Celebrate Black History: Blues man Henry Gray reflects on his career, the blues

Celebrate Black History: Blues man Henry Gray

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - When our 9News car pulls up to a small house in North Baton Rouge, there's a very large, long-hair gray striped cat, glowering at us.

"His name is Smokey," said Wanda Smith, a woman in her late 50's who lives with blues man Henry Gray.

Henry greets WAFB's Donna Britt with a hug, wearing a sharp-looking black vest that has gold metallic stars glinting on it. Gray invites Britt into a small living room with well-worn furniture and an electric piano sitting in a prominent place in the room. You have a better view of the piano than of the TV.

Gray had celebrated his birthday January 19. He's 92 years old. He's not shy about his age. In fact, he's outliving his friends and has been for a while. As a result, Gray has a bustling schedule of appearances for blues fans around the world. There's not a continent he hasn't visited over the years.

"I've been to Brazil, Tokyo, two cities in Canada, Phoenix Arizona several times, New Orleans, bunch of places all over Texas and all over California," said Gray. "I've been to Phoenix, several times."

Gray has a new album with a blues harmonica man in Phoenix Bob Corritore, a larger than life individual. He sings, he plays harmonica, he produces record albums. He and Henry just published a new one together. The new CD contains a song Henry wrote titled "The Blues Won't Let Me Take My Rest."

When asked if when he's at home, he says plays piano "every day." And when asked if he sings, too, he replied, "Oh, I always sing. I enjoy that."

Gray reminisced about playing and singing in the Westmoreland Shopping Center Piccadilly.

"I played that place and the one on Florida Blvd, too," Gray confirmed, "But, I had to give it up when so many places were calling me to perform."

Gray was asked why he did local shows like the ones he did in Piccadilly when there were shows in Paris calling for him.

"Because I really just like to entertain," he said.

Henry Gray grew up in Alsen, the community in North Baton Rouge. His dad was a farmer, of sorts, had a small garden, and the family was very active in church.

Gray's grandmother bought him his first piano. His father wanted Henry to learn church hymns, and he did, but couldn't help doodling on the bluesy tunes he was hearing in the neighborhood. His father forbid him to play blues at home.

But, one weekend, Henry earned a few dollars for performing at a corner bar. When his father realized Henry could make money, his attitude changed and Henry's blues life began.

After WWII, Gray moved to Chicago where he made his living playing with various artists and honing his craft. He joined up with Howling Wolf at that time.

Touring with the bands, Gray says he didn't encounter that much racism because he was a featured performer, and hotels and restaurants, clubs tended to treat him like a celebrity because he was the entertainment.

He did say that in later years, he found racism in Russia and parts of Canada, but felt he had escaped a majority of the racism that the average African-American endured.

These days, Gray sighs when he remembers all the friends who've passed away. It increases four-fold the demand for Henry's jazz piano.

"People just calling me from everywhere, cuz, I'm the only one living now, cuz the rest of them are dead," he said. "I played with Howlin Wolf 14 years, he's dead. I worked with Muddy Waters, 3 years, he's dead. I played with Jimmy Rogers, he's dead, Elmore James, I played with BB King, he's dead. I'm the only one livin'."

Gray cracked a huge smile when asked if he and Wanda are married.

"Well, she's a lot like that, she's always with me and she stays here. She's my caretaker."

From the kitchen, the smell of breakfast wafts into the living room and we follow it.

Wanda Smith scrambles him breakfast, eggs, toast and coffee. She knows what he likes.

"He loves greens, collard greens. Mustard greens, cornbread, red beans and rice. I cooked white beans yesterday, he loves bean soup."

Wanda makes sure that Gray has the medications he's supposed to take daily. She remembers all that kind of information for Henry, and catalogs the pictures that different places send to him, dating and inscribing the locations on the back of the photos.

We asked Gray if he ever considered moving away from his small home because of his blues success.

Wanda answers first, "I think he has an attachment with this house, cuz every day I complain. I want to go find another place. He say, "no, I'm stayin' here."

Gray adds, "It' has a big back yard, and I need that for my stuff."

We head outside to see the reason he wants this house. The yard is large, and on the other side of it, I see a bateau with an outboard motor on it. There's an old Riviera car that looks like it hasn't moved in years. There's a larger boat on the other side of the car.

"On this one right here, that's a 7 HP Evinrude motor on that thing."

But he motions to a wood shed. He removes a 2x4 board that is propped against the door to keep it closed.

As the wooden door swings open, the sun causes glints on the shiny metal riding lawnmower.

Smith tells us he loves his lawnmower.

"Yep", Gray says. "I like doing it."

That lawnmower, these boats, are what's important. Maybe not using them, but always having the possibility.

"Are you a happy man?" Donna Britt asks.

With a broad smile, he says "I'm a VERY happy man."

Kinda funny to hear that coming from a man who makes his living singing the blues.

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