Blues master Robert Cray plays benefit at Cap Center in Concord
Robert Cray performs during the Peter Frampton Guitar Circus at the Hard Rock Live at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on May 31, 2013 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Daly/Invision/AP)
Musician Robert Cray performs at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013 at Madison Square Garden on Friday April 12, 2013 in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision for Hard Rock International/AP Images)
Despite a 40-year career that’s included five Grammy Awards and membership in the Blues Hall of Fame, Robert Cray doesn’t come with the usual credentials. Unlike traditional blues musicians with more colorful monikers like Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins, Cray’s name doesn’t suggest a description of his birthplace. Nor, like Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson and Fiddlin Joe Martin, does it evoke his choice of musical instrument.
The truth is, Cray’s roots are about as far from the Mississippi Delta of his predecessors as you can get. Although he was born in Georgia and lived briefly in Virginia, Cray soon wandered west to Tacoma, Wash., and California. For most of his growing up years, he lived with his family in Germany where his dad was stationed in the military.
“I was in Germany when I really got interested in music,” Cray said in a recent telephone interview. “My parents had a great record collection. We were living in Germany but listening to Sam Cook, Ray Charles, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Sarah Vaughan.”
From the beginning, Cray was impressed with singers who told a story. That’s why, to this day, Bland remains one of his heroes.
“I liked him because of the emotion he put into his songs,” Cray said. “I like it when a song has a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I listen to the story, then to the person singing the song, and respond to the emotion in their voice.”
For Cray, Bland’s music exemplifies that standard. Cray was honored when Bland showed up with his wife and son at one of his shows shortly before he died, about a year and a half ago. So it was important to Cray to include a Bland favorite on his new album, In My Soul, due for release April 1. And it’s no accident that the name of Bland’s song, “Deep in My Soul,” is close to the album’s title.
Album producer Steve Jordan says of the track, “Robert pulled out this song, and I had never heard it before. It was haunting and very deep, and the way he sang it, I got chills. You’d be hard pressed to think you could get as good as Bland did, but Robert gave a really extraordinary performance. Put that one on and you just have to shut up!”
But when Cray appears onstage to sing and play his signature guitar riffs, neither he nor his fans are in a mood to quiet down. Cray and his band prefer to respond to the audience. They don’t arrive with a fixed set list and are open to requests as they go along.
“I like to take a fun approach, to be loose and simple onstage; to see what kind of reaction we get and encourage conversation,” Cray said.
Likely, tonight’s conversation will include requests for a couple of Cray classics, “Smoking Gun” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me).” Both of these platinum-selling tracks come from Cray’s 1986 breakthrough album, Strong Persuader. And both songs tell stories: “Smoking Gun” about an unanswered phone call and a pending breakup; “Right Next Door” about an overheard conversation between a couple who are separating because of the singer, who’s listening in and feeling guilty for being such a “strong persuader.” Although he claims the story was not based on his own life experience, the nickname, “Strong Persuader,” continues to stick.
Over the years, Cray has expanded his storytelling. Today it sometimes goes beyond personal tragedy, the usual stuff of the blues, to focus on political commentary like the war in Iraq and the recession.
“We’re inspired by what we see going on around us,” Cray said. “That used to be pages from our own books, but now it can be about people losing their homes and their jobs. I wouldn’t have thought about that when I was in my 20s, but it comes from being older now and more aware.”
Tucked in among the covers and the groovy originals on Cray’s latest album is his song “What Would You Say?” – a sensitive and serious invocation for a better world.
“That’s all part of everyday life, and I just had to talk about it,” Cray said.
Over the years, bass player Richard Cousins has also become part of Cray’s everyday life. The two go back to the early days in the Pacific Northwest when they met outside Tacoma, Wash. Five years later, in 1974, they found themselves in the college town of Eugene, Ore., and started the Robert Cray Band together. Although the two parted ways for a while in the 1990s, they’ve been back together for several years, and Cousins penned two of the songs on the new album.
Jordan is another longtime friend. They met when Keith Richards introduced them on the set of Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, a 1987 documentary that Richards organized to celebrate Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday.
“That was fantastic,” Cray said, remembering the rehearsal that Berry held at his home outside St. Louis.
Berry had set up tables and chairs and a bar for all the stars – Eric Clapton, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt and Julian Lennon among them. Most interesting, Cray said, were the dynamics between Berry and Richards. Although Berry appreciated that Richards was putting the film together, Berry was also ambivalent about what was happening, wary of the possibility of losing control to outside business interests.
“In one way, Chuck was keeping his distance and, in other way, he was treating Keith like a son,” Cray said.
That night was just one of the thrills Cray has experienced in his long career. Others include sitting in with Waters, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King and Eric Clapton.
But the biggest thrill that keeps on coming is playing to audiences that continue to respond.
“Whenever you get a response or a reward, it makes you feel good that people still care,” Cray said. “I feel lucky to be here after all these years, playing the kind of music we play.”
(The Blues Summit starring the Robert Cray Band is tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Capitol Center for the Arts. Tickets to the show are $40 and $27 and are available at the CCA box office, 225-1111 and ccanh.com. All proceeds from this Concerts for the Cause presentation of the Robert Cray Band and special guests, Jon Butcher and MB Padfield will support Child and Family Services’ work with victims of abuse and neglect, babies at risk, homeless and troubled youth, and impoverished families. It will also assist in providing scholarships for disadvantaged children to attend Camp Spaulding.)