By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Robert Gray first got hooked on the blues listening to sound standing outside the juke joint in his native Winterville, Mississippi.
He and his friends didn’t have the money to get in so they absorbed the sounds that wafted from the homespun club. “We just loved what was going on,” he said, “so we would try to sing, just walking down the road singing. That’s when I first got it.”
That was years before Robert Gray began Bobby G, the blues singer. Bobby G, now 73, will perform Saturday, July 15, at 7 p.m. at Howard’s Club H in downtown Bowling Green with Curtis Grant Jr. and the Midnight Rockers. Cover charge is $5. Bobby G will also perform Saturday, Sept. 9, at the Black Swamp Arts Festival.
The performance celebrates the release of “Still Sanding” on Third Street Cigar Records. This is the bluesman’s first full-length album, and it’s giving the world – it’s charting in Italy, Australia, and elsewhere – its first taste of Bobby G.
John Henry, a local blues impesario said, the bluesman is “a treasure.” Because Gray stayed around home, raised two children with his wife, and didn’t go out on the road and experience the hardships and bad habits that so often entails, “he’s well preserved.”
His voice is clear, with a sweet high range, though he can growl when the tune demands it. That’s all on display on “Still Standing,” a set of originals written by Johnny Rawls.
Before all this could transpire and he could take that love of the blues to the stage, he needed a change of location.
Growing up in Mississippi, Gray said, it was like time stood still. You did what your parents did who were doing what their parents did.
“I remember being a young guy, about 13 or 14, and I was out in the cotton fields and as far as I could look was cotton,” he said. “Looked like the cotton went up to the sky, and the sky came down to the cotton, and I was thinking: ‘Lord, is there anything else for me?’”
He’d been in those fields since he was 6 and putting cotton into his mother’s bag.
Then his uncle came visiting from up north, from Toledo.
Gray didn’t know anything about Toledo except it wasn’t Mississippi. He asked his uncle if he could go back with him. He waited that day, until his uncle’s car arrived, kicking up a cloud of dust on the way. He was 15.
Not that life was easy in Ohio. He worked in restaurants, and then started doing general labor, and then construction.
Henry noted that he’s never played in Bowling Green, but he has worked here. He was on a crew that helped build Harshman Quadrangle.
Eventually he was hired as “a garbage man” for the city of Toledo, and then was a heavy equipment operator. Gray first took the stage in 1972 at the High Note Club sitting in with the Creation of Soul. He remembered the night not going well. He didn’t know how to work the crowd nor work with the band. But the leader liked what he heard and help nurture his talent.
“Before you knew it, we were working all over Toledo,” he said.
They played the blues hits, he said, but also rhythm ’n’ blues and soul.
“That’s what got the girls on the floor,” Henry said.
His son, Robert Jr., was born in 1980, and as he got older, Gray took a hiatus from performing. There were football practices to get his son to and football games to go to.
It wasn’t until 2006, when he retired from the city, that he decided to return to performing. He sat in with the Griswolds, at one point, and then hooked up with Curtis Grant Jr., and his band. Grant’s father and namesake was known as Toledo’s B.B. King, and his son is carrying on his musical tradition.
Grant on drums will be leading the backup band Saturday night. He’ll be joined by his brother Earl Grant on keyboards, Larry Gold on guitar and Johnny Newmark, on bass.
Henry has high hopes for Bobby G’s career. He’s pushing to get “Still Standing” to chart on the national blues charts.
“I’m working Europe pretty hard,” he said. “Obviously we’d like to get him over there. Blues guys get paid a lot more in Europe. There’s a circuit and respect over there that doesn’t necessarily appear in the same manner here.”
Gray said he travels fairly regularly down to his hometown. But “everybody my age or older either left there or is dead.”
He does go over to nearby Greenville – hometown of another BG blues favorite Eddie Shaw – to listening to the music, and sit in.
Last time he was there, though, it didn’t work out.
Henry’s confident that with the way “Still Standing” is going, the locals will be more than happy to have Bobby G on stage next time he’s back home in the Delta.