Blues piano player, singer
2006 NEA National Heritage Fellow
Baton Rouge, LA
Henry Gray was born January 19, 1925. While growing up on a farm in Alsen, Louisiana, a few miles north of Baton Rouge, he began playing piano when he was about eight years old. An elderly woman in the neighborhood, Mrs. White, gave him lessons, and he began playing piano and organ at church. After serving in the Army in the South Pacific in World War II, Gray joined the African American migration from the South to Chicago. In 1968, Gray returned home to Louisiana after the death of his father to help his mother in the family business. While working as a roofer for a local school district and raising a family, he played in clubs around Baton Rouge. Eventually he began recording and touring again, both at home and overseas, playing and singing classic blues covers and his own originals.
Since the 1920s blues musicians have chosen to wear suits and ties in photographs as an indication of their professional stature. Dressing well was a great equalizer for African Americans and even more so for blues musicians, who were often considered to be rough outsiders. Wearing a suit meant a man was determined and prepared for life. In his portrait, contemporary bluesman Henry Gray plays with his name, sporting a dapper gray suit with pleated pants and a black and white piano keyboard tie with his name written in red. His black and white shirt also riffs on the piano motif. Like many blues and jazz musicians, he wears a brimmed hat.