ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 18, 1996
By Steve Newton
You wouldn’t think bluesman Robert Cray would be musically indebted to the Beatles, but they were the band that drove him to pick up a guitar. By the age of 10 Cray had already been soaking up the gospel, jazz, soul, and blues in his parents’ record collection, but it wasn’t till the Fab Four arrived just down the road from his elementary school in Lakewood, Washington, that young Bob started to rock.
“I was in the fifth grade when the Beatles were on their way to Seattle,” Cray is quoted as saying in his Mercury Records bio. “Our teacher let us listen to the radio, and [legendary Pacific Northwest rock station] KJR was describing the Beatles’ arrival. That’s when the guitar became real popular and I got a guitar.”
Cray’s early Beatles fixation has little to do with the sound of his music these days, but it does bring to mind the one Beatles-related question that’s been nagging at me of late, so when Cray calls from his Bay Area home, I let him have it.
What does he really think of that “new” Beatles song, “Free as a Bird”?
“Well, I was just looking at a magazine that had an article on Julian Lennon,” he says, “and he mentioned the fact that he can’t really distinguish his dad’s vocals in it anyway. And after I thought about it, I realized that’s true. I could see by the melody how it would be something that John Lennon had written, but then I don’t really hear his voice in it.”
Awright! Somebody famous who admits that “Free as a Bird” is bogus! And Cray certainly knows a thing or two about voices, because he’s got one of the most distinctive ones around. For the past decade the singer-songwriter-guitarist’s sleek, urgent vocals and stinging, sparse guitar style have made radio staples of such compelling tracks as “Smokin’ Gun”, “Strong Persuader”, and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”. His latest CD, Some Rainy Morning, continues the tradition with such deep-blue Cray compositions as “Moan” and “Never Mattered Much”, but the disc’s finest moment is arguably the emotion-soaked closer, “Holdin’ On”, which was penned by his keyboardist, Jim Pugh.
“He’s been doin’ it for a while,” says Cray of Pugh’s blues, “and I kept pushin’ and pushin’ him to come up with something. He had that idea, and then he reworked it, and then towards the end of the recording he brought it back in and we just kicked it out. It’s a real good, driving tune.”
While Cray first made a name with his own songs—and still writes the lion’s share of his band’s material—he’s not averse to tossing in an intriguing cover or two, as he did recently with Syl Johnson’s “Steppin’ Out” and a hard-soul rendition of Bobby Womack’s “Jealous Love”.
“I’m a big-time Bobby Womack fan,” he says. “Wilson Pickett sang it, but I’ve been a Womack fan forever. I said, ‘Let’s record a coupla covers just for good measure,’ so we did that, and then we had to drop a couple of our own songs in order to put those on.”
Cray has had other people make room on their CDs for his tunes as well, as Eric Clapton did when he recorded Cray’s “Bad Influence” for his exceptional August album back in ’86. That came as a pleasant surprise to Cray, who had been invited to play some European dates with Clapton just before August’s release.
“Right before we were going on to rehearse for the show at Montreux the producer of the festival came down with an advance copy of August that had a version of ‘Bad Influence’ on it, and right behind him was Eric comin’ down the stairs, so… That was our first meeting, and we got a chance to hear it, and it was pretty cool.”
As well as Slowhand—who eventually asked him to play on his Journeyman and 24 Nights releases—Cray has managed over the years to cross paths with some of the greatest names in blues. In the early ’80s he shared the stage with the likes of John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters took the Cray band under his wing as an opening act, calling Cray his adopted son.
Then in ’85 Cray joined up with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland to record Showdown!, which garnered each of the three pickers his very first Grammy award. A year later Keith Richards chose Cray to appear in Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, the concert and film tribute to Chuck Berry; opening slots on the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge tour followed.
And as well as making it good on the recording and concert front, Cray has tried his hand at producing, starting with his ’93 release, Shame + a Sin. Admittedly, though, he picked up pointers from Dennis Walker and Bruce Bromberg, who had helmed his records in the past.
“I just watched what they did in the studio,” he says. “And also it’s a little bit different because, being that I’m with the guys in the band all the time, you can basically figure out what everybody’s gonna do. And what I tried to do on these last two recordings was to just keep it real simple, and keep it to something that any person would hear when they see us perform live.”
Vancouverites will get that opportunity when Cray and his four-piece band play the Vogue on Wednesday (January 24), with local blues veteran Jim Byrnes warming up. Cray has been touring behind Some Rainy Morning since last April, and he will continue to do so on a route that takes him to South America in March. Whether onstage or in the studio, he’s spent so many hours searching the fretboard for the perfect set of notes that it seems a tad sassy to ask if he ever still has trouble finding them.
But what the hey.
“Yeah I do!” he admits after a burst of laughter. “But you just keep at it till you get the thing happening. You can’t really force it, though. Sometimes you just have to leave it alone for a minute.”