Henry Gray grew up on a farm near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. By the age of 12 he was spending his free time away from the cotton fields visiting the churches and juke joints nearby and attempting to imitate the piano styles he heard inside. After serving in World War II, he joined the rural migration north to Chicago where, after a period of time working with bluesman Big Maceo Merriwether, he became the piano player in the legendary Howlin Wolf's band. During this twelve-year stint he helped shape the Chicago blues piano style and he wrote some enduring blues songs.
In 1968 Gray returned to Louisiana and eventually took up work as a roofer for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. Although popular groups such as the Rolling Stones were drawing attention to the urban blues styles of Chicago, Gray chose to play in clubs around Baton Rouge, emulating the "swamp blues" style of the region. Over the past twenty years he has recorded a number of well-received solo albums and he has again begun touring and appearing at festivals. Scholar Dave Kunian says: "If you've listened to blues music in the last half-century, you've heard pianist Henry Gray...he recorded and played for everybody...[and] helped create the blueprint for Chicago blues piano and all that it would be ... whenever you hear someone play a familiar blues riff or turnaround on the piano, there is a good chance they learned it from Henry Gray -- or someone who learned it off Henry Gray."
NEA: Congratulations on your award. Tell me how you felt when you heard the news.
MR. GRAY: I felt real good about it. I've been doing this for so long. I'm 81 years old and I've played ever since I was about eight. I've played for old folks homes, I've played for retarded children, I've played for church. I've played just about all over the world. I've done it all. I've played with everybody from the Rolling Stones down to Muddy Waters. You know, a lot of people have been rewarded...I think it's time for me to get something special!
NEA: Tell me a little bit about when you started learning to play the piano.
MR. GRAY: When I was my 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.
When I was 9 or 10 I started to make a few dollars playing at a little club. Of course my daddy had to go in there with me -- I wasn't old enough to go in the club by myself. Back in that time a dollar was a dollar. If you could get $5 you could get everything you wanted.
NEA: So you're pretty much self taught?
MR. GRAY: Yes.
NEA: I know you mostly played gospel in the early part of your career. Why did you transition into blues music?
MR. GRAY: Well, at one time I was doing both. I was playing for a spiritual house in Chicago and I also had a little band called the Red Devils Trio. I was doing both, but I knew I had to quit one. I dropped the church one because I was making more money with my band.
NEA: Where do you get the inspiration for your lyrics?
MR. GRAY: I just think them up. I think them up, write them down, then go to a studio and record.
NEA: Do you see any challenges to keeping the blues tradition alive?
MR. 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.
But there aren't too many blues piano players that play the way that I do. I think there are about three now living that play the way I play, play the piano blues. Me --and I'm 81. Pinetop Perkins, who's 93. And Henry Townsend, who's 96 or 97.
NEA: Are there any young apprentices learning the style?
MR. GRAY: Well, I have a grandson, 18 years old, who's very good on the piano, but he only plays spirituous. He don't play the blues that much. He's good at it, though, but he just don't play the blues. And there's another one, Ray Parnell's son, he's about 19. I started teaching him when he was a little boy. He's young but he plays pretty good. I taught him a lot on piano.
NEA: Has the way that the public received the music changed over time? Has it become more popular?
MR. GRAY: Everywhere I play it's crowded. All they have to do is put in the paper that Henry Gray is going to be there and it's going to be crowded.
NEA: Tell me a little bit how playing the blues make's you feel.
MR. GRAY: It makes me feel real good. And I get paid pretty good for playing. I make more than an average person would on a regular job and I'm not out in that hot sun. I'm 81 years old, you know, and I'm still doing it. I'm still fine.
NEA: And why do you continue playing?
MR. GRAY: I love it. I love my music. Everybody loves the way I play so I hate to quit playing. People write and call and want to know when I'll be playing. You know, I'm going to play as long as I can.
NEA: What advice do you have for young artists who are learning piano blues?
MR. 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. You're going to make a lot of mistakes, but you'll correct them.