Robert Cray isn’t gonna hold his breath until the blues gets back in vogue

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 13, 2001

By Steve Newton

We’ve all heard contemporary blues-rock artists covering the works of Elmore James, whether it’s ZZ Top getting lowdown on “Dust My Broom”, or Stevie Ray Vaughan tearing it up on “The Sky is Crying”. Heck, the Black Crowes even named their first album after James’s 1961 single, “Shake Your Moneymaker”.

But Robert Cray pulled a bit of a surprise on his new CD, Shoulda Been Home, when he covered two semi-obscure numbers from the James catalogue, “The 12 Year Old Boy” and “Cry For Me Baby”. As Cray explains on the phone from Westbury, New York, he had originally planned on only recording the latter tune.

“What happened was we did ‘Cry For Me’, with [producer] Steve Jordan playing drums along with our drummer, Kevin Hayes. So we had both drummers goin’ at the same time, and then Steve got up to go listen to the song in the control booth. Out of nowhere we just started ‘12 Year Old Boy’, and as Steve was walking into the control room, he told the engineer to turn the tape back on. We were already into the song, so when you hear it, you hear it kinda like a sudden start.”

While Cray has never been shy about redoing other people’s songs—including works by Albert King, Muddy Waters, and Otis Redding—he has also been covered by some impressive artists himself. King returned the favour by recording Cray’s “Phone Booth” in 1984, Eric Clapton did a version of “Bad Influence” in ’87, and bluegrass stalwarts the Del McCoury Band put a downhome spin on “Smoking Gun” in ’96. Cray’s material is sometimes composed solo, but quite often he collaborates with others, as is the case with “Far Away”, a new tune cowritten by his wife, filmmaker Sue Turner-Cray. “She’s contributed before,” he relates. “You know, I’ll be writing music around the house and she’ll pop by, and we’ll just start workin’ on a song together. She just helped me with the lyrics on that one.”

Another person who got in on Shoulda Been Home was bass god Willie Weeks, a session ace who’s known for his work with the likes of George Harrison and Donny Hathaway. Weeks brought the bouncy bottom end to the standout track, “I’m Afraid”. “We had actually recorded that song with my band,” notes Cray, “but when it came time for me to redo the vocal, I came to the realization that it was too fast for my liking. We were still in Nashville, and the band had already gone back home, so Steve called up Willie Weeks, who lives in Nashville, and the three of us played the song. Willie Weeks was a hero of our former bass player, Richard Cousins, actually. You know, he’d go, ‘Willie Weeks, ya’all!’”

Cray has a few musical heroes of his own. In the early ’80s he played the Commodore Ballroom—where he’ll be again on Friday (September 14)—with one of the greatest bluesmen of all time, Muddy Waters. He even sang “Mannish Boy” as the encore that night. As far as current blues artists go, he’s been totally blown away by crooner Shemekia Copeland. “She’s strong, man,” he asserts. “She’s really a showstopper.”

Cray may be a little prejudiced toward Copeland, as he recorded the Grammy-winning Showdown! album with her dad, Johnny Copeland, and blues-guitar great Albert Collins. That’s just one of the high points in a career that includes performances on Grammy-winning albums by John Lee Hooker (The Healer), Tina Turner (Live in Europe), and B.B. King (Blues Summit), as well as the star-studded A Tribute To Stevie Ray Vaughan. Looking back, Cray wouldn’t do much different if he had it to do all over again.

“For a band like ours, playin’ the kind of music that we do—blues and rhythm & blues, a music that’s not featured that much on radio—a band like ours has done great. ’Cause we had a period in the mid-’80s where we had Strong Persuader and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which got a lot of airplay and gave us a huge fan base, which is what any band that plays music would love to have. And then on top of that, we’re still making records and we tour around the world. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Still, it would be nice if the music world came around—like it did in the early ’80s—to embracing the blues genre more readily. So does Cray think it takes a blues-rock wunderkind like Stevie Ray Vaughan to come along and shake things up? “Uh, I don’t know,” he ponders. “You know, you can’t fight the big record companies who are pushing the records for the kids, and the kids are the record-buying public, so that’s how that goes. When Stevie Ray was around, and we and other groups in the R&B and roots-music fields had success; it was a time for a change. Those things come around every so often, but, you know, I’m not gonna hold my breath.”

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