Robert Cray speaks on Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters



By Steve Newton

Since barging onto the North American music scene in 1986 with the double-platinum Strong Persuader album, Robert Cray has proven himself a formidable purveyor of guitar-drenched blues and soul. And with five Grammy Awards to his credit—including one for his latest CD, Take Your Shoes Off—the Georgia-born, Pacific Northwest–raised musician has won over the industry’s high sheriffs as well. Considering the tasty picker’s many accomplishments, it’s not surprising that his work has been inspired by the efforts of some of the world’s most revered blues artists. For instance, when the Robert Cray Band was starting out, it performed many a gig in the company of the late, great Albert Collins. (Cray and Collins would later hook up with Johnny Copeland to record the historic Showdown! album, which garnered Cray his first Grammy in ’85.)

“Albert was a huge influence,” notes Cray from his Hollywood home. “We played with him off and on in the ’70s, touring up and down the West Coast, and he was kinda like a father figure for us, you know. Actually, we used to play club shows with him back in the ’70s at a bunch of places up in Vancouver, like the Spinning Wheel and Rohan’s Rockpile.”

Cray has played this city numerous times over the years, and he’ll be here again on Sunday (July 23) as headliner of the Deer Lake Blues Festival. (The Burnaby blues bash, presented by the Coastal Jazz & Blues Society and the City of Burnaby, runs from noon to 9 p.m. and includes performances by Virginia’s Deborah Coleman, Chicago’s Billy Branch & Sons of Blues, Texas’s Frankie Lee, Toronto’s Michael Pickett Band, and hometown hero Jim Byrnes.) As well as Stax/Volt–inspired soul numbers from Take Your Shoes Off, local Cray fans shouldn’t be shocked to hear such gems as the Eric Clapton–covered “Bad Influence”, “Right Next Door (Because of Me)”, and “Smoking Gun”. The latter was recorded in 1986, the same year Cray appeared on the big screen in Hail! Hail! Rock ’n Roll, a concert documentary featuring Chuck Berry and a plethora of players.

“Ha!” replies Cray when reminded of the film. “I just moved down here to Los Angeles and was goin’ through a bunch of boxes, and saw some pictures from that movie. It was great that Keith Richards and everybody involved with the film wanted to pay tribute to Chuck. And it was a great cast of musicians and singers in the band, you know; it was like a history lesson sittin’ around with Chuck and just watching he and Johnnie Johnson play. It was beautiful.”

Not all of Cray’s notable concert dates have been so wonderful, however. In August of 1990 he was performing at an Eric Clapton concert in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, where fellow stringbender Stevie Ray Vaughan was among those killed in a helicopter that slammed into a man-made hill. Before that fateful show, Cray had performed with Vaughan many times over the years.

“We had a good time,” he recalls of the Alpine Valley gig, “and all of us being together on the same bill was great—with Eric and Stevie, and Stevie’s brother Jimmie. So we just reminisced, chatted, talking about the road and family and everything like that. We did a photo shoot for Fender Guitars, just had a good time. And that’s pretty much how I like to remember it.”

Although Cray has taken full advantage of opportunities to perform with many of today’s top players, it’s not as though he carries a list of greats that he wants to jam with before his time is done. The Robert Cray Band is his first priority. “It’s not like it’s a mission to go out and try to play with whomever you can,” he explains, “because basically what’s goin’ on is workin’ with our band, and making the music that we do. The projects that happen along on the side are something where you get a phone call for it and you go, ‘Ah, that’s cool. We’ll do that.’ ”

Even so, there’s no denying the huge impressions that have been left on Cray by his interactions with the legends of the blues. Take Muddy Waters, for example, who once called Cray his “adopted son”, a rare honour Waters bestowed on only his favourite artists.

“We got the opportunity to do six shows with Muddy,” recalls Cray, “and for me it was great because he’s the guy, you know. So I was intent on getting an opportunity to talk to him while I had the chance, and I did. I went backstage before the shows and after the shows, every night, and chatted with Muddy about just about everything under the sun: who he used to play with, you know—Little Walter, Otis Spann, everybody. And he talked about it freely, and talked about himself in the third person, as that ‘young Muddy Waters’. And he invited me on-stage every night to sing the encore with him, ‘Mannish Boy’. That was pretty cool.”

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