Robert Cray

Blues Slinger

Robert Cray digs back to his roots

By Greg Cahill

Any surprise over the fact that the Robert Cray Band has recorded two blues albums in the past couple of years seems preposterous at first, Bill-board magazine recently noted. After all, the 42-year-old guitarist has won three Grammys in the blues category–his latest album, Some Rainy Morning (Mercury), his first album without horns, is nominated this year–and has long been one of the leading lights in the continuing blues revival.

But, as purists well know, the article continued, Cray’s success has been with contemporary blues. The excitement over his most recent offerings–starting with 1993’s Shame + a Sin–stems from them being his first to slant toward traditional blues.

“On the last album, we went into the studio with the intention of having fun, knowing that whatever blues we did would still have an R&B flavor,” Cray says, during a phone interview from his Marin home. “You know, we didn’t really buckle down and get into a gritty Chicago style.”

Maybe not. But the results are his most electrifying recordings since the 1986 single “Smoking Gun” nudged the shy musician into the limelight. “We just went into the studio with an attitude that we’d like to capture the mood and the sound of some of our favorite blues records,” Cray says of 1993’s Shame + a Sin, the first album he’d produced by himself. To achieve “a funkier barroom blues sound,” Cray had keyboardist Jim Pugh detune “every third string or so” on an old upright and employed a variety of special miking techniques.

“It was great,” Cray says of his new role as producer. “I’d always worked with Dennis Walker and sat right alongside of him. But these times he wasn’t there, so I got the big chair.

“We just went for it.”

Cray has been going for it since age 12, when he first picked up the guitar. During his high school years–first in Newport News, Va., and later in Tacoma, Wash.–he performed with bands that played a blend of psychedelia and soul. “We used to do an Otis Redding number and then we’d do a Jimi Hendrix tune, back to back,” he recalls. One day, while sifting through his father’s record collection, Cray discovered something that would change his life–the blues.

“When I was ready, they were there,” he says reverently. “One of the first blues records I heard was Howlin Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning.’

“That’s enough to turn anybody’s head around.”

In 1977, sketch comic and blues fan John Belushi, in Eugene, Ore., for the filming of Animal House, caught Cray at a local club and cast him as the bass player in the fictional band Otis Day and the Knights, which played a frat party scene in the film. That same year, Cray made his first appearance at the San Francisco Blues Festival. In 1978, he recorded his debut album, Who’s Been Talkin’, on the tiny Tomato label. In 1983, his third album, Bad Influence (Hightone), proved the charm: it garnered four W.C. Handy National Blues Awards that year, including Song of the Year for “Phone Booth,” later covered by Albert King. Two years later, he shared a Grammy with axeslingers Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland for the stunning collaboration Showdown! (Alligator).

But it was 1986’s Strong Persuader–filled with soulful vignettes about “lyin’, cheatin’, and stealin’,” and punctuated by Cray’s sparse, tasteful guitar licks and gospel-tinged vocals–that launched him into the Pop Top 10, rarified air for any blues musician.

“That caught us and everyone else by surprise,” he says. “We weren’t expecting to do that much with that record until the radio stations jumped all over ‘Smoking Gun.’ It was great!

“The weird thing about that record is there was a big ‘up’ that everyone gets when there’s a new band. Yet we weren’t a new band. Still, we got treated that way–like the flavor of the month. But we’re the kind of band that intends to be around for a long time.”

Since then, Cray has continued to churn out mostly R&B-inflected blues, soul, and pop–and has provided some of the finest blues guitar around. He has contributed to B. B. King’s acclaimed Blues Summit (MCA); performed on three of John Lee Hooker’s recent albums; and appeared on Eric Clapton’s Journeyman (Reprise) and his 24 Nights album, recorded live with Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Jimmy Vaughan, among others.

But don’t make the mistake of suggesting that Cray is the last great bluesman, as some critics have done.

“I don’t relate to that at all,” he says. “That’s too much for any one man to deal with. We just do what we do. We always have the blues in there somewhere, but as for trying to live up to anyone else’s expectations, that won’t happen.”

He adds with a laugh, “I don’t want to carry that burden.”

The Robert Cray Band performs Saturday, Jan. 27, at 8 p.m., at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $25. 546-3600.

From the Jan. 18-25, 1996 issue of The Sonoma County Independent

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