My buddy Armand called the other night. He said, "I've got some bad news--Big Boy died last night." I hadn't seen Big Boy the last few years, though I knew his health was fading. I had been down to his hometown of Beaufort, N.C., several times recently, but hadn't stopped in to see him. And now he was gone. Flashback to February 1988. I was playing electric guitar at the time with local blues character Mickey "Slewfoot" McLaughlin. Slewfoot had told me stories about Richard "Big Boy" Henry, the authentic blues shouter from coastal N.C. --how he had been to New York to record with Sonny Terry back in the early 1950s and then came home to be a family man, a preacher and a fisherman on the menhaden boats.
Foot said he was playing with Big Boy at The Cave in Chapel Hill and asked me if I wanted to join them. Too intimidated to play, I declined, but I snuck in anyway. The front door of The Cave opens almost right onto the stage, and there was Big Boy, bespectacled, wearing suspenders and playing a red Gibson SG. I quickly understood where he had gotten his nickname; he had a barrel chest and arms the size of my thighs. And this was a man well into his 60s. Big Boy played with a bouncy Piedmont style, went soaring high up the neck during leads and shouted his lyrics as confident and tough as anything out of Chicago. But when he spoke, he was warm and gracious, a gentle bear of a man.
I got to play with Big Boy for a couple of years, backing him up at the Eno Festival, the Bimbe Festival and some club gigs. We cut a record that he released on his own record label. During those sessions, I sat next to him for hours, watching his fingers dance over the strings. I made it a point to learn as many of his licks as I could. Once, on Slewfoot's WXDU radio show, Big Boy, who regularly made up lyrics on the spot, started into a song: "Mr. Shain, Mr. Shain, I'm gonna steal your woman!" Fighting words maybe, but I couldn't have been more honored.
Big Boy Henry left a rich musical legacy, having influenced several generations of great players from Lightnin' Wells and Chris Turner to my own contemporaries. He had appreciative fans in Europe and won prestigious folklife awards, but it was his gentle manner and generosity of spirit that made the greatest impression upon his family, friends and fans. He'll be missed.
Richard "Big Boy" Henry died Sunday, Dec. 5 of complications from diabetes. His funeral was planned for Thursday in New Bern.