HENRY GRAY & THE CATS performing as part of the BLUES & BBQ FESTIVAL at Harbourfront Centre's Norigen Stage (235 Queen's Quay West), Saturday (July 7), 8:30 pm. Free. Also, Talkin' The Blues interview with HENRY GRAY at Harbourfront's Lakeside Terrace, Sunday (July 8), 1 pm. Free. 416-973-3000.
For many musicians, being hired by the Rolling Stones as the evening's entertainment for a private function would be a career highlight.
To legendary blues piano pounder Henry Gray, however, being flown to Paris to perform at Mick Jagger's 55th birthday bash was memorable only for the cheque he received.
"Mick who?" growls Gray from his home in rural Louisiana. "Let me tell you something. I've been doing this all my life, and it's no fun to sit at a piano and play for free. I do this for money, OK? If they pay me, it's fun."
That's not a comment on what Gray thinks of the Rolling Stones, but, rather, how he views his own work.
Whether he's banging out barrelhouse-informed runs behind Muddy Waters, Elmore James or Jimmy Rogers, playing piano has never been much more than a steady source of income to Gray. When he left Little Walter to join Howlin' Wolf in 56 (with whom he stayed until 68), personal or creative differences played no part in the career-changing decision.
"Wolf offered me more money," Gray states bluntly. Fortunately for the sake of blues history, it was Howlin' Wolf waving his wallet and not Pat Boone. But such distinctions matter little to Gray as long as the money's green.
"I don't care who it is -- it could be the devil -- as long as he pays me."
Which is fine, but it's interesting to consider why Gray's contributions to Chicago blues are not as well remembered as those of his contemporaries like Otis Spann.
While Gray was busy jumping from session to session clocking quick cash, Muddy Water's pianist, Spann -- like Gray a disciple of Big Maceo Merriwether -- was composing songs and cutting records as a leader. Today, it's the late Spann who is synonymous with Chicago blues piano, not Gray.
It's only now, when his session work has all but died out, that he's released the great new Henry Gray Plays Chicago Blues (Hightone) album. At 76, the hard-shouting Gray has still got it going on.
"There ain't nothing to it," he snaps. "When you get to be my age, you find that things you've been doing a long time get real easy."