Robert Cray’s Rykodisc debut is a paean to sixties soul



By Steve Newton

Robert Cray isn’t known for covering other people’s material, but on his latest CD, Take Your Shoes Off, he was happy to take on Willie Dixon’s “Tollin’ Bells”, as well as the 1964 Solomon Burke chestnut “Won’t You Give Him (One More Chance)”. The latter tune was one that he’d been thinking about for some time.

“I remembered it from bein’ a young kid,” says Cray from his home in San Francisco. “My mom’s sister used to play it over and over and over again. So at rehearsals I’d go, ‘You know, there’s one song by Solomon Burke that’s been goin’ through my mind, but I don’t have a copy of it.’ Then my keyboard player went out and found it on a CD, and the guys liked it, so we worked it out.

“There’s a lot of great songs out there,” he adds, “so if you’re gonna do a cover, there’s a lot of options. But some songs I deem highly religious, that I don’t think anybody should cover—including myself. And then there’s some songs where you go, ‘Ah, I might be able to do a decent job on this one.’ So that’s the way I look at it.”

One tune on Take Your Shoes Off that sounds as though it might be a golden oldie is the first single, “24-7 Man”, but while it was written by R&B great Mack Rice of “Mustang Sally” fame, it’s actually a new composition. It gets that horn-punctuated Stax feel with the help of trumpeter Wayne Jackson and tenor saxophonist Andrew Love, aka the Memphis Horns, who will accompany Cray’s band when it visits the Rage on Tuesday (July 13).

“It’s great to have Wayne and Andrew out with us again,” notes Cray. “We’ve worked off and on with them since the Strong Persuader days, and whenever we give ’em a call, if they’re able, they’re out.”

Strong Persuader is the Grammy-winning ’86 release that broke Cray, bolstered by heavily played singles such as “Smokin’ Gun” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me)”. Cray became widely known for his yearning vocals and biting guitar work, but the fiery fretting has been seriously toned down on Take Your Shoes Off, which may leave some of his long-time fans feeling a tad burned. More than a blues-guitar opus, Cray’s latest is a paean to ’60s-era soul music, with production by Steve Jordan, who also played various instruments on the CD.

“I just called Steve up as an idea,” says Cray, “maybe to have him come in and do a coupla songs with us. And in my conversations with him over the last summer, I found out we were on the right page. And I’d had opportunities to work with Steve in the past on [Taylor Hackford’s Chuck Berry concert film] Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, and when he played with Keith Richards in the X-Pensive Winos. I knew he had a wide-open mind, so I gave him the rein and just let him take over the whole thing.”

With Jordan at the helm, Cray and his band holed up at Woodland Studios in Nashville. It was the first time Cray had laid down tracks in Music City, USA. “There are some great old studios there,” he reports, “and that was why we had gone to Nashville as opposed to going back to Memphis, where we did the previous record. But it also helped us out as far as all the other sidemen that worked on the record—Jack Hale on trombone, Jim Horn on tenor saxophone, [Cajun accordionist] Jo-El Sonnier. They all live in Nashville. So it was very convenient for people.”

Cray experienced another first with Take Your Shoes Off. It’s his first release on Rykodisc after 13 years on Mercury. The 46-year-old musician felt that his long-time label wasn’t promoting his albums as much as they deserved.

“Records were coming out,” he says, “and there’d be a push for several weeks, but that was it. As a band, you’re out on the road working, and you expect to see the records in the stores, and records weren’t in the stores. We’d play and people wouldn’t even know we had a record out, so it was time to go.”


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