Henry Gray, born in Louisiana in 1925, pulled a stretch in World War II and then migrated to Chicago, which was where Howlin' Wolf found him. Gray had been honing his piano chops for years in a variety of barrelhouse and back-room settings throughout the South, but it was Chicago that whipped him into a professional. In 1956 Gray joined Wolf's regular band, playing piano for the venerable bluesman until 1968. During that sojourn Gray contributed to recordings by several other artists on the Chess label, pulling time with Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters, among others. In the years since, he's performed and recorded with such luminaries as B.B. King, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal and Koko Taylor.
Now a sprightly 76 years old, Gray turns his attentions to the city that provided his entree into those settings on his own showcase, Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues. Produced by Rhythm Room impresario Bob Corritore, who contributes harmonica on the album, Henry Gray Plays is a South Side stroll through the history of electric blues in the Windy City. Originals and covers (by the likes of Lowell Fulson, Elmore James and Gray's old mentor, Howlin' Wolf) flow so seamlessly into one another that they might have been recorded on a single summer night -- a pleasant surprise, given that the sessions for this album stretched over a period of five years.
Wisely, the production on Henry Gray Plays keeps the piano levels low enough so that the band's ensemble work shines throughout, and Gray here enjoys formidable backing indeed. Muddy Waters' longtime associate Bob Margolin contributes guitar, as does the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Kid Ramos. Drummer Chico Chism (who also worked with Howlin' Wolf for a time) provides tight and certain rhythm. In addition to his piano work, Gray sings all the vocals here as well, and if his voice sometimes pales in comparison to the playing, that's less a criticism than a simple case of you-can't-outshine-the-sun.
Scheduled to celebrate the release of his new CD with performances on Friday, May 11, and Saturday, May 12, with guests including Chico Chism, Johnny Rapp, Bob Corritore, Paul Thomas and Bob Margolin. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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Gray's piano playing is at once precise and primitive. Occasionally it sounds as though he means to strip the ivory right off the keys, so forceful is his attack; but you know with undeniable certainty that Gray meant to demolish that key, and not the one beside it. On stompers like "Talkin' 'Bout You" and the sleazy "They Raided the Joint" his dexterity propels stories of hard luck and harder whiskey, but it's the instrumental gem "Henry's Houserocker" that really showcases Gray's talent. By this, the third track on the album, it becomes apparent that Gray's not trading on his résumé. He carries each of the tunes here with confidence and style to spare. Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues is as straightforward and accurate a title as you could hope for; aficionados of the classic Shytown sound should take notice.