to learn it overnight. There's too much going on with it for you to learn it overnight. You just have to keep at it and keep going. Youre going to make a lot of mistakes, but you'll correct them.