Robert Cray has been bridging the lines between blues, soul and R&B for the past four decades, with five Grammy wins, a Blues Hallof Fame inductee, recipient of the Americana Lifetime achievement award, countless tours and over 20 acclaimed albums. Growing up in the Northwest, Robert Cray listened to the gospel of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Bobby Bland’s soul, Jimi Hendrix’s rock guitar and the Beatles pop sounds. He would bring all of the influences into play throughout his career, but his teenage band was captivated by Southern Soul and the blues. “In the early days of the band we were getting back into O.V. Wright and paying attention to my favorite blues players; Buddy Guy, Otis Rush,Albert King and especially Albert Collins,” Cray says. The Texas-born blues guitarist known as Master of the Telecaster, Albert Collins, sealedthe deal on the Cray Band’s early direction. The musical highlight of Cray’s senior year was his class voting to bring Collins in to play a graduation party. The glow of a career in music began when Cray was a teen,and in 1974 it burst into flames as the Robert Cray Band came together inEugene, Oregon. How strong was the fire? “Richard and I didn’t own avehicle, and we were staying with his girlfriend in Eugene. We hitched aride to Salem, where our drummer Tom Murphy was going to school, to rehearse,” Cray recalls. With the group’s 1980 debut release, Who’s Been Talkin’, word about the Cray Band began to spread across the Northwest and down in to California. Playing packed bars and roadhouses the CrayBand was thrilling. Yes, fans could hear an Albert Collins guitar riff and a Howlin’ Wolf song but the sound was present. Blues and soul fans showed up religiously, but those steamy raucous sets also drew crowds whosetastes in music ranged from rock to funk and jazz. Also among the Cray Band admirers were other musicians. John Lee Hooker put his appreciation intoaction. “The first time we played with Hooker was in Montana. We were opening the set and he was playing solo,” Cray recalls. “We’d nevermet him before but he just walked on stage and started playing with us. Wedug the hell out of the guy, and after that we were friends.” The CrayBand’s next two releases – Bad Influence and False Accusations – charted, taking the four-piece’s sound across the airways and abroad. Thegroup was on a roll, but the players slept on couches. “We were just road rats,” Cray says with a chuckle. “We’d take a break for two weeks to record, then go back out. We didn’t have a house, a home, any of those responsibilities.” On one of those breaks Cray went into the studio with Collins and another great Texas guitarist and singer, Johnny Clyde Copeland, to record Showdown!, a CD that has become essential to any80s electric blues collection. It was the sounds of the blues and soul that first drew attention from artists in the rock arena. In an interview Eric Clapton gives his initial response to Robert Cray saying, “As a bluesfan, we’re saved.” The Cray Band’s beginnings did bring the soundsof its mentors into the mainstream, even taking the music of John Lee Hooker, Etta James and Albert Collins to a larger, younger audience. But no one knew how broad the band’s audience would be until the Cray Band opened the ears of rock radio programmers. With the 1986 release of Strong Persuader the Cray Band’s tunes were put in heavy rotation on mega rock stations across the nation. The first hit, “Smoking Gun,” was followed by “I Guess I Showed Her” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me).”The Cray Band’s next two releases, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Midnight Stroll, brought more radio listeners to record stores, increasing sales of the group’s CDs. Following the path of fame taken by blues-based rockers like Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cray became a sensation, leading his band in concerts at large arenas and major music festivals. He was the first African American artist since Jimi Hendrix to riseto such fame in rock music. Was there a change in the band’s direction or had the blues arrived again into the mainstream after more than three decades of being forgotten by radio? “We were doing blues and R&B fromthe first,” Crays says. “That’s just part of what we do. If you’re writing a tune it’s only natural to grab something from someplace else. You’re gonna put in some soul changes and some jazz, something you’ve been listening to. With what we do there’s a whole lot of room tomove.” Clapton’s admiration for Cray led to a writing collaboration onthe hit “Old Love,” which featured Cray on guitar. A call came fromRolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards who asked him to be in the film heand Steve Jordan were producing about the rock guitarist Chuck Berry, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Concert footage in the film features Richards, Jordan, Clapton, Julian Lennon, Linda Ronstadt and Etta James.Cray performs “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” with Berry. Dressed in a babyblue tuxedo jacket, the young guitarist is the epitome of the tune’s title. Cray also performed on the Tina Turner TV special “Break Every Rule.” During the 90s the Cray Band was featured in concert with artists like Clapton, the Stones, John Lee Hooker, BB King and Bonnie Raitt, who declared that the band leader is “an original; he’s passionate, he’s a bad ass and puts on one of the best shows you’ll ever see.” Amidst these accolades, soaring record sales and a packed touring schedulethe Cray Band recorded six CDs in the 90s. Cray produced Shame + A Sin, which referenced his blues roots, in 1993. It was followed by two more self-produced recordings, Some Rainy Morning and Sweet Potato Pie. Recordedin Memphis and featuring the famed Memphis Horns Sweet Potato Pie was theCray Band’s most soulful album to date. The next recording Take Off YourShoes delved even deeper into Memphis sounds of the 60s. “That was definitely a soul record,” Cray says. “I’d already been writing songs,Jim (Pugh, who was keyboards with the Cray Band from 1989 to 2014) was writing songs, leaning toward soul. Steve Jordan (producer), heard them and put the icing on the cake.” Jordan, who subsequently produced the Cray Band’s In My Soul, Shoulda Been Home and the first CD in 4 Nights of40 Years Live, also brought the personification of Memphis soul to the recording session, Willie Mitchell, to help with arrangements for the Memphis Horns. Mitchell discovered and first recorded Al Green along with other Southern Soul singers like Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright and Syl Johnson for the famed Memphis label Hi Records. When he arrived at the Cray recording session, he brought not only the Memphis presence but also a present.“Willie came over – he was wearing a gold jacket – and gave me thissong, ‘Love Gone to Waste,’” Cray says. “Then we put some finaltouches on the CD at his studio in Memphis. It was a great opportunity tosee Willie in the studio.” Both on Take Your Shoes Off and 4 Nights of40 Years Live, “Love Gone to Waste” showcases Robert Cray’s naturalease with soul ballads. He is intense but smooth in telling the story oflove gone bad. Then in a falsetto voice he soars through the sadness intothe inevitable pain. It is a song that Cray owns because no other singer has dared try to do it justice. Take Your Shoes Off won a Grammy in 2000. In the next decade the Cray Band recorded seven CDs, three of them live,and two – Twenty and This Time – were nominated for Grammys. The group’s most recent recordings, Nothing But Love and In My Soul put the band back on the Billboard Charts. Cray’s latest record, also produced byJordan is called “Robert Cray with Hi Rhythm” and was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis with the famous Hi Rhythm section. While the presenttour is with Cray’s current band roster and with Hi Rhythm, Robert will perform occasionally at select special shows with Jordan and Hi Rhythm.
This event first appeared on EssexCountyCreates.org