NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Funeral services were held in Baton Rouge Tuesday for famed blues piano player Henry Gray, who died February 17 at the age of 95.
He was a regular at Jazz Fest and kept performing well into his 90s.
Gray says he started playing the piano when he was just 8-years-old. The problem was he wanted to play blues and some folks thought that was the devil’s music.
“I couldn’t play the blues in my mother’s house because my mother was the mother of the church and my daddy was the deacon of the church,” says Henry.
So, Henry says he’d play hooky to take lessons from a woman who lived up the street.
“He could whip the hell out of the piano. I’d get on my bicycle, I was supposed to be going to school, I’d hide my bicycle in the bushes. I got a few ass whoopings though. Daddy tore my butt up man. You’re supposed to be at school. The hell with school. I wanted to play piano.”
Dave McNamara interviewed Henry Gray seven years ago when he was celebrating his 88th birthday at Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary. He was tearing up the piano that night playing the blues.
“It’s juts a feeling. Your woman done left you, gonna leave you crying and carrying on, or you done did something dirty and gone to jail. You got the blues. You got it. That’s it.”
“He moved to Chicago from Louisiana. You know, back when Chicago was in its hey day,” says Chris Thomas King. “He performed with and recorded with Muddy Waters, you known, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter, another great Louisiana harmonica player. He played with everybody.”
Grammy award winning blues musician Chris Thomas King was a child when he first met Gray. Gray was a mentor, a friend and the two performed together.
“He was the the King Bee of the party, of the ritual and the way that he carried on the way that he performed for the audience, the way that, whether he as feeling bad or good, you know, he laid it down,” says King.
And King even wrote a song where he sings about Gray.
“And don’t forget ol’ Henry Gray when he played his piano. You know who he, you put a smile on your face.”
Even as he approached his 90s, Gray had no plans to slow down.
“As long as my fingers keep doing that, I feel I’m in pretty good shape. I don’t smoke and I don’t drink. Yes, I chase a few ladies. A man’s got to have fun.”
And Henry Gray knew that blues had a way of taking the edge off sorrow and hardship and turning it into something that can make a person smile.
Gray recorded his last album just three years ago at the age of 92.