Robert Cray to Play at the Cascade Theatre
By Phil Reser
Story by Phil Reser
Photos courtesy of Robert Cray
ROBERT CRAY has been bridging the lines between blues, soul and rhythm and blues for the past four decades, with five Grammy wins and more than 20 acclaimed albums.
Born in Columbus, Ga., he moved to the North Pacific Coast as a boy. Although his parents listened to gospel, jazz, soul and blues, it was the arrival of the Beatles in Seattle when Cray was in fifth grade that made him take up guitar.
He played locally until 1974, when the first version of the Robert Cray Band was formed. With both Cray and harpist Curtis Salgado as vocalists/front men, they toured constantly in the Northwest and into California. Already, the band was creating original material and performing soul tunes along with straight-ahead blues. They attracted the attention of Albert Collins, who needed a band for his regular Northwest tours. Collins chose his band and Cray took guidance and inspiration from The Master of The Telecaster, who became his lifelong friend.
Veteran producer/songwriter Bruce Bromberg and his partner Dennis Walker took the band into the studio for its 1980 debut album on Tomato, but the label folded. In frustration, Bromberg formed the Hightone label primarily to push Cray’s career. The two Cray albums on Hightone received national radio and press attention.
The band’s first national tour found it sharing a stage with John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon, who became close friends of Cray’s. Muddy Waters took the Cray band under his wing as an opening act, calling Cray his “adopted son.”
In 1985, Cray went into the studio with his mentor Albert Collins and The Texas Twister, Johnny Copeland. In four days, they recorded the classic “Showdown!” album. It scored a Grammy award as Best Blues Recording of the Year.
Cray signed with Mercury and released his best-selling album, “Strong Persuader,” which included a major radio hit “Smoking Gun.” The album sold platinum, and Cray, the shy young bluesman, made the cover of Rolling Stone.
He went to England to gig with Eric Clapton, who had become a huge Cray supporter. They later co-wrote a song for Clapton’s “Unplugged” CD.
Then, Keith Richards brought Cray in to play with Chuck Berry in the film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and Cray’s old friend John Lee Hooker called on him to play on three of his comeback albums, including the giant hit “The Healer.”
Cray loves the blues, but he loves soul music, too, as well as rhythm and blues, explaining the “rhythm” is the way he and his band have played from the beginning, and blues are the lyrics he sings.
“We cover a lot of different musical territory. Somebody might be into the bluesier aspects of our show, somebody else might be into the Stax soul thing that we do,” he says. “And to me, those things aren’t too far away from each other, so a lot of people can really get into our music.”
Some folks notice that he doesn’t do as many guitar solos as he used to. “I like to be a part of a band,” he says. “I like to play songs, not just solo on and on for 10 minutes. I guess that comes from all the soul music I listened to coming up; Steve Cropper playing all that great rhythm guitar with Booker T & The MG’s, Teeny Hodges playing behind Al Green and O.V. Wright.”
He’s always been interested in playing nylon-string guitar in a Brazilian groove, though it takes a long time to get comfortable with that style of playing, he says.
“I also dig Thelonious Monk a whole lot, but I could never play anything like him,” Cray says. “I just think you should keep your ears open to a lot of different kinds of music and be aware of what’s around you. I don’t have to play any of this stuff for public consumption, but I still want to know about it. And maybe in some way it does eventually come out in my music.”
For his latest album, “Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm,” Cray traveled to Memphis with Grammy Award-winning producer Steve Jordan, making a classic soul album with Hi Rhythm, the band that helped create the sound that put soul singers Al Green and Ann Peebles on the map. They recorded the tracks in Willie Mitchell’s historical Royal Studios, working alongside three musicians that had played on all the old Hi sessions: organist, the Reverend Charles Hodges; bassist, Leroy ‘Flick’ Hodges; and keyboardist, Archie ‘Hubbie’ Turner. •
The Robert Cray Band • www.robertcray.com
Saturday, February 9, Cascade Theatre, Redding