JAM Magazine Main Features

Robert Cray

'Blues-ing' It Up One Album At A Time

JAM Magazine Speaks With Legendary Blues Man

Photos courtsey of RobertCray.com
Taken by Erika Goldring

When a musician turns 57 and plays rock and roll music, they're getting old. When you turn that age and play the blues, well, you're in the prime of your career. Just ask Robert Cray. In the '80s, this native of Columbus, Georgia reshaped the image of the blues in this country through provocative albums like False Accusations, Strong Persuader and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. The 1986 release of Strong Persuader is considered a watershed moment in the history of blues music. Finally, it was okay for African Americans to take pride in a musical genre they pioneered during their darkest days in the early part of the 20th Century.

"A lot of black people had shunned the blues back then," reflected Cray carefully, "because the music brought back terrible memories of the past. The songs would trigger emotions of negative times and bad experiences growing up in this country. When you talk about the blues, you're talking about a lot of people that grew up in the South. Those people lived a hard life and they were trying to forget about it. The blues was a part of the thing they were trying to forget. Right now on black radio, you don't hear the blues and you never will. That's partly based on what happen in the past."

The blues has its deepest roots in the work songs of the West African slaves in the South. During their back-breaking work in the fields of the Southern plantation owners, black slaves developed a 'call and response' way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their servitude. These 'field hollers' served as a basis of all blues music that was to follow. W.C. Handy was the first musician to bring the songs of South to life when he composed "Memphis Blues" in 1909. The popularity of country blues grew among Southern black folks during the teens and 1920's when racial tensions were running high.

"I didn't understand the blues when I first started playing it," confessed Cray. "I was into it because of the guitar playing more than anything else. At the time, there were a lot of cool guitarists doing all this amazing stuff with their instruments. They always referred to the music they were playing as the blues. That's what really got me into the music."

These musicians, Cray found out, relied on their physical stamina and mental repertoire to perform the music. They also fully understood the powerful and emotive lyrics they were singing. The words reflected the daily themes blacks dealt with back in the day - sex, drinking, railroads, jail, murder, poverty, hard labor and love lost.

"The funny thing is," recalled the musician, "I heard the songs, but I didn't really feel the songs. It wasn't until later on that I began to understand the art behind the music. When I started hearing the music with a different set of ears, it opened up a whole new world for me. The music spoke to me in ways I never thought possible. Emotionally, it had a profound effect on how I played the guitar."

Cray also discovered during this phase of his musical growth, that to be in touch with the blues, you had to be in touch with yourself. Although the lyrics of many blues songs are soulful and melancholy, the music as a whole is a powerful and rhythmic sound celebrating the life of black Americans

"You don't have to play the guitar to understand the blues," continued Cray. "All you have to do is live and experience life. That's the blues. That is what this music is all about - people dealing with relationships and people learning to cope. Listen, it's true that you go through an emotional crisis when you immerse yourself in the blues. Now you may not get that same feeling every time, but basically what it all comes down to is passion. It's also good to know you aren't the only one that goes through those traumas. I get a lot of happiness after listening to something I can relate to. The blues is not for the moment. The songs are about your heart being broken, and that's something that happens on and on throughout out lives."

Robert William Cray was born 57 years ago in Columbus, Georgia. The son of a career Army man, the musician spent his formative years moving from one location to another. The social and political unrest of the '60s passed him by. While his father was stationed in Munich, Germany, the guitar became his best friend.

His father, an Army quartermaster, was stationed in Munich, West Germany during the early '60s. It was there, the guitarist remembers, hearing the music that would later shape his life.

"Growing up overseas," Cray recollected, "music was my salvation, my only friend. We always had music in our house because my parents were big record collectors. Since we moved around a lot, listening to those albums helped me cope with all the travels. When I first started listening to the blues seriously, I thought I had better go out and research the music to see what it was all about."

The Cray family's military adventures finally landed them in the Pacific Northwest, more specifically Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington. It was there a 15-year old Robert was introduced to the work of a handful of modern Chicago Blues stylists like Buddy Guy, Magic Sam and Otis Rush.

You see," offered the guitarist, "I was too young to understand the lyrics to the songs, because I hadn't fallen in love and been hurt. I didn't know what these blues guys were singing about. I mean, I heard the music, but I didn't feel it inside. It wasn't until later on my life that I finally begin to understand what the blues was really all about - people dealing with relationships and people learning to cope.."

In 1969, a young Robert Cray met Richard Cousins during an afternoon jam session in Lakewood, Washington. Cousins, like Cray, had also grown up the son of a career Army man, and he too had become somewhat partial to R&B. Cray and Cousins started jamming with one another steadily. They formed their first local band together to play the music that had captured their imaginations. It was the beginning of a partnership that continues to this day.

As Cray and Cousins came to understand the meaning behind the music they loved playing, the two of them also grew increasingly disenchanted with their prospects of surviving as a working blues unit, in the Tacoma pop scene. So, in 1974, the two decided a change in scenery and relocated to Eugene, Oregon. It was an active college town with a music scene to match. It was there the first incarnation of the Robert Cray band took shape. With Cousins on bass and Cray manning the guitar and vocals, they recruited drummer Tom Murphy. A couple of years later, the guitarist relinquished his singing duties to a bluesy soul singer named Curtis Salgado. The Eugene native, who also played harmonica, would indirectly be responsible for Cray appearing in the 1977 cult classic, Animal House.

"That was pretty much a fluke thing," recollected the musician of his appearance in the film. "We were playing Eugene one night and this lady asked me if I wanted to be in a movie they were casting. I said sure. About six months later when we were out of town playing a gig, I received a phone call from a rep at Universal Pictures. The film was going to be shot in Eugene and they needed me back there for rehearsals. I had no idea this film would become the classic it is today. When I shot my scenes, they didn't even have a working title for the film yet."

Cray appeared in the Toga Party scene playing guitar as a member of Otis Day & the Knights. There rendition of the Isley Brothers tune, "Shout," took the nation by storm. Interestingly enough, Robert Cray's real band, particularly, Salgado, so fascinated comedian John Belushi, it led him to form the Blues Brothers with fellow blues enthusiast Dan Aykroyd. In 1978, with the film clearly behind him, Robert Cray chanced upon two producers, Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, at a Blues Festival. Their three lives would become increasingly intertwined over the next ten years.

Bromberg and Walker were well-known in the blues community. Both were producers and prolific songwriters. Bromberg had been looking for talent to record for a New York independent label call Tomato Records. They had recently signed Albert King to a deal and were looking for more talent. Bromberg spotted Cray's band performing at a San Francisco blues festival. He offered to fly them down to Los Angeles and record an album for Tomato. Before anything substantial could happen with the record, Tomato collapsed without a trace.

"When we did the album for Tomato," said Cray, "unbeknownst to us, they were having all sorts of financial problems. What the company had done was pay out too much money to other bands and their records didn't sell very well. They didn't recoup their investment. People at the label kept telling us they wanted to put our record out, and this back and forth went on and on for two years. When they got everything squared away, they released the album, then closed their doors six months later."

Though the album is somewhat of an embarrassment for Cray, promoting the disc gave the band the opportunity to tour up and down the West Coast. With a revolving door of musicians coming and going in the band, only Cousins remained a constant. Bromberg met up with the band once again at a blues festival, and expressed dismay that Robert wasn't recording under a major label banner. Again, Bromberg offered to bring the band into the studio to record an album. This time, however, he would shop the finished product himself. Cray knew there was nothing the producer could have done to prevent the failure of the first disc. With no other offers coming in, it made sense to stick with someone that truly believed in the music he was creating.

Bromberg made good on his promise - in a roundabout way. He took the new recording, Bad Influence, to the influential Chicago blues label, Alligator. The company president passed on the project. He felt the group lacked the musical punch to really knockout the blues the way it should be performed. Undaunted, and partly out of resignation of having failed Cray yet again, Bromberg released the album under the High Tone Records banner. It was a brand new label the producer had formed with record distributor Larry Sloven.

"We trusted Bruce," remarked Cray confidently, "not only because he was a friend, but he truly believed in this band. I've always thought, and I do to this day, it's great to work with people who really understand what you're doing. Sure we had gone through some troubled waters in the past, but Bruce didn't try to changing our thinking. He knew how serious we were about what we were doing. When you have someone that really understands your music, you work with them. Not only was it the best way for us to go at the time, our faith was justified in the end."

Bad Influence laid the foundation for Cray to finally his voice on the guitar. The lyrics he sang also had a soulful feel to them as well. The record soared to the top of the Independent blues charts in England. With its emphasis on provocative melodies and well-drawn characterizations, the album came across as the first major effort by an American artist to revitalize the blues.

"Not only has that album stood the test of time," offered Cray, "it kept us going when we really needed that shot in the arm. When Richard and I first started playing the blues back in 1974, those were the disco days back then. Everybody was playing Top 40 music. The thing is, we knew there was an audience for our type of music. Over the years, we might not find a crowd to appreciate it in a particular town we played in. There were more occasions than I can remember when we only performed for a few people. But you know; that happens to any band that stays true to the type of music they believe in."

Bad Influence proved to be a blues appetizer to the main course Cray was about to dish out. The follow-up to the disc, also produced by Bromberg and Wilson, was called False Accusations. Its chart performance went beyond the band's wildest imagination.

"That album not only allowed us to finally travel across the nation," explained the musician, "it also allowed us to travel to Europe and perform. False Accusations became a Top Ten record overseas for us, and its success suddenly had a lot of labels knocking on our door."

Not only did the independent album take Europe by storm, it even managed to crack this country's Billboard Top 200. While Cray's work was being praised overseas, it didn't go unnoticed at home. Critics throughout the country were calling his album one of the finest records in 1985. That year, the guitarist walked away with a roomful of honors at the W.C. Handy Awards (the blues equivalent to the Grammy's). Suddenly, major label interest reached dizzying heights. The amount of interest Cray generated from record companies hadn't been seen in the recording industry since CBS Records signed Muddy Waters to a contract in 1980.

"Initially," revealed Cray, "I was worried that with all this major label interest in us, we might not be taken seriously once we signed. High Tone was a small, independent label actually created to distribute our music. We were absolutely determined to stand our ground when it came to the music we created. There was no way we were going to change anything about ourselves, our music, or our creative process. The fact we were already touring internationally gave us leverage. I didn't have to worry about making any concessions to a label that signed us."

By the time Cray and High Tone signed a deal with Polygram Records, the follow-up to False Accusations was nearly complete. Part of the deal with Polygram stipulated the label would let Cray work with his own band the first time out, and also with producers Bromberg and Walker. But it carried one stipulation. If the album didn't sell a certain amount of units, Polygram would have the right to exert more control on the next record.

Though they didn't know it at the time, Bromberg and Walker would single-handedly make sure Polygram would have no desire to ever meddle in Robert Cray's music affairs. The two of them had written some songs that appeared on False Accusation. They presented him with some more options to consider for his upcoming Polygram release. Bromberg presented a song called "Smoking Gun." Walker had written a couple of tunes called "Right Next Door (Because of Me)" and "I Guess I Showed Her." Not only did those songs make it on to Cray's major label debut, Strong Persuader, the hit singles rekindled a new found interest in the blues with the general public."

"The funny thing is," laughed Cray, "is Polygram didn't think we were going to sell many records at all. They just didn't think it could happen with the music that we had. Obviously they changed their mind."

Whenever the guitarist was presented a song by an outside writer, it had to meet a certain criteria before he would consider it. The lyrics had to parallel his personal experiences. He particularly felt the circumstances involved with "Smoking Gun" and "Girls Next Door" because he actually lived them.

"Bruce and Dennis," conceded the musician, "have presented me a lot of songs over the years. I've only chosen the one's I could relate to. Because we worked together for so long, those two know how I live and what's happened to me. The music that I sing is a reflection of my life."

With the unparalleled success of Strong Persuader, Cray suddenly became a 13-year overnight success story. It was suddenly fashionable to be 'in' to Robert Cray and the blues regardless if you were a musician or fan. That kind of reaction, he says, took him completely by surprise.

"To be honest with you," replied Cray, "I was shocked and amazed by the reception I was receiving. I thought those people had experienced the same kinds of emotions I was singing about in a lot of my songs. At first, I tried to tell myself that I didn't understand what was happening because I was young and I hadn't been around as much. I finally realized the people not only enjoyed the music, they really got into what we were doing."

One of the things that really caught Cray off guard was how artists in the music industry started treating him. With Strong Persuader literally acting like a 'smoking gun' on the charts, offers to have Cray open major shows both here and abroad came pouring in. Tina Turner personally asked the artist to open her European shows. Eric Clapton extended an invitation to Robert to open the first leg of his much anticipated U.S. tour. And to top it off, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was so taken by Cray's soulful playing, he asked him to perform in Chuck Berry's back-up band for the film he was producing, Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll!

"Yeah," he said softly, "it's amazing what that one album did for my career. When you have been working in obscurity like we have all those years, you would think the transition to stardom would be a welcomed one. Honestly, I had mixed feelings. I didn't think my life would become so hectic. Was I ever wrong! Our heads were spinning around quite a bit with all the activity that was taking place around us. In a lot of ways, it became more trouble than you think. When I sit back and think about those days, I'm just happy to still be out here and doing what we do. Nobody owes us anything. If people appreciate the music, if anybody appreciates it at all, then that's good enough for us."

Cray's main concern about his meteoric rise was the tag the media placed around his neck. More often than not, Robert Cray was proclaimed the savior of the blues, or the great blues hope. The talk bothered the guitarist a great deal. He didn't deserve this type of adoration. Also, any attempt on his part to live up to the hype would create internal pressures he didn't need. The cause célèbre status that was given Cray, he believes, was due in part to the incredible success of his album's hit singles. Did it catch him off guard?

"No," responded Cray quickly, "the popularity of those songs didn't surprise me. You have to be realistic about this business. In order to get recognized, you have to have a lot of people hear your music. To be in put in an elite position, it does take something like a powerful song that connects with people, to put you on the map.

"The one thing we've always known is that a hit single can be very problematic. It becomes even more dangerous when you think you have to always have one every time you put an album out. Some artists are like that, but we aren't. Back then, we had already attained worldwide attention from our previous releases. Strong Persuader was just a natural progression for us, just like the follow-up, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was a logical move from the music on Strong Persuader. Obviously a hit single will get your name out there right away if you're lucky enough to have one. We just try to write good albums and let the chips fall where they may."