We hadn’t heard much about Henry Gray in recent years and weren’t sure he was still with us. This set us straight. He was 90 this January and is still playing – and recording: one of the tracks on this CD was cut on his birthday. How does he sound? Well, at least as good as any of us probably hope we’ll sound when we’re 90.
Gray, if you’re unfamiliar with him, was Howlin’ Wolf’s band pianist for much of the 50s and 60s. He also played on many Chicago recording sessions behind artists like Little Walter, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley. In 1968, when his father died, he returned to the family home near Baton Rouge to help his mother in the family business, and he has been a major player on the Louisiana blues stage ever since.
He’s also buzzed around the US blues festival circuit, visited Europe several times and made a bunch of albums, including good ones for Blind Pig and Hightone. “Legendary piano master”, the notes here call him, which may be pitching it a little strong, but he is certainly a deeply experienced blues musician.
Harmonica player Bob Corritore has been a friend to several older blues musicians. He and Gray have worked together for almost 20 years, and the recordings gathered here are drawn from a dozen sessions during that period. Many feature cameos by more-or-less-contemporaries of Gray’s, among them Robert Lockwood Jr, Nappy Brown, Tail Dragger and John Brim. The list of sidemen bristles with A-team names such as bassist Bob Stroger and guitarists Bob Margolin, Kid Ramos and Kirk Fletcher.
On Boogie Woogie Ball, Can’t Afford To Do It and Worried Life Blues – to pick three tunes of differing tempi – Gray’s fingers execute the appropriate dance steps on the piano keys with the ease and capability of a younger man. His voice is rough and phlegmy, and one or two of his pals are showing signs of age too, but the point of this album is that it’s by old friends meeting, hanging out and swapping songs, as much for each other as for an audience.
The songs and styles belong to the 40s, 50s and 60s, with a centre of gravity, represented by tracks like Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest and She Don’t, in the idiom of the Muddy Waters band in its heyday. If you are responsive to that, and are prepared to forgo hot licks in exchange for a warm and collaborative ambience, you should have a very good time hanging out with Gray, Corritore and company./o:p