Blind Arvella Gray
Born January 28, 1906, Somerville, Texas
Died December 7, 1980, Chicago, Illinois
Lost his sight and the first two fingers of his left hand while attempting a robbery in 1930. Turned to music to make a living.
He was a regular performer on Maxwell Street from at least 1946
"And let's not forget Arvella Gray with his steel National, knowing words to John Henry that were not in the Library of Congress until he put them there," continues [Bob] Koester [of Delmark]. "Arvella had a good repertoire. I first met him in St. Louis on a Delmar streetcar. Arvella would go down to Louisville and play in the Derby and make very good money. He apparently knew exactly where to play. He would get people to pick him up and take him to parties where he'd make $200 to play. Arvella told me once that he had hustled on the riverboats. That's where he learned some of the John Henry lyrics. He had also been a stick-up man. He said, 'You know, I tell a lot of different stories about how I lost my sight and I tell them whatever they want to hear. But actually, it was a shotgun. I was trying to hold up a grocery store and the man got me with a shotgun.'"
From "Move Over Maxwell Street" by D. Thomas Moon and Al Fijal in the February March 1996 issue of Blues Review .
There is a 7 1/2 minute version of "John Henry" performed by Arvella Gray on the And This Is Maxwell Street tapes.